For the past week or so, the press has been reporting that monkeys are not as good at writing plays as humans. Surprisingly, the experiment that yielded this startling result was not paid for by United States taxpayers. Researchers at Plymouth University in England were behind this one. The idea was to test the old saying that if you give an infinite number of typewriters to an infinite number of randomly typing monkeys, they will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare.
This famous supposition supposedly demonstrates the role of chance in evolution and the creative process. However, when six monkeys at the Paignton Zoo were given a computer for a month, they didn't come up with Shakespeare. They didn't come up with a single word. All they produced were five unintelligible pages. This result has been perceived by many as proof of monkeys' inferiority to humans. I don't see it that way, and think the monkeys deserve another chance.
I admit that the six hairy writers — Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe, and Rowan — did not write a single play in a month. But what does that prove? Would anyone seriously suggest that Shakespeare wrote his plays in the very first month that he was given the opportunity to write? Like all writers, he probably wrote a lot of gibberish in the beginning, too.
Then there is the issue of six monkeys and only one computer. Would Shakespeare have come up with his plays if five other writers had been fighting him for use of his quill? Isn't it possible that Holly might have been the monkey who was good at dialogue, but was pushed aside by Heather, who just got the typing job because she was good-looking?
The most unfair aspect of the experiment was that the monkeys were not given the same incentives that human writers have. Writers need pressure. There was no gorilla of a producer, editor, or network executive standing over the monkeys, saying that they wouldn't eat unless they wrote something good. There wasn't a more successful writer monkey in the cage next door who always seems to get the good jobs just because of his connections.
Did these monkey writers come from dysfunctional families? Had they been politically, religiously, or sexually oppressed? Had they been through tragic love affairs? Had they been told, over and over again, that there's no chance that they would succeed? Did they get kicked out of school by a mean fifth-grade teacher who should have given me, I mean, them one more chance? Writers are often inspired by a desire to prove wrong those who doubted them. Were the monkeys given this motivation? No, they weren't.
Many people feel that procrastination is a necessary part of the writing process. Hemingway supposedly sharpened dozens of pencils before he would start writing. Some current writers check their e-mail repeatedly, make unnecessary phone calls, and re-arrange their desktops before they begin writing. Were the monkeys taught that they should arrange their bananas in perfect little stacks before they try to produce literature? No, they weren't.
So, the only fair thing to do would be to repeat the experiment. Give the monkeys more time. Let them use their past struggles. Teach them how to rationalize watching SportsCenter one more time before beginning the next paragraph. Have a pretty actress monkey sashay into their cage and tell the monkey writers that they're geniuses. They'll start writing.
Maybe it won't be Shakespeare, but given a fair chance, I see no reason why these monkeys won't be able to grind out TV reality shows. Unless they're already more evolved than that.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.