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"A memorable misunderstanding"

Fred Hoyle's Boeing-story in the Evolution/Creation literature

by Gert Korthof
updated 26 Aug 2014 (first published 10 Oct 1999)

    Hoyle is definitely not ignored in the evolution literature. The following stories circulate in the literature: Panspermia, Hoyle's famous Boeing-747 story, his cosmological design argument and the Archaeopteryx forgery (1). In this overview I will focus on the Boeing-story:
A junkyard contains all the bits and pieces of a Boeing-747, dismembered and in disarray. A whirlwind happens to blow through the yard. What is the chance that after its passage a fully assembled 747, ready to fly, will be found standing there? (2).
The actual statement was originally in a radio lecture in 1982. It may have been a wild guess, but "A colleague of mine worked out that a yeast cell and a 777 airplane have the same number of parts, the same level of complexity" (3). (The Boeing 747-400 has 6 million parts). Hoyle uses the Boeing-747 argument to prove the impossibility of the natural origin of life. I present the books in chronological order and for convenience subdivided in two categories: pro- and anti-evolution.

Anti evolution

Evolutionist Niles Eldredge (2000) states that creationist Parker (1980) in his Creation: The Facts of Life uses the Boeing-747 example. Eldredge must have confused the 1994 edition with the 1980 edition of that work, or Parker must have independently invented the Boeing-747 example in 1980. Nobody else attributes the Boeing story to Parker.
Shapiro (1986) accepts Hoyle's calculation of the probability of the spontaneous origin of 2000 proteins of 200 amino acids each (10-40000). It is this probability that Hoyle compared with the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junk-yard assembles a Boeing-747. However it is clear from Shapiro's book that the origin of life is not the same as the spontaneous origin of a bacterium, because Pasteur refuted the spontaneous origin of a bacterium in 1864. And origin-of-life-researchers are not denying Pasteurs' results. Shapiro is not pro-Hoyle in the sense that the Boeing example proves that there is no natural explanation for the origin of life on earth. Hoyle's calculation could be viewed as a theoretical underpinning of Pasteur's experimental results.
Denton (1986) quotes the 2000-enzymes-argument from Evolution from space and agrees with the impossibility of random generation of enzymes. Yockey (1992) has 13(!) titles of Hoyle in his references and has the most extensive treatment of the probability of generating protein sequences by chance. Yockey believes that Hoyle's probability of 10-40000 "was wildly optimistic"(!) and was in fact wrong. Yockey gives the correct calculation. Davies (1992) reports that "Hoyle believes that the organization of the cosmos is controlled by a "superintelligence" who guides its evolution through quantum processes." [found in Hoyle(1981) The Universe: Past and Present Reflections]. Foster (1993) mentions the statistical impossibility of Darwinism and the panspermia theory. He made his own calculations which do agree with Hoyle's, but rejects panspermia. Johnson (1993) quotes the Boeing-747 case from Richard Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker, but has no reference of the source. Remine (1993) lists Evolution from space in his references, but has no authors in his index, so I don't know what he said about Hoyle (probably he approved the argument). Barrow & Tipler(1994), contains Hoyle's 'design conclusion' (laws of physics have been designed) from Hoyle(1959): Religion and the scientists. Dembski (1994) quotes approvingly the probability that a single cell arises by chance: 1040000 from Evolution from space. Overman (1997) quotes from Evolution from space and found the following quote, ascribed to Chandra Wickramasinghe, in the New Scientist, Jan 21, 1982:
"The chances that life just occurred are about as unlikely as a typhoon blowing through a junkyard and constructing a Boeing-747."
Denton (1998) has the same quote as Behe(1999) which Denton found quoted in Paul Davies (1982). Spetner (1998) mentions that he arrived at the same results as Hoyle and Wickramasinghe(1982) Why Neo-Darwinism Does Not Work, "a small book of only 34 pages". Behe (1999) quotes Hoyle in a review of Pennock's book:
"A common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect 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."
Behe adds: "And that, in a nutshell, is what philosophers call "the argument for design." Behe did not give the source of his quote. Dembski (1999) included exactly the same quote which he found quoted in Paul Davies (1982) The Accidental Universe. Shapiro (1999) also mentions the Boeing-747 analogy in his latest book.

