Overturning the Religion of the 20th Century

Fred Hoyle, Plumian Professor of Astrophysics and Experimental Philosophy at Cambridge in 1958, and an atheist, made many enemies as a result of his opposition to Darwinism which was the religion of the day. He and his fellow workers William Alfred Fowler and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar discovered that we are literally made of stardust, that in a process called  (nucleosynthesis)  carbon and the other elements that make us up are created in the giant explosions that accompany the birth and death of stars. However for the process to work several wildly unlikely pre conditions have to be fulfilled, making it appear that the physical law itself has been overturned, which is why in 1983 Hoyle observed, “Would you not say to yourself, some super-calculating intellect must have designed the properties of the carbon atom, otherwise the chance of my finding such an atom through the blind forces of nature would be utterly minuscule. A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature. The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.”  For that many think he was denied his share of the Nobel Prize that Fowler and Chandrasekhar were to receive.

Hoyle believed that we have somehow got our perceptions of our origins wrong, especially when it comes to Darwinism, which he described as ‘a mistake.’ Life, he suggested, did not begin on earth but comes from the stars, indeed it may even have purpose. Today we are searching with our space probes for the life in our solar system and beyond. Quietly his idea that life did not start on earth has been tacitly accepted, we await the acceptance of his second.

Here in his Rede Lecture Hoyle in 1992 we can follow the ideas of a genius of the rank of Galileo, one who similarly because of the blindness of the religion of the day, suffered the same contempt and ostracism of his fellow intellectuals.

Rede Lecture

“One way to represent the information content of’ life is by the ratio of the number of possible nonsense arrangements to the number of viable living arrangements. As my colleague Chandra Wickramasingh and I have argued (following others in this respect) the resulting ratio is enormous – if you wrote out the ratio as an integer in the usual way it would minimally have some 40000 digits. taking some fifteen pages of print to set out in detail.

Even to an astronomer an integer with 40000 digits is hard to visualise, since such a number is enormously super-astronomical in its magnitude. Imagine yourself to be on some headland gazing out to sea. You have the impression that here is a vast amount of water. infinitely greater than the contents of a chemists test-tube. Yet the ratio of the volume of the whole world ocean to the volume of a test-tube is only a number with some 20 digits. which is entirely trivial compared to 40000 digits.

You see from this latter comparison that if life originated here on the Earth it could hardly have mattered whether the whole world ocean was involved or only a volume the size of a test-tube. The difference amounts to only 20 digits in 40000. Thus if the world ocean produced biochemical materials with an information content set at 40000 digits. A test-tube would produce pro rata an information content of 39 980 digits. which is essentially the same vast number. Nor does the time involved matter much, not even if the accumulation of information were strongly accelerating, say like the hundredth power of the time. These circumstances open the way to proof or disproof by experiment. If there were some deep principle which drove organic systems towards living systems, the operation of the principle should easily be demonstrable in a test-tube in half a morning. Needless to say, no such demonstration has ever been given. Nothing happens when organic materials are subject to showers of electrical sparks or drenched in ultraviolet light, except the eventual production of a tarry sludge.

Of all the facts available to us whether in biology, physics or astronomy it seems to me the huge information content of living systems must surely be the most important just because its numerical representation is so much larger than any other quantity with which we are familiar. A count of all the atoms in all the galaxies visible in the largest telescopes only yields an integer with some 80 digits, which is less than the number of wrong ways of making even a quite short-chain protein like cytochrome-c. If one were allowed a random trial for every atom in the universe one would still be unlikely to come up with even a single such protein, let alone the many thousands on which life depends.

I spoke in the earlier part of my lecture as if the big-bang and steady-state theories were the only possible forms of cosmology. It is my present opinion that neither theory is wholly right nor wholly wrong. In its emphasis on matter at a very high density the big bang theory has I believe a correct point, but only if such events are taken to be explicitly within the universe not as the origin of the whole universe. Indeed, rather obviously, it is just such events which give rise to galaxies and to clusters of galaxies. The steady-state theory, on the other hand is correct in denying an explicit moment of origin of the universe, correct in giving the universe an enormous antiquity. The breath taking complexity of life points strongly to a universe of vast antiquity, as if the universe has developed with respect to increasing order over a span of time that was enormous compared to the intervals usually contemplated in cosmology.

On this view the information content of life was not discovered by local processes here on the Earth, but was written on the Earth from outside, information that was derived from the entire past history of the universe. In this respect I believe our instinctive perceptions to be correct. For we have an ingrained feeling of a fundamental connection between ourselves and the universe. For early man gave expression to this feeling by inventing gods of the air, of the woods, of the fields, gods you might come on in explicit forms at any moment. All such materialistic representations were wrong of course for the reason that they were set too immediately close to hand. It was surely a big conceptual step when Neolithic man conceived a sun god, a first step from the Earth in to the cosmos. The much later development of Judaeo-Christian theology contains an interesting device aimed at removing the earlier mistakes while at the same times still continuing to make them, a paradoxical situation which says much about the psychology of the human mind.

