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What About Hoyle?

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One day in early 2001, Jerry Pournelle made a comment about how terrible it was that creationism wasn't being taught in science class.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten his earlier comments that he doesn't disbelieve evolution.  He just thinks that creationism should get equal billing.  Anyway, I sent some links to him where scientists have demonstrated macro-evolution (Observed instances of speciation and Some more observed speciation events.  Both of those came from a search of The Straight Dope.)  We got into a short email discussion where Pournelle brought up what is apparently his standard attack on evolution:  What about Hoyle?

It took me awhile to see where Pournelle was coming from. Sir Fred Hoyle makes a lot of assertions, so saying, "What about Hoyle?" was unclear. I didn't know which assertion he was referring to. I've finally figured out Pournelle's talking about Hoyle's contention that histone-4 has no primitive forms that it could have been built from, and therefore the odds against it assembling randomly are impossibly slim.

A bit of background.  Histone-4 is a complicated molecule made up of 102 amino acids.   It's necessary for the replication of DNA.  Therefore it is found in every cell of nearly every living thing on Earth, from fungus and bacteria up to mammals and ourselves.   There are rules to how a molecule can be built, so it's not totally random.   Hoyle takes these rules into account and still comes up with 10 40,000 years for that molecule to form all in one fell swoop.  I don't pretend that I can follow his math.  But it turns out that some of Hoyle's basic assumptions are unfounded and therefore the math doesn't matter.

So in my email exchange with Pournelle, by the time I figured out which of Hoyle's assertions he was referring to (others include the Steady State Universe and Panspermia) Pournelle had blown me off as a quack.  I stopped pestering him at that point.

Right now in Darwinism there's a gap between between a soup of self-replicating organic compounds and true cellular organisms. We can't say with any certainty how nature might have crossed that gap. But, if you'll permit me to anthropomorphize, the mechanism(s) of evolution have been surprisingly adept at producing organisms which fit their environment. It does not take a large stretch of the imagination to believe that the same or similar mechanisms might have promoted collections of self-replicating molecules to work together (more anthropomophism) to form more and more complicated systems that eventually produced something that is recognizable as cellular life.

Basically, we don't know all the details, yet. But it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to believe that we will someday have a good grasp on how such a system could come about.

Hoyle contends that there are no alternatives nor precursors to histone-4. That simple statement has already been falsified, or at least is contested. See http://home.planet.nl/~gkorthof/kortho46.htm. This is a poorly-organized page, but about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way down, below the heading "How far does the neo-Darwinian theory work?" he says, "Histone-precursors can be found in ancient bacteria Archaea." And in turn he cites in footnote (5) at the bottom of the page, "The evolution of archaeal/eukaryotic histones thus illustrates that these proteins (...), were much less constrained and evolved at a much higher rate before their present role was fully established." p198, László Patthy(1999): Protein Evolution. Blackwell Science. Furthermore there are functional alternatives for histones: protamines (Nature, 403, 261-263(2000)).

The histone-4 question is by no means closed, in either direction. Neo-Darwinists can't tell you all of the intermediate steps, yet.  But it sure looks like the basis of Hoyle's objection is crumbling.

Hoyle insisted that histone-4 couldn't have evolved on Earth. So he added a step and said it came from space. How did it happen to come together in space? Intelligent Design, says he. And that's why he's lumped together with Creationists. Both groups attack the leading edges of evolution, point out that nobody has all the answers, and then proclaim, "Therefore, it must be magic." That doesn't strike me as a useful tool for understanding more about the world. It's not real science.

"What about Hoyle?" Pournelle keeps asking. And I respond with a dismissive, "What about Hoyle?" His statistics can be dismissed because their context is absurd. Who cares what the odds are of histone-4 building up spontaneously? Nobody is saying that's what happened, except for Hoyle. He backs a "God of the Gaps," even though he doesn't call it that. The steady application of real science is reducing those gaps at a steady rate. And Hoyle and his ilk become even more marginalized.

Yes, science needs to be challenged. The major theories should always be tested. If a new theory does a better job of describing the world and predicting the results of experiments, then it should be adopted. But I'll never agree that "Therefore, it must be magic" should be taught to school children as a reasonable alternative to objective science.

Editing history:

21/AUG/01 - Added observed speciation links

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Last modified: April 03, 2005
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