Friday, May 09, 2003
Once every few decades, some scientists in some university's comparative medicine department with far too much free time (and probably a surfeit of non-denatured ethanol) take it upon themselves to prove the old "give a room full of monkeys with typewriters enough time and they'll write the complete works of William Shakespeare (hopefully the Abridged version)" hypothesis. The last attempt I remember hearing about in high school determined that the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) preferred certain letters over others, which unfortunately were not R, S, T, or E - the result was deemed a failure. Well, it was about time someone tried this with real monkeys (chimps are, after all, apes), and the results couldn't have been more gratifying. Witness for yourself the splendor of Notes Toward the Complete Works of Shakespeare by Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan, Sulawesi Crested Macaques (Macaca Nigra) from Paignton Zoo Environmental Park (UK).

According to the report, "At first, the lead male got a stone and started bashing the hell out of it. Another thing they were interested in was in defecating and urinating all over the keyboard," says Mike Phillips, who runs the university's Institute of Digital Arts and Technologies. Eventually, the monkeys produced five pages of text, composed primarily of the letter S. Later, the letters A, J, L and M crept in. Clearly, the macaques had always been bothered by their names, especially the lead male, Elmo. After several attempts at displaying this displeasure using their own language of throwing faeces, the monkeys settled on a prolonged written hiss. Bobo, the African Green Monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) in the next cage over commented that it was "just a matter of time" through a series of otherwise obscene hand-gestures.