Evolution and Poker

In the case of dolphin sonar, there is one respect in which it is pretty straightforward: the advantage of each minute improvement in the dolphin’s hearing/sonar abilities would be immediately relevant to its welfare. Even human hearing is sufficient for a certain basic level of echolocation (see the blind skateboarder) and the basic traits of being able to make high-pitched noises and honing a sense of hearing for hunting in a watery environment need no special pleading.

Keep in mind too that the circuitous path taken to the dolphin’s present-day excellence may not represent the best route it could have taken, just the route it did take. You don’t want to fall into the trap of seeing something complicated and believing intricacy is a sign of intelligence. Sometimes true genius is in simplicity. :smile:

But I do know what you mean, I’ve stared at my biology textbooks and wondered how…? I think one big difference between new technology and new biology is that technology tends to be very feature-focused—how can I make it bigger, faster, add more bells and whistles? While those things almost wind up being incidental to the massive part of the work that goes on biologically, most of which is about making us robust to whatever unexpected things happen to a creature. Damage repair, redundancy so that losing the use of one eye or ear or leg doesn’t crash the system, making sure we can survive famine or falls or swim to shore. And most of that work was done long before we started tottering around on two legs.

That’s why I never think it’s weird that evolution took so long perfecting a single cell before multicellular life expanded, or spent so long with just insects or fish or lizards or anything else. It only makes sense that all the stuff under our hood that we take for granted would take the better part of the history of the world to get right.

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The SETI scientist situation is not hypothetical. The scientific community always reserves judgment on SETI anomalies. So far, almost all the anomalies have been explained, and there is no reason to think that the trend will not continue.

You will no doubt find these anecdotes interesting:


Sure. But we do not believe that God spoke out audibly at the Jordan because of scientific observations being made today. Instead, we believe in this miracle and others because of the testimony, preserved in the Scripture, of those who observed them.

There is not a single miracle cited in the Scripture that I believe in because of scientific observations being made today. In every case, I believe in those miracles because of the eyewitness testimony, and because of my personal encounter with Christ.

Since we’re “dealing” (hehe!) with analogies, let’s change the analogy so that it’s a little bit more like biology. Suppose we’re at a casino, and the mechanical card shuffler deals me 10 better-than-average hands in a row. What conclusions would you make about me and the machine?

Another analogy that is more akin to the subject we are discussing is the weather. Suppose the National Hurricane Center says that there is a less than 5% chance that even a small slice of Alabama will experience tropical storm force winds. But then Dothan gets hit with 2 minutes of wind at 35 knots at the very edge of the storm. Do we regard the winds as proof that God intervened in favor of the politician who warned Alabama residents to watch out? Or is it just one more meteorological phenomenon that we affirm is ultimately in God’s providence, but we can’t draw any conclusions about God’s intentions from the 2 minutes of 35 knot winds?


That is well within the expected statistical distribution, I believe, to the degree that, given enough iterations, such an occurrence is nearly bound to happen. In just a hundred coin tosses it is extremely likely to get 6 of the same in a row, if I recall? People win the lottery, too. Given the number of people buying tickets, even against lottery odds, someone is bound to win the lottery before long.

And that really is the crux of the question… if we take the rules of probability, natural laws, and principle(s) of natural selection, and add to all that a single fortuitously generated self-replicating molecule and all the energy and resources it needs… is sentient intelligent life, with all the capabilities of love, literature, communication, reading comprehension, music appreciation, music performance, composition, poetry, morality, mathematics, engineering, science, logic, and the like a practically foregone conclusion? I fear I do not see these as the inescapable conclusion of a self-replicating molecule, even if given 5 billion years and near limitless energy and resources, in a similar fashion as random distribution of cards will, by sheer probabilistic necessity, hit 10 above average hands in a row with relative regularity.

I realize this is essentially what many people here believe, but I simply don’t share the belief. Even with all the principles at work, these utterly ingenious feats of stunning intricacy do not seem like the foregone and inescapable results of probability coupled with natural selection, acting on a self-replicating molecule while giving it 5 billion years of energy and resources.

You are completely wrong, and you would know that if you had read the less than 5 pages in The Blind Watchmaker that are devoted to the Weasel illustration. I am sure that the reason you believe such falsehood about that illustration is that you have read about it from people who use it to mislead. I’ve written about the Weasel program here.

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Actually, I read about it on the Wikipedia page, you’d have to take it up with those authors if you think it was written to mislead. and Yes, the immediate intention of the weasel program itself was limited to showing the effect of cumulative improvements and how this is different than utterly random chance, as he acknowledges and is quoted on the Wikipedia page I read.

Nonetheless, this remains one plank of his larger argument that unguided process can achieve what would be utterly impossible if it were up to “mere” chance… and whether you like it or not, I still find great irony that he utilized a method that demonstrated just how well selection works when frontloaded by a teleological intelligent agent in order to make this particular observation.

That’s false, and you could discover that by reading Dawkins.

It’s not my problem that so many people repeat this falsehood. As for whether I “like” it, there’s this: it makes Christians look bad, and that’s not a bad thing in my view.

