Thursday, May 29, 2008

Arguments XIII - The 747 or a Shakespearean monkey

A very common argument against evolution tries to compare evolution to a tornado blowing through a junkyard and producing a 747. A similar comparison is to take evolution and say that evolution is like putting a monkey in front of a typewriter and waiting for him to produce a Shakespearean play.

In my humble opinion these are extremely false comparisons and demonstrate either a completely poor understanding of evolutionary theory or are a deliberate effort to mislead and misdirect folks. Either one to me is foolish.

Let me explain. First of all the nearest possible connection between the activity of a tornado and evolution would be in the concept of random mutation. Because I believe that is the heart of their argument. They think people will agree that the odds of such an activity happening are so astronomical that it would make people think evolution's odds are astronomical too. A seriously false analogy!

So the tornado comes along and picks up a piece of material that could conceivable be used on a 747. Where does it put it? How does it select that particular item? What is running the show, so to speak? In evolution let's do something sorta similar, a mutation happens. An individual member of a population forms a mutation through one of the many mechanism that cause mutations to happen. Now the big question is how does that mutation become part of evolution? One mechanism is Natural Selection. If the mutation increases an individual's opportunities for survival and reproduction, it will most likely be passed on the future generations. The mutation may open up a new food source, or been viewed as more attractive by potential mates, or make the individual more robust. Whatever the mutation, natural selection would see that the trait got passed on. In time when their exists a population that exhibits the trait, you can see evolution in action.

Well what is performing this function for the 747 or the monkey sitting in front of the typewriter? Nothing! That is why the analogies are so false. Evolution is not an unguided act, like they wish you to think. Evolution is not nearly as random as a tornado through a trailer park, um sorry, junkyard. There are many other forces at work than just randomness.

Here is a better analogy using the same tornado. According to Evolutionary theory, life, as it reproduces, introduces change. Over long periods of time the changes become more profound. While I will admit that junk in a junkyard doesn't reproduce. But let's take the junkyard and run a tornado through it. Outside the junkyard the tornado deposits a bunch of junk. That pile of junk is very different than the pile of junk it started with, correct? Well another tornado comes through and takes that pile of junk and does its thing and another very different pile of junk is created, maybe one with new junk from the second twister. This to me is a slightly better analogy. Oh it's still missing tons of stuff to actually be an analogy for all of evolution. For example, where is the selection?  In the tornado example, what is the mechanism that selects?  There isn't one in a tornado, but there certainly is in evolution.  But this analogy could be used to compare with random mutation, one of the mechanisms of evolution.

I think you can see where this would apply to the monkey as well. In either case just remember that by itself a tornado or a typing monkey are not good analogies for the entirety of evolution, but maybe just a tiny piece.


  1. To focus on the "monkey" argument. IF the computer keyboard was programmed to only keep leters that were applicable to Shakespere's story (i.e., beneficial), eventually a monkey could type an entire Shakespere play.

  2. I agree! But I think the 'Monkey tpe Natural Selection" would also have to save not only the letters, but the phrases. As each phrase appears it gets saved and assembled in proper order.