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From Salvo 58: Whatever happened to the Dawkins’s Weasel program that could randomly produce meaningful sentences, using natural selection?

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Jonathan Witt remembers Richard Dawkins‘s Weasel program, intended to show that meaningful information could arise randomly:

A good place to begin is with a famous evolution simulation by atheist evolutionist Richard Dawkins. It’s sufficiently famous that it has its own Wikipedia entry and nickname: “the weasel program.” The simulation gradually evolves a string of gibberish letters into a line from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet: “Methinks it is like a weasel.”

Dawkins apparently was inspired to use a line of Shakespeare in the program by the oft-repeated notion that if a bunch of monkeys randomly banged away on typewriters, eventually one of them would reproduce a Shakespearian sonnet. Mathematicians have worked out just how long this would take, and as it turns out, the entire universe would burn out long before any of these industrious primates chanced upon a Shakespearian sonnet. Even getting a complete quatrain out of one of them, even with a typo or three allowed, would be far, far beyond the reach of chance over the course of millions of billions of years.

To Dawkins’s credit, he understands that the monkeys would fail. He explains that he uses his computer simulation not to argue for the power of brute chance, as in the typing-monkeys illustration, but for the power of chance-plus-Darwinian-natural-selection.

However, even as an illustration of chance-plus-natural-selection, Dawkins’s weasel program founders…

Some 30-plus years on, we’re still waiting. More sophisticated evolution simulations have been rolled out to much fanfare, but as computer scientist Winston Ewert, philosopher and mathematician William Dembski, and others have shown, Avida and similarly ballyhooed simulations all possess one or more of three deal-killing flaws:

Jonathan Witt, “The Weasel Program: What Hath Darwin to Do with Shakespeare, Richard Dawkins?” at Salvo (58)

Wethinks it was just a gimmick that Dawkins knew would be highly popular even if it didn’t work. The Darwinians’ version of the perpetual motion machine.

Hat tip: Philip Cunningham

Real weasel:

8 Replies to “From Salvo 58: Whatever happened to the Dawkins’s Weasel program that could randomly produce meaningful sentences, using natural selection?

  1. 1
    ram says:

    I’m no fan of Dawkins, but to be fair, he never claimed his Weasle program was fully analogous to Darwinian evolution, and explicitly said it was not. The purpose of Weasle is to demonstrate how changes can accumulate in steps. That’s it. This is analogous to accumlation due to Selection (whether natural or artificial.) Weasle is not analogous to random mutation/variation since the algorithim was coded to guarantee that the characters of “WEASLE” would be generated and accumulated within a couple hundred iterations. Thus it is not analogous to Darwinian evolution. It is analogous to intelligently designed, front-loaded evolution, yes, but not Darwinian evolution.

    –Ram

  2. 2
    polistra says:

    A roof gutter works the same way as Dawkins’s program. Raindrops fall randomly on the roof, and the design of the slopes and troughs “evolves” the water into one organized spout. This won’t happen unless you design the slopes correctly. This isn’t NATURAL selection.

  3. 3
    jerry says:

    Stephen Blume destroys the reasoning of Dawkin’s program in his book, Evo-Illusion. There is essentially a whole chapter on it in his book.

    Salvo does a good job too

    What this does is illustrate how gullible educated people are and how pernicious many are

  4. 4
    Seversky says:

    Ram is right. The WEASEL program was only intended to illustrate the advantages of cumulative selection as he wrote:

    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.

  5. 5
    bornagain77 says:

    Seversky, you should have quoted from the article a little further, right after what you quoted is this,

    His (Dawkin’s’) candor is refreshing, but then he waves off these shortcomings, claiming his weasel program is only meant as a sort of promissory note for more sophisticated computer simulations soon to come, ones that will properly mimic the Darwinian mechanism while demonstrating how wonderfully productive blind evolution can be.

    Some 30-plus years on, we’re still waiting. More sophisticated evolution simulations have been rolled out to much fanfare, but as computer scientist Winston Ewert, philosopher and mathematician William Dembski, and others have shown, Avida and similarly ballyhooed simulations all possess one or more of three deal-killing flaws: (1) They dramatically oversell how easy it would be for a blind evolutionary process to move forward without dysfunctional intermediates. (2) They employ an unrealistically enormous number of chance events, far beyond what was available for biological evolution. Or (3) they smuggle in a distant goal for the program to chase, something blind evolution cannot do. These more sophisticated computer simulations may do a better job of disguising their shortcomings than did the weasel program, but the shortcomings remain. (For more on this, check out the Evolutionary Informatics Lab at evoinfo.org.)
    https://salvomag.com/article/salvo58/the-weasel-program

    Of related note:

