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To the Editor: 17 May 2000

Monkeys With Laptops

The Oliphant cartoon in the 11 May Gazette, while somewhat humorous, tends to perpetuate a serious error about random-chance events. His "ten million monkeys with laptops" is today's version of an original quote attributed to Huxley: "Six monkeys, set to strum unintelligently on typewriters for millions of years, would be bound in time to write all the books in the British Museum". It is straightforward to show that this is nonsense, and perhaps our physics, math, and biology students at SAHS would like to calculate what the real odds are at producing a coherent thought by random-chance events.

The truth of the matter is that even if the entire universe were filled with atoms, with each atom acting as a computer calculating at the speed of light over the entire lifetime of the universe, random chance can only get 90 characters of specified information. Not a library, not a book, not a chapter, not a paragraph, but barely a few words of information. Random-chance undirected purposeless events do not produce complexity, but only random garbage. So statements like Huxley's, or cartoons like Oliphant's, sound like plausible concepts at first, but actually give people a very poor understanding about complex systems arising from chance events.

Last year Peter Jennings opened a segment of the ABC evening news, by stating that the DNA content of a single human baby would stretch from the Sun to Pluto and back, 15 times! The current Human Genome Project has almost completed the mapping of about 3,200,000,000 "characters" of our genetic code that specifies human DNA. If a completely full universe of atomic computers can only get 90 characters of a given sequence in 20,000,000,000 years, then something is dreadfully wrong with our gut-feel that life arose by chance. But all it takes is one cartoon or one scientific textbook to persuade us that, like the popular lottery slogan, "It Can Happen". It can't happen, and I would hope that our schools would use the opportunity presented by such items as the Oliphant cartoon, to teach some real-world examples of how to help students glean good common sense from poor scientific thought.

The Kansas School Board had the courage to challenge standard scientific thinking today, by simply asking some simple questions not unlike that presented in this letter. The level of ridicule heaped upon that group is astounding, and has still not subsided from the scientific establishment. When a parent comes into a local school and respectfully asks questions about how theories of origins are being taught, is that parent met with hostility too, or are the parent's questions given respect in like measure? If the biology teacher can't show a convincing mathematical argument to the class about how random-chance events can produce complex information (and life), then perhaps parts of evolutionary teaching should be dealt with differently than the way text books currently present evolutionary claims to the students.

A recent New York Times poll of Americans showed that "almost half of the respondents said that the theory [of evolution] 'is far from being proven scientifically'". Can the parent who is in the half of the country that questions evolution get the attention of the teachers of that parent's child? How is it working out here in the St. Croix Valley? In other schools in our area, I know parents have faced stiff opposition to questions about evolution.

The challenge for the evolutionary crowd is to take some simple examples in biology, and work out the evolutionary mathematics and probabilities that support the evolutionary claim that random chance can actually produce increasing complexity, and ultimately life. Let's stop simply repeating incredible evolutionary claims, and let's start cranking out some actual examples for the students to evaluate. If the school does not want to do this, then let's just skip the life-from-non-life claims, and get on to the proven biology that the students need to know, and drop the evolutionary speculation that is preached as fact.

The common person in Kansas, and every other state, knows that NO scientist uses random chance to solve problems in the laboratory. Random chance always gets the wrong answer for any complex system. And the public knows that this is what is at the heart of the debate over teaching origins of life. Only in Biology are we to believe that somehow random chance can actually defy the odds.

For those who don't believe that random chance produces garbage rather than ever-increasingly organized systems (e.g. life), let's debate the science, and the math, and the probabilities in the open forum. Let's do it in the schools too. That, fellow human beings, is what Kansas is trying to do. If the odds are with evolution scientifically, then science has nothing to fear from the open debate and the open learning process. If the odds show that the current evolutionary thinking is poor science, then the scientists can continue to search for better explanations without ridiculing others who think they have found one. Either way, the debate process produces a better educated student and public. And isn't that what we all want?

David E. Stoltzmann
368 North Ninth Street
Bayport, MN 55003-1145

E-Mail: davestoltz{at}compuserve.com