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Richard Dawkins’s Weasel Program Is Bad in Ways You Never Dreamed

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Editor’s note: Dr. Witt is cordially welcomed back to the pages of Evolution News after a too long sabbatical. He is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, and co-author of Intelligent Design Uncensored and A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature.

You may have heard of evolutionist Richard Dawkins’s computer program designed to illustrate that evolution can accomplish amazing things. And you may have heard some good critiques of this program and of its later, more sophisticated cousins. I want to quickly summarize those critiques and then describe another way Dawkins’s argument fails, a failure mostly overlooked but highly significant.

Dawkins’s program is well-known enough that it has its own Wikipedia entry and nickname: “the weasel program.” The program “evolves” a string of gibberish letters into a line from Hamlet: “Methinks it is like a weasel.”

Dawkins was inspired by the old saw that if you put some monkeys in front of a bunch of typewriters and have them bang away long enough, eventually one of them will reproduce a Shakespearian poem purely by chance. In truth, the odds of that happening are actually so long that whole galaxies would burn out before we got a Shakespearian sonnet out of one of those poor creatures. And to Dawkins’s credit, he understands this.

Dawkins uses his computer simulation not to argue for the powers of brute chance but to show that evolution can do the job far more quickly because evolution isn’t purely random in the way a monkey banging away on a typewriter is. It is guided by natural selection.

However, if you have read critiques of the weasel program, you know Dawkins’s evolution simulation still has a couple of major limitations to it.

The Two Most Obvious Problems

First, on its evolutionary journey from gibberish to the line from Shakespeare, the program passes through and builds from utterly dysfunctional intermediates. That’s a problem because the Darwinian process of natural selection tends to eliminate dysfunctional offspring.

Second, the computer simulation has been programmed to aim for a particular distant goal — the weasel line from Hamlet. That’s a problem because Darwinian evolution doesn’t work toward particular distant goals. It isn’t mindful but mindless, not seeing but blind.

Dawkins conceded all this in The Blind Watchmaker:

Although the monkey/Shakespeare model is useful for explaining the distinction between single-step selection and cumulative selection, it is misleading in important ways. One of these is that, in each generation of selective “breeding,” the mutant “progeny” phrases were judged according to the criterion of resemblance to a distant ideal target, the phrase METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL. Life isn’t like that. Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection, although human vanity cherishes the absurd notion that our species is the final goal of evolution. In real life, the criterion for selection is always short-term, either simple survival or, more generally, reproductive success.

But Dawkins waves off these shortcoming by saying the little program is merely for illustrative purposes and suggesting that more sophisticated programs will be designed soon enough that properly mimic natural selection while still illustrating how wonderfully productive the evolutionary process can be.

Three decades later, we’re still waiting. Various attempts at more sophisticated simulations have been rolled out, often to much fanfare. But as others have shown, those simulations vastly underestimate how easy it is for an evolutionary pathway to avoid dysfunctional intermediates, or the simulations have unrealistically enormous probabilistic resources, or they smuggle in a distant goal for the program to chase. These more sophisticated simulations may do a better job of disguising these problems than did the weasel program, but the problems remain.

Something Else Is Rotten in the State of Dawkins’s Weasel Argument

That’s all background to what I really want to talk about. There’s another serious problem with Dawkins’s weasel argument, one that has everything to do with his overdeveloped love of reductionism. Dawkins, the same reductionist who refers to humans as DNA “survival machines,” takes a similarly reductive approach to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, causing him to miss a delicious irony

To see what I’m talking about, we need a bit more context. Ben Wiker and I spend several pages on this in our book A Meaningful World. What follows is a briefer explanation.

The weasel line comes in Act 3, Scene 2 of the play, in a conversation between Prince Hamlet and Polonius, the king’s chief adviser:

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

Before quoting that passage, Dawkins has fun at the expense of all those benighted religious folks who believe in things like an intelligent designer, though he is shrewd enough to come at the whole thing sideways.