    Top Ten Questions and Objections to ‘Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics’ – Robert J. Marks II – June 12, 2017
    Excerpt: There exists no (computer) model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution. Period. By “model,” we mean definitive simulations or foundational mathematics required of a hard science.,,,
    We show that no meaningful information can arise from an evolutionary process unless that process is guided. Even when guided, the degree of evolution’s accomplishment is limited by the expertise of the guiding information source — a limit we call Basener’s ceiling. An evolutionary program whose goal is to master chess will never evolve further and offer investment advice.,,,
    There exists no model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution. Hard sciences are built on foundations of mathematics or definitive simulations. Examples include electromagnetics, Newtonian mechanics, geophysics, relativity, thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, optics, and many areas in biology. Those hoping to establish Darwinian evolution as a hard science with a model have either failed or inadvertently cheated. These models contain guidance mechanisms to land the airplane squarely on the target runway despite stochastic wind gusts. Not only can the guiding assistance be specifically identified in each proposed evolution model, its contribution to the success can be measured, in bits, as active information.,,,
    Models of Darwinian evolution, Avida and EV included, are searches with a fixed goal. For EV, the goal is finding specified nucleotide binding sites. Avida’s goal is to generate an EQU logic function. Other evolution models that we examine in Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics likewise seek a prespecified goal.,,,
    The most celebrated attempt of an evolution model without a goal of which we’re aware is TIERRA. In an attempt to recreate something like the Cambrian explosion on a computer, the programmer created what was thought to be an information-rich environment where digital organisms would flourish and evolve. According to TIERRA’s ingenious creator, Thomas Ray, the project failed and was abandoned. There has to date been no success in open-ended evolution in the field of artificial life.5,,,
    We show that the probability resources of the universe and even string theory’s hypothetical multiverse are insufficient to explain the specified complexity surrounding us.,,,
    If a successful search requires equaling or exceeding some degree of active information, what is the chance of finding any search with as good or better performance? We call this a search-for-the-search. In Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, we show that the search-for-the-search is exponentially more difficult than the search itself!,,,
    ,,,we use information theory to measure meaningful information and show there exists no model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution.,,,
    ,,, if the fitness continues to change, it is argued, the evolved entity can achieve greater and greater specified complexity,,,
    ,,, We,, dub the overall search structure ‘stair step active information’. Not only is guidance required on each stair, but the next step must be carefully chosen to guide the process to the higher fitness landscape and therefore ever increasing complexity.,,,
    Such fine tuning is the case of any fortuitous shift in fitness landscapes and increases, not decreases, the difficulty of evolution of ever-increasing specified complexity. It supports the case there exists no model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution.,,,
    Turing’s landmark work has allowed researchers, most notably Roger Penrose,26 to make the case that certain of man’s attributes including creativity and understanding are beyond the capability of the computer.,,,
    ,,, there exists no model successfully describing undirected Darwinian evolution. According to our current understanding, there never will be.,,,
    https://evolutionnews.org/2017/06/top-ten-questions-and-objections-to-introduction-to-evolutionary-informatics/

  6. 6
    Truth Will Set You Free says:

    Right again, BA77.

    Wrong again, Seversky.

  7. 7
    Belfast says:

    Seversky:- “The WEASEL program was only intended to illustrate the advantages of cumulative selection as he wrote.”
    Well, Seversky, mate, if he meant that, he sure as hell never wrote it. In “The Blind Watchmaker” the word, “illustrative” appears nowhere. Nowhere, in any part of the book.
    The word “illustrate” occurs peripherally in the Weasel Chapter dealing with recursive algorithms.
    You should have read the book first.
    The “illustrative” meme arose much later, then died, becoming “thought experiment” in a futile attempt to cover nakedness.
    Furthermore, IN THE BOOK, he half heartedly deals firstly with the Shakespearean Monkeys meme suggesting possibility if enough time they would write the complete works, then he moves on from that nonsense to an easier job for the monkeys as though there was a possibility of fact in it.
    He states that his little Basic program has shortcomings because of restraints and conditions BUT is sure that with the right programming and more appropriate factors it will be shown to be so, apparently pure chance would bring life from carbon-bearing chemicals, then go on to produce everything living. He omits that there was no natural selection in pre-biotic earth to assist randomness, and that the trick only is supposed to happen, after life appears.
    It was a load of tosh from the start and in the 30 years since, no computer algorithm has come forward – which was his hope.
    Weasel is no more “illustrative” of evolution than that of a magician pulling a penny from the ear is “illustrative” of how a million monkeys, operating over vast chasms of time, might eventually pull a penny from another monkey’s ear.

  8. 8
    hnorman42 says:

    Regarding simulations that reward getting closer to a distant target — that’s a game simulation of natural selection and not a science simulation.

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