Malcolm Gladwell’s Infinite Monkey Theorem

The Infinite Monkey Theorem apparently still holds if you substitute mediocre humans for monkeys. Here is Malcolm Gladwell writing on how to brute force genius (“In the Air,” The New Yorker, 12 May 2008):

In the nineteen-sixties, the sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a famous essay on scientific discovery in which he raised the question of what the existence of multiples tells us about genius. No one is a partner to more multiples [simultaneous scientific discovery], he pointed out, than a genius, and he came to the conclusion that our romantic notion of the genius must be wrong. A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight. “Consider the case of Kelvin, by way of illustration,” Merton writes, summarizing work he had done with his Columbia colleague Elinor Barber:

After examining some 400 of his 661 scientific communications and addresses . . . Dr. Elinor Barber and I find him testifying to at least 32 multiple discoveries in which he eventually found that his independent discoveries had also been made by others. These 32 multiples involved an aggregate of 30 other scientists, some, like Stokes, Green, Helmholtz, Cavendish, Clausius, Poincaré, Rayleigh, themselves men of undeniable genius, others, like Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley and Lamé, being men of talent, no doubt, but still not of the highest order. . . . For the hypothesis that each of these discoveries was destined to find expression, even if the genius of Kelvin had not obtained, there is the best of traditional proof: each was in fact made by others. Yet Kelvin’s stature as a genius remains undiminished. For it required a considerable number of others to duplicate these 32 discoveries which Kelvin himself made.

This is, surely, what an invention session is: it is Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley, and Lamé in a room together, and if you have them on your staff you can get a big chunk of Kelvin’s discoveries, without ever needing to have Kelvin — which is fortunate, because, although there are plenty of Homer Lanes, Varleys, and Pfaffs in the world, there are very few Kelvins.

Our tendency is to imagine Newton, Darwin or Einstein as the pinnacle of genius, but they are merely the peak performance of that draft design kludge we all carry around in out heads. One can easily imagine ranks of genus many levels beyond our showings to date, ranging all the way from the Star Trek character Data to the gods (I uses these literary examples merely to demonstrate that we’re capable of imagining higher orders of genus). Each ranking of genius, all the way up to the gods, bears the same relation to the rank just below as Kelvin does to Homer Lanes, Varleys, and Pfaffs: not one of qualitative difference, but merely one of efficiency. And that relation obtains not just between each level, but over the entire span from pinnacle to base as well. It’s the wet machine corollary of Turing completeness.

This is, of course, why the proof from design for the existence of god fails, because one can imagine the universe being created in an instant by a supergenius, but it is equally plausible that it was created by a committee with some time on their hands. And the more time available or the larger the committee, the less capable any of its members has to be to produce a given output.

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