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Rob Sheldon reflects on astronomer Fred Hoyle’s rejection of Darwinism


A friend writes to remind us that atheist astronomer Fred Hoyle (1915–2001) (like so many serious thinkers) was not a Darwinist. He quotes from Hoyle’s Mathematics of Evolution:

Because there was not a particle of evidence to support this view [Darwinism], new believers had to swallow it as an article of faith, otherwise they could not pass their examinations or secure a job or avoid the ridicule of their colleagues. So it came about from 1860 onward that new believers became in a sense mentally ill, or, more precisely, either you became mentally ill or you quitted the subject of biology, as I had done in my early teens. The trouble for young biologists was that, with everyone around them ill, it became impossible for them to think they were well unless they were ill, which again is a situation you can read all about in the columns of Nature. (pages 3-4 of the introduction)

Our physics color commentator Rob Sheldon knew his post-doctoral student (as he was then), Chandra Wickramasinghe (1939– ), and writes to say,

Sir Fred died in 2001, I believe, and toward the end of his life wrote a series of papers on astrobiology. His post-doc, Chandra Wickramasinghe, took over his lab at Cardiff, where Hoyle had gone after leaving Cambridge after some tiff. I worked with Chandra and some of the people in Hoyle’s group back around 2005-2010, and to my best recollection, they seemed to think Hoyle was the same irascible atheist to his dying day. Many have taken his comments about ID as a secret confession of a theist, but somehow Hoyle could be an ID atheist.

But despite his temperament, Hoyle was not an angry atheist, but more of the Anthony Flew sort of ultra-rationalist. This made Hoyle deeply unhappy with Darwinism, and he therefore concluded evolution needed an infinite amount of time, which was also Einstein’s model for the universe. So when Lemaitre and later Alpher & Gamow & Dicke started proposing a Big Bang model and then Bell Lab physicists Arno Penzias & Robert Wilson found it, he had to make a rational choice between Evolution and Big Bang. He chose Evolution, and worked with several “Big Bang deniers” to model a “Steady State” universe: the Burbidges, Halton Arp, Tommy Gold, Hermann Bondi. Even after several astronomical surveys destroyed his steady state theory, to my knowledge, he never accepted the Big Bang model. Which no doubt was the main reason he never got the Nobel Prize and left Cambridge.

Sheldon writes back to add,

Hoyle’s was a brand of panentheism which is definitely how Chandra communicated it to me. Not having met Hoyle personally, I attributed a lot of the panentheism to Chandra’s Buddhist upbringing in Sri Lanka. But it was definitely there in Fred too, just not as obvious.

One wonders what Hoyle would have thought of panpsychism. See, for example: Why is science growing comfortable with panpsychism (“everything is conscious”)? At one time, the idea that “everything is conscious” was the stuff of jokes. Not any more, it seems.

Rob Sheldon is the author of Genesis: The Long Ascent and The Long Ascent, Volume II .


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