Summary and Info
Sir Fred Hoyle was a master of the bold hypothesis. His record of success, although of course not perfect, ...and indeed mostly wrong, was actually quite extraordinary, both in terms of it's occasional successes and in it's scientifically grounded imagination. In truth very few hypotheses ever yield bullseyes and the bolder they are the worse they score. Yet nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Carl Sagan once said "Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere." Hoyle's hypotheses may often be wrong but they play a role in moving science forward.
This book is one of Hoyle's most controversial as in it he cheekily aimed to tweak the nose of biology. Within Hoyle made various rhetorical stabs at evolutionary darwinism. And, coming as they did during the hurdy gurdy years of the 'culture wars' over neo-creationism, before it mutated into 'intelligent design', Hoyle's bad (or was it deliberate?) timing earned him some ire from fellow scientists.
Hoyle's critique of Darwinism, sometimes quoted in nieve ignorance by creationists as a supporting witness, was however more bluster than buckshot. Despite some harsh words for mainstream neo-Darwinism, he never endorsed Creationism and his alternate theories were indeed very much based on mainstream Darwinian mechanisms. Admittedly with a large dose of extra-terrestial retrovirus invasion thrown in to shake up the mix. Retrovirus infection and it's proposed extra-terrestial origins are the two planks of his hypothesis.
Indeed in his emphasis on the role of retrovirus and other micro-organism infection of the genome, in short postulating a major loophole to "the central dogma of micro-biology" (central dogma was a term coined by the DNA pioneers themselves) Hoyle may indeed have been (again) ahead of his time. When he wrote little empirical work on the extent of this kind of microscopic hitch hiking had actually been done. Things are different today. Here is a quote from a recent issue of 'The New Yorker'.
"When the sequence of the human genome was fully mapped, in 2003, researchers also discovered something they had not anticipated: our bodies are littered with the shards of such retroviruses, fragments of the chemical code from which all genetic material is made. It takes less than two per cent of our genome to create all the proteins necessary for us to live. Eight per cent, however, is composed of broken and disabled retroviruses, which, millions of years ago, managed to embed themselves in the DNA of our ancestors. They are called endogenous retroviruses, because once they infect the DNA of a species they become part of that species."
I doubt whether even Hoyle imagined the figure to have been as high as 8%. So 'plank number two' has survived the years perhaps better than Hoyle's contemporaneous critics may have ever imagined.
What about 'plank number one'? Well this is still unproven. But in November, 1969, terrestial microorganisms that accidentally infected the Surveyor 3 spacecraft before launch were recovered from inside the probe's camera and returned alive and well to their home planet, after three years on the moon, by Apollo 12. We have still to discover indigenous micro-organisms on Mars, but the Mars meteorites found in Antarctica, indicate that the search for extra-terrestial life has taken a distinctly Hoylean turn, even if the search still remains unfulfilled. So Hoyle's plank number two is still unproven but it definitely ain't dead yet.
Hoyle probably won't have the last laugh, but the odds seem to have turned somewhat in his favour.
More About the Author
Sir Fred Hoyle FRS (24 June 1915 – 20 August 2001) was an English astronomer noted primarily for the theory of stellar nucleosynthesis, but also for his often controversial stances on other scientific matters—in particular his rejection of the "Big Bang" theory, a term coined by him on BBC radio, and his promotion of panspermia as the origin of life on Earth.
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