But since were on the topic, you wrote in the linked article…

True or false: the computer program in question is called WEASEL (or similar) and it demonstrates the stepwise generation of a famous phrase from Hamlet.
Answer: False.


You must be using words differently than I am used to, because whatever debate we might have about what Dawkins intended to demonstrate with his stepwise generation of a famous phrase from Hamlet… that seems to be matter of fact what it was… a demonstration of the stepwise generation of said phrase from Hamlet… what, precisely, is false about this description? The phrase was from Hamlet, and it was generated in a stepwise manner, no?


By repeating the procedure, a randomly generated sequence of 28 letters and spaces will be gradually changed each generation. The sequences progress through each generation:


This process “generates” a “phrase” from “Hamlet”, “stepwise” seems an adequate adjective, and the program seems to be called “weasel”. Could you explain to this unlearned dotard what exactly makes this description “false”?

“the computer program in question,” i.e. the one described by the previous two questions as the focus of chapter 3 of The Blind Watchmaker and made freely available.

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I’m sorry you couldn’t understand the post. You are the only person I know who missed the point.

I’m sorry, but what you wrote provides no information at all about whether the particular solution in dolphins is a global optimum or not. It’s like coming on a tall hill and saying, “That’s taller than any hill I’ve seen before. It must be the tallest mountain in the world.” As it happens, we have enough examples of convergent evolution of similar traits, each producing remarkable and quite different solutions, to conclude that any solution we see is unlikely to be optimal.

Right. Now, if you could just demonstrate that any such achievements exist, we would have something to talk about.


Marshall, thanks… could you explain further, as Stephen seems more interested in insulting me than in explaining anything, and I would in fact like to better understand if I am missing something…

I reread the chapter, and the description seems to hold completely… Dawkins describes writing a computer program (“I was obliged to program
the computer”) that generates a phrase from hamlet (“just the short sentence ‘Methinks it is like a weasel’”) using stepwise (“the target was finally reached in generation 43”), incremental changes ( “mutations in the copying”) that cumulatively generates said phrase.

The description “the computer program in question … demonstrates the stepwise generation of a famous phrase from Hamlet” seems a perfectly accurate description of what Dawkins described.

Is the only “falsehood” Stephen is claiming the fact that Dawkins himself didn’t explicitly label this program “WEASEL” in the particular chapter in question?

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Did you read my whole post?

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I have to register my concern as a Baptist. I knew “Evolution” could lead to playing Poker. I just knew it.


My post goes step by step, and each step depends on the one before. What you are missing is in the first main point, here:

  1. True or false: Richard Dawkins’ 1986 classic The Blind Watchmaker used a computer model (a simulation) as a key teaching device while explaining the effectiveness of cumulative selection in evolution. The program is the main focus of chapter 3 (“Accumulating small change”) of the book.

I have bolded a phrase that is particularly important, but any reading of The Blind Watchmaker would make my point obvious.

I don’t think there’s anything to add.

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Daniel, if you’re still confused, feel free to message me. I know you’re smart and fluent in English so I don’t want to come across as holding your hand as we walk through the meaning of the three questions in Stephen’s blog post. You have read that post, right?

Incidentally, do you happen to know why that modest Weasel program has suddenly resurfaced as a live topic? I foggily remember discussions about it back during the Dover trial, but it seemed to disappear without a trace… until last week or so when it popped up at a few places.

OK, I read the post again and caught it… I didn’t catch the subtlety Stephen was using… trying to make it sound like he was talking about the weasel program when he was really talking about the biomorph program. I assumed, since he was specifically responding to ID proponent’s (mis)use of the weasel program, that he was discussing the weasel program. Silly me.

Couldn’t tell you any other reason it has come up… I only mentioned it because someone recommended Dawkins and it is one reason I find him singularly unconvincing to me. Even if all he was trying to do in that program was illustrate nothing more than the ability for cumulative small changes to do what large wholesale changes could not, one would think he would have been more cautious in proffering an illustration that essentially demonstrated how well selection works when guided by an intelligent agent toward a teleological end.

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That is not what the program in chapter 3 does. From the book

The program he came up with has no long term goal and yet still creates animal shapes.


That is not what one of the two programs described in chapter 3 does. The other one does.

I found it an interesting post. If it weren’t ten years old I would have replied to the commenter who thought that it was an argument for fine-tuning because it failed when raising the mutation rate over 20% or so. From @sfmatheson’s article:

(“Small change” is the topic, remember.)

This is a very basic and very important aspect of the Darwinian mechanism, and yet it is maddeningly common to see it ignored or completely misunderstood.

Then later the fine-tuning commenter thinks he has a very good point, but he is forgetting that “small change” is the whole topic under discussion, and so he adjusts the algorithm to instead be about large changes (mutation rates over a fifth or a quarter of the sequence). And thinks it falsies the thesis when it doesn’t work under the “large changes” condition, when the entire point is that small changes work better than large changes. I suppose if he increased the mutation rate to 100 and calculated the same ridiculously large improbability that Dawkins originally did in the chapter, he would try to throw that against the Weasel program, too.

Kind of ironic, really.

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So what do you think about the one that is described in great detail?

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