Thus in Judaeo Christian theology ‘God’ is so remote outside the universe-that it is impossible to find ‘Him’ of your own volition. But since a god who could never be found or who never manifested ‘himself’ in an explicitly human way would be useless from a religious point of view, `God ‘is endowed with explicit locally defined representatives whether as the prophets of the Hebrews, as Christ, or as the Pope.

Modern science rejects such locally defined representatives, rightly I believe. But having made a correct step, modern science immediately makes a wrong step. It does so by returning to what in essence is the extreme localism of early man. The concept of ‘evolution’, to which I have already referred serves very much like primitive god.

‘Chance’ is another god of’ modern science. However, improbable a situation may be, the argument is that, if it hadn’t been so we wouldn’t be here to know about it. Since we are indeed here, ‘therefore it had to be so, even to the extent of explaining away a number with 40000 digits.’ Astronomers are permitted to contemplate the state of affairs outside the Earth, but only on the condition that they see the universe as a purposeless meaningless affair. In my days as an active astronomer by which l mean attending an intoxicating round of committee meetings in London, I used to remark that the astronomical community lived in perpetual terror that one day it might stumble inadvertently on something important, a remark which I fear did nothing to enhance my popularity

The dilemma of man’s connection with the universe is evidently to find some correct explicitly defined representation of the connection. Past attempts being wrong. One either gives up the problem as too difficult, as many scientists do, or one tries a new direction

The great information content of life, it seems to me, gives a clue to the direction we should take. If life on earth is a consequence of consequence of genetic information received from outside the Earth, as an outcome of a long-continuing accumulation in the universe at large, many attributes of terrestrial life are likely to have the appearance of being prearranged, pre programmed as one would say nowadays. Is this so we can ask?

It is interesting that already by the year 1870 Allred Russel Wallace, who had given the first fully coherent account in 1858 of what biologists are pleased to call the ‘Darwinian’ theory had arrived at an affirmative answer to this question. (Let me quote from a distinguished modern biologistJ

‘Did the cells of our cave-dwelling predecessors (already) contain a set of genes which enable modern man to compose music of great complexity and write books with profound meaning? One is compelled to give an affirmative answer. It looks as though early Man was already provided with an intellectual potential that was in great excess of what was needed to cope with the environment of his time.’

To the music of great complexity and the literature with profound meaning mentioned in this quotation, we should surely add mathematics; since individuals are born ‘ from time to time with so great a mathematical talent that it requires little or no tutoring, a talent so great that it can scarcely have had evolutionary significance for our cave dwelling ancestors. One such person was born on a small farm in the county of Lincolnshire three and a quarter centuries ago. The name was Isaac Newton. Let us go back to the year 1695 the year in which Newton left Cambridge to become Warden of the Mint, ten yeas after completing his great book Principia Mathematica, ten years in which one might think his skills had become a little rusty.

In 1695 two European mathematicians. Johann Bernoulli and Wilhelm Leibniz concocted between them a mathematical problem which by the methods then available was almost insoluble and which they issued as a challenge to all other mathematicians. What happened when this almost insoluble problem reached Newton? His niece, who was his housekeeper kept a diary. Her laconic entry for 29 January 1696 reads ‘Bernoulli sent problem. Isaac Newton home at 4 p.m. Finished it by 4 a.m.’

The last part of this my final story is perhaps the best bit. It was an indication of Newton’s peculiar personality that he could not be persuaded to publish the solution himself. However he permitted his friends to do so but on condition that his name was not mentioned. Bernoulli was not in the least deceived by the anonymity . As soon as he saw the style of the solution, a style which foreshadowed the development of a wholly new branch of mathematics, he made a remark which subsequently became famous and which l hope and trust is still alive to this day and hour:

‘Ah!` exclaimed Bernoulli. ‘I recognise the lion by his paw.’

Fred Hoyle



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11 Comments on Overturning the Religion of the 20th Century

  1. Young Hoyle offers us a faithful version of Russell’s aged female interlocutor’s “turtles all the way down”, i.e., behind each form is a previous form. The other offerings amount to the same thing in negative mode, behind each non-form is another non-form. All this strenuous twisting is futile. Even a round blockhead such as Kant showed that it is impossible to account for the existence of a thing by appealing to its form. The only route is, as Aquinas showed, by way of being.

  2. ‘The information content of life?’ What a woolly phrase for DNA. I would expect something more precise from such a famous scientist.

    • You may as well dismiss the phrase Gravitational Pull as wooly. The amount of information in our bodies is probably greater than that of everything the human race has ever spoken,read, written or thought

        • The information content of life is a phrase that doesn’t mean anything. ‘Life’ doesn’t have any information content, the information necessary to build a living thing is contained in its DNA, which contains, though vast, a finite amount of information & is ultimately measurable. Its structure is also ascertainable. In science one has to define the terms properly or one cannot proceed logically to any conclusion or hypothesis.

  3. There is no such thing as ‘Darwinism’, that an invented term, used by creationists to characterise evolution. And Fred Hoyle completely failed to understand evolution, which rendered his criticisms pointless and wrong.

  4. This is a very interesting article. The title is puzzling, though; there is no ‘religion of the 20th century’. There is only Christianity, which is Forever and Ever, Amen.