Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sir Fred Hoyle and the Origins of ID

I first posted this at Telic Thoughts, but since I link to it frequently when discussing ID at other blogs, I thought I would re-post it here.

On January 12th, 1982, Sir Fred Hoyle delivered the Omni Lecture at the Royal Institution, London, entitled "Evolution from Space," which was later reprinted in a book by the same title, along with a couple of other papers. In it he discussed the overwhelming improbability of getting the enzymes needed for even the simplest form of life to function by chance. "The odds…" he concluded were about the same as throwing a "sequence of 50,000 sixes with unbiased dice." (p.10) A few years earlier, Hoyle had come to the conclusion that life on earth was the result of panspermia, and he goes on to present some of his evidence in the lecture.

Then he returns to the problem of how life originated:

"Once we see that life is cosmic it is sensible to suppose that intelligence is cosmic. Now problems of order, such as the sequences of amino acids in the chains which constitute the enzymes and other proteins, are precisely the problems that become easy once a directed intelligence enters the picture, as was recognised long ago by James Clerk Maxwell in his invention of what is known in physics as the Maxwell demon. The difference between an intelligent ordering, whether of words, fruit boxes, amino acids, or the Rubik cube, and merely random shufflings can be fantastically large, even as large as a number that would fill the whole volume of Shakespeare's plays with its zeros. So if one proceeds directly and straightforwardly in this matter, without being deflected by a fear of incurring the wrath of scientific opinion, one arrives at the conclusion that biomaterials with their amazing measure or order must be the outcome of intelligent design [my emphasis]. No other possibility I have been able to think of in pondering this issue over quite a long time seems to me to have anything like as high a possibility of being true." (27-28)

Sir Hoyle then speculates as to why our kind of life was designed:

"My friend Willy Fowler and I discovered almost three decades ago that the existence of carbonaceous life depends on the fine-tuning of two so-called energy levels, one in the carbon nucleus, the other in the oxygen nucleus. If either were shifted only minimally, the balance of carbon and oxygen on which life depends, would be destroyed, for the reason that carbon and oxygen would not then be synthesized in appropriate proportions inside stars….My opinion has always been that the fine-tuning…is an environmental property of physics which could be different at other places and other times within the universe." (p.28)
He then goes on to suggest that just as one day the fine-tuning may change, and we may have to design a different form of life, so previously a different form of life had to design us. But unlike "the God of Judaeo-Christian theology [who] is outside the Universe and is said to be superiour to it…the intelligence responsible for the creation of carbonaceous life in the present picture is within this universe and is subservient to it." (p.32)

Finally, Hoyle suggests that life was front-loaded for evolution:

"If at our present level of sophistication we were to attempt a new material representation of ourselves, doubtless we would try for a grandiose solution all in one shot, an explicit new creature complete in itself, like the Greek story of Pygmalion, or like novices with a computer who almost invariably get themselves into a tangle by attempting to write a large complex program all in one go. The practised expert on the other hand, builds a large complex computer program from many sub-units, subroutines as they are called. Microorganisms and genetic fragments are the subroutines of biology, existing throughout space in prodigious numbers, riding everywhere on the light pressure of the stars. Because the correct logical procedure is to build upwards from precisely formed subroutines, we on the Earth had to evolve from a seemingly elementary starting point." (p.34)

So here we have the atheist Fred Hoyle claiming that life was intelligently designed, several years before the Intelligent Desgin movement got off the ground. What's more, his lecture was cited in several books that were influential in the ID movement: Bradley, Olson, and Thaxton's Mystery of Life's Origins; Robert Shapiro's Origins;The Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth; and Michael Denton's Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. It's difficult to believe that his views didn't have some influence on the ID movement. But as far as I know, no one in the ID movement has publicly credited him with much, if any influence. Still, I would guess that there was a connection. My hunch is that it would have gone something like this: After the defeat of the Creation Scientists in the courtrooms, Phillip Johnson's more moderate group realized that something less religious than Creationism was needed. Comparing their views to Hoyle's, it was clear that even though they differed on who the designer was, they agreed that life was intelligently designed. And so the movement was born.

But regardless of how or even if Hoyle's views had any direct influence on the ID movment, we can thank him for helping us to see that there is a conceptual difference between the intelligent design of life and creationism, and that the latter is a species of the former, not the other way around.

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