“Sometimes clouds, through the random kneading and carving of the winds, come to look like familiar objects,” he writes. “There is a much published photograph taken by the pilot of a small aeroplane of what looks a bit like the face of Jesus, staring out of the sky. We have all seen clouds that reminded us of something.”

Translation — Hint, hint: Seeing the handiwork of God in nature is almost as silly as imagining that a cloud that resembles Jesus was actually designed to look like Jesus.

Dawkins then introduces the Hamlet/Polonius passage, saying the two men are just commenting on the curious, passing resemblances. But the mention of the Jesus cloud, and the wider context in The Blind Watchmaker, aimed at debunking those religious folks who see design in nature where none exists, suggests the unstated purpose of his selecting this particular scene out of all the scenes and lines written by Shakespeare. That is, seeing design in nature is as misguided as seeing design in the interesting shape of a cloud.

The irony is that, understood in its context, the Hamlet passage is better suited to illustrate exactly the opposite: that is, the tendency of some people to mistake an intelligent cause for a purely natural one. To see this, we need more context than Dawkins provides.

A Death Intelligently Designed

At the beginning of the play we learn that King Hamlet has recently died and that the king’s brother, Claudius, has managed to seize the throne before young Prince Hamlet could return home from university. Claudius also married the widowed queen, Hamlet’s mom, within a couple of months of the funeral. Hamlet doesn’t think much of his uncle Claudius, and he’s depressed about his father’s death and his mother’s speedy remarriage.

Prince Hamlet, though, doesn’t know the half of it at this early stage of the play. He eventually discovers that Claudius poisoned King Hamlet in order to usurp the throne and take the man’s wife. King Hamlet, in other words, didn’t simply die of old age. He was murdered.

What did old King Hamlet’s chief adviser, Polonius, do in all this? While he fancies himself a man of penetrating insight, Polonius remains oblivious of any wrongdoing and quickly aligns himself with the new King Claudius. Polonius also orders his beautiful daughter, Ophelia, to keep away from Prince Hamlet, assuming Hamlet is just toying with her affections and has no intention of marrying so far beneath him.

So Hamlet dislikes Polonius on two grounds: Polonius has cut Hamlet off from the woman he loves, and Polonius is a clueless court toady who imagines he’s wise and courageous.

In the scene quoted above, the two men actually are only pretending to think the clouds look like particular animals. Some cinematic versions emphasize this by staging the scene inside the palace so that the men aren’t even gazing at actual clouds. So what’s going on?

Hamlet is acting nuts, acting as if he is “seeing things.” But there is method to his madness. He’s using the cover of madness to poke fun at Polonius for being such a clueless yes-man. First, Hamlet gets Polonius to agree that the “cloud” looks like a camel, then a weasel, then a whale. Hamlet is revealing that the sycophantic Polonius will agree to almost anything a royal tells him.

Put yourself in Hamlet’s place. He desperately needs Polonius’s help in proving King Claudius’s guilt, but Polonius is too busy toadying up to the new king to harbor any suspicions of the man. Polonius sees what he wants to see and ignores what is convenient for him to ignore.

The whole scene and the wider tension between the two men, in other words, actually involves Polonius’s refusal to see intelligent design where it actually exists — namely, in the designed death, the murder, of old King Hamlet. Polonius attributes the old king’s death to purely blind, material causes when in fact the king’s death was intelligently designed — that is, foul play.

Richard Dawkins Is Polonius

One parallel to the origins science debate, then, is that Richard Dawkins is a modern day Polonius: He ignores the evidence of intelligent design that should be abundantly clear to him.

And the moral, if we’re willing to draw a line so far afield from the original play to our present context: Don’t be Richard Dawkins. Don’t mistake an intelligent cause for a natural one. Don’t miss the wider context: the evidence that not only living cells but our living planet, our solar system, and the laws and constants of physics and chemistry are all finely tuned to allow for living things such as camels and weasels and whales — and, to marvel at it all, scientists and poets alike

Photo: Alaskan weasel, by Cecil Sanders [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.