Is a chimpanzee at typewriter able to reproduce Shakespeare? – Jieshu Wang

If you give a chimpanzee a typewriter, what is the possibility it can reproduce a work of William Shakespeare? This thought experiment is usually relevant to mathematics. However, I found it appropriate for this week’s theme: evolution and language.

Homo Sapiens is the only symbolic species on this planet. The reason hidden behind is among the most debated anthropological topics, also one of the questions that I kept pondering in my head. In her Scientific American article The Morning of the Modern Mind[i], Kate Wong gathered five different opinions from academia:

  • Symbolism held by Christopher Henshilwood emphasized the importance of the invention of “external storage of information” like art and language.
  • Ecological disaster was suggested to be a “bottleneck” period when cooperating behavior was favored to form a complex social network among tribes.
  • The development of projectile technology was another factor thought to be an incentive to cooperate.
  • Population growth was thought to force people to compete so that symbolic behavior was sparked.
  • Brain mutation probably rewired human brain toward symbolic thinking.

In his The Symbolic Species[ii], Terrence W. Deacon proposed that the co-evolution of language, symbolic cognition, and culture with the human brain is significant in the process toward symbolic thinking. He described in detail some interesting animal experiments in which chimpanzees were trained to obtain simple symbolic reasoning, and the biological structure of our brain, especially the enlarged prefrontal cortex, which was highly related to symbolic thought. He wrote, “our symbolic advantage is … only due to a quantitative rearrangement of existing parts”[ii]. Merlin Donald would to some extent agree with Deacon because he also emphasized the importance of culture. Actually, in Donald’s view, social network is so vital that it enables a lot of new representations by virtue of writing and literacy[iii], pushing cognitive revolution forward.

The reading materials surely gave me a new lens to look at recent technologies. The “external storage of information” concept mentioned in Wong’s article actually includes so many modern technologies, especially computing technologies. Computers relieve us from heavy calculating tasks. The Internet serves as our external memory, storing not only our family photos but also tons of knowledge way beyond our lifelong learning capacity. In essence, these modern devices are not that different from bone necklaces handcrafted by a hunter-gatherer thousands of years ago.

However, I recently read some research that may be contradictory to Donald’s idea of considering “mimetic skill” as an essential part of human symbolic capacity. Edwin van Leeuwen, a primate expert from Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands and his colleagues reported in 2014 that they had observed a “chimpanzee fashion trend” called “grass-in-ear-behavior” in a Zambian sanctuary. A female chimpanzee named Julie put “a stiff, straw-like blade of grass” into one of her ears, a behavior without any discernible purpose. After watching her doing so, 8 out of 12 group members started to do the same thing, even after Julie’s death[iv]. It is an evidence that animals are able to imitate and represent others’ activities in a social group, let alone the experiments mentioned in Deacon’s book, in which two smart chimpanzees named Sherman and Austin learned simple symbolic abilities[ii]. If the mimetic skill is truly the foundation of human symbolic cognition, why haven’t chimpanzees developed their language or symbolic representation system?


Julie with grass in her ear. Edwin J. C. van Leeuwen et al / Animal Cognition



  • Does self-awareness have something to do with symbolic cognition?
  • Is evolution toward symbolic cognition inevitable? Deacon said it’s not[ii]. But his statement seems unfalsifiable. I’m not convinced.
  • Is homo sapiens still in the process of evolution? My guess is yes. But, if so, to what direction we are evolving? Will we be more intelligent because we have unprecedentedly abundant tools to represent, or less intelligent because we outsource so many cognitive tasks to machines?


[i] Kate, Wong. 2005. “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture.” Scientific American 292 (6): 86–95.

[ii] Deacon, Terrence William. 1997. The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton.

[iii] Donald, Merlin. 2007. “Evolutionary Origins of the Social Brain.” In Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Amsterdam: Rodophi.

[iv] Leeuwen, Edwin J. C. van, Katherine A. Cronin, and Daniel B. M. Haun. 2014. “A Group-Specific Arbitrary Tradition in Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes).” Animal Cognition 17 (6): 1421–25. doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0766-8.