The Weasel Program

What Hath Darwin to Do with Shakespeare, Richard Dawkins?

Modern evolutionary theory holds that all life blindly evolved from one or a few single-celled organisms in the distant past. No intelligent design required—or allowed. A significant shortcoming of this idea  is that evolutionists can't even show microbes evolving from one form to a fundamentally distinct microbial form, much less point to whole new body plans emerging through a blind process. The theory is primarily based on various inferences and assumptions. That alone shouldn't disqualify the theory, but it does mean we need to take a careful look at the various links in the inferential chain.

For example, evolutionists point to common stretches of DNA among different plant and animal forms and insist that evolutionary common descent is the explanation. But common design is also a logical explanation, much as software engineers might reuse a software module in several different computer programs. Bill Gates famously said DNA is like a computer program, so why not?

Is it common descent or common design? The challenge is to study the evidence and suss out clues that would decisively favor one explanation over the other. Unfortunately, many defenders of evolutionary theory prefer instead to settle the issue by ruling the design option out of court ahead of time. Such a tactic should not impress.

Another inference on offer from evolutionists: they argue that computer programs that evolve from simple to complex effectively simulate biological evolution and strongly support evolutionary theory.

That's an intriguing claim, but the only way to know if it holds up to scrutiny is to actually scrutinize it. 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 oft­repeated 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.

Two Glaring Problems

First, on its evolutionary journey from gibberish to the line from Shakespeare, Dawkins's computer simulation passes through and builds from wholly nonsensical and dysfunctional verbal intermediates. That's a big problem because Darwinian natural selection tends to eliminate dysfunctional offspring, favoring the functional over the dysfunctional.

Second, an intelligent designer programmed the computer simulation to aim for a particular distant goal—specifically, the weasel line from Hamlet. That's an equally big problem because Darwinian evolution doesn't work toward specific distant goals. It isn't mindful but mindless. It lacks foresight. Dawkins concedes 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.

His 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

Methinks Context Is Indispensable

There's one other big problem with Dawkins's weasel program and argument. To see what I'm talking about, we need a bit more context from Shakespeare's play. Benjamin Wiker and I spend several pages on this in our book A Meaningful World (IVP, 2006). What follows is a quick distillation.

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

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the 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 Dawkins quotes this passage, he has a bit of fun at the expense of all those unenlightened religious folks who believe in things like a Creator, though Dawkins is rhetorically canny enough to come at the matter 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." Dawkins then introduces the Hamlet/Polonius passage and explains that they are commenting on how a passing cloud resembles this or that animal.

The conjunction is hardly unintentional. It's Dawkins's underhanded way of telling us—Imagining that you see the handiwork of God in the apparent design of animals is almost as silly as imagining that a cloud which resembles Jesus was actually designed to look like Jesus.

The irony is that the Hamlet passage actually illustrates exactly the opposite point: namely, the tendency of some to view an intelligent cause as a purely mindless material cause. To see this, we need more context from the play than Dawkins provides.

A Death Intelligently Designed

At the beginning of the drama, we learn that King Hamlet died recently and that his brother, Claudius, seized the throne before young Prince Hamlet could return home from university. Claudius also married the widowed queen, Hamlet's mother, within a couple of months of the funeral.

Hamlet has a low view of his conniving uncle Claudius, and he's depressed about his father's death and his mother's speedy remarriage. The prince, however, doesn't know the half of it yet. Eventually he discovers that Claudius poisoned King Hamlet so as to steal the throne and take the man's wife. Hamlet's father didn't simply die of some natural malady, as everyone supposed. Claudius murdered him.

What did old King Hamlet's chief adviser, Polonius, do about all this? The man fancies himself a wise and penetrating fellow, yet he remained oblivious to any wrongdoing and quickly aligned himself with the new King Claudius after King Hamlet's death. Polonius also ordered his beautiful daughter, Ophelia, to keep away from Prince Hamlet, being convinced that Hamlet is just toying with her 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 he's a clueless court toady who imagines he's wise and discerning.

In the scene quoted above, the two men actually only pretend to think the clouds look like particular animals. What's actually going on here is that Hamlet is feigning madness and using the cover of insanity to expose Polonius as a clueless yes-man. The prince gets Polonius to agree that the cloud looks, first, like a camel, then like a weasel, and then like a whale. In this way Hamlet demonstrates that the sycophantic Polonius will agree to almost anything a royal tells him.

Put yourself in Hamlet's shoes. He desperately needs Polonius's help to prove King Claudius's guilt, but Polonius is too busy currying favor with the new king to suspect the man of a crime. Polonius sees what he wants to see and ignores what is convenient for him to ignore. After all, he's safely ensconced as the new king's right-hand man. Why rock the boat?

So we see that the scene and the wider tension between Prince Hamlet and Polonius actually involve 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 death to wholly natural causes when in fact the king's death was intelligently, if maliciously, designed—that is, it was foul play.

Dawkins = Polonius

There is an arresting parallel here to the issue of biological origins. Richard Dawkins is a modern-day Polonius. Like Polonius, he ignores the evidence of intelligent design, which should be abundantly clear to him.

And the moral of the story, provided we allow ourselves to draw a line so far afield from the original play: Don't be Richard Dawkins. Don't mistake an intelligent cause for a natural one. And don't miss the point by missing the wider context.

Dawkins did this when he misread the point of the Hamlet/Polonius weasel scene, and he does it when he ignores the evidence that not only living cells but our entire living planet, our solar system, and the laws and constants of physics and chemistry are all finely tuned—intelligently designed—to allow for the existence of living things such as camels, weasels, and whales. And scientists and poets into the bargain. 

is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and the author or co-author of numerous articles and books, including Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design, with Matt Leisola (Discovery Institute, 2018), The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got and the West Forgot, with Jay Richards (Ignatius, 2014), and A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, with Benjamin Wiker (IVP, 2006).

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #58, Fall 2021 Copyright © 2021 Salvo |


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