Pro evolution

Cairns-Smith (1985) mentions in the beginning of his book Hoyle's and Wickramasinghe's idea that life originated in space (no reference), but ignores it for the rest for pragmatic reasons. John Maynard Smith (1986) discusses Hoyle's Boeing-707(!) example (without reference to a publication) and asks: "What is wrong with it? Essentially, it is that no biologist imagines that complex structures arise in a single step." Strahler (1987) tells the Archaeopteryx story and the (directed) panspermia theory. He rejects both. He doesn't mention the Boeing-747 story. Bowler (1989) shortly discusses Panspermia and Archaeopteryx and concludes:
"These ideas have not been taken seriously by biologists".
Richard Dawkins (1991) calls the Boeing-747 story a "memorable misunderstanding" (p.234) about how evolution and natural selection works. Evolution does not create new proteins randomly from free floating amino acids, but modifies existing ones. Dawkins used his famous but universally misunderstood 'methinks it is like a weasel' example to refute the Boeing-747 analogy. Dawkins doesn't mention any source. Probably many creationists know Hoyle's Boeing-747 story from Dawkins, but despite Dawkins' rejection, they continue to be attracted to the story. From then on it keeps reappearing in the evolution/creation-controversy literature.
McIver (1992) has 4 entries about Hoyle: The Intelligent Universe, Lifecloud, Diseases from space, Evolution from space and mentions further Why Neo-Darwinism Does Not Work and Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird: A Case of Fossil Forgery. According to McIver in Diseases from Space Hoyle claims multiple injections of complete organisms. Kauffman (1995) gives a summary of Hoyle's and Wickramasinghe's calculation of the probability of the by chance origin of a protein of 200 amino acids long and the by change origin of 2000 enzymes necessary for the simplest organism, followed by the famous Boeing-747 example. He doesn't mention the publication, and got it apparently from Robert Shapiro (1986). Dennett (1995) calls Hoyle "the maverick astronomer" and quotes
"I do not believe that any scientist who examined the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed ..."
which is quoted by Barrow and Tipler from Hoyle (1959) Religion and the scientists. de Duve (1995) reports that biological materials in meteorites are not produced by living organisms, but by chemical reactions.
"Fairness demands that the matter be left open until the controversy is settled".
Peter Skelton (1996) (an evolution textbook):
"In a memorable misunderstanding of natural selection, an astronomer likened the chances of a single cell being evolved to the probability of a tornado blowing through a junkyard and chancing to assemble a Boeing-747."
He omitted the name of that astronomer and clearly copied it without reference from Dawkins. It is tragical that all he knows about Hoyle's criticism is an isolated second-hand remark. Hoyle's Boeing analogy in the literature is an example of common descent with modification. In Rudolf Raff (1996) it evolved into:
"At least one creationist tract, in extolling the second law of thermodynamics as proof of the impossibility of evolution, has noted that no matter how long the sun shines on a pile of scrap metal, a jet airliner will never assemble itself. (...) No one seriously entertains the possibility of complex objects arising spontaneously"
It did not occur to him that the analogy is about the origin of life. He talks about the evolution of bacteria. As if bacteria are not 'complex objects' themselves. Rose (1997), a critic of ultra-Darwinism, reports a variant of the Boeing-argument:
"a hurricane assembling a jumbo jet from its components laid out in an aircraft hangar"
from Lifecloud: The Origin of Life in the Universe and always found the Panspermia proposal silly because it doesn't solve anything. Hayward (1998) summarises 3 books of Hoyle. He calls Hoyle "a confirmed non-theist" and mentions "his penchant for defending unpopular and sometimes off-beat ideas". He also mentions the Archaeopteryx forgery. Pennock (1999) tells the Boeing-747 story (without references) and tries to refute it. Davies (1999) discusses all possible Panspermia scenario's, but concludes that shunting the problem off into outer space does nothing to address the central problem of biogenesis. Eldredge (2000) is the only author who found the Boeing example in Parker (1980) and does not mention Hoyle. Eldredge observes that we know that natural processes cannot produce a Boeing-747 because extracting aluminium from ore is a nonnatural process only humans can do. The Boeing-747 analogy simply assumes in stead of proves that natural processes cannot produce the complexity of the living cell. Gabriel Dover (2000) found the Boeing-747 analogy in Dawkins, but says that both Dawkins and Hoyle have the same misunderstanding about the process of evolution. Dover doesn't distinguish between evolution and the origin of life. Hoyle's Boeing-747 analogy was about the origin of life. Matt Young (2001) also failed to note that the analogy was about the origin of life and not about the evolution of the eye from a previous existing structure. He writes:
"Thus, creationists often note that, if they wanted to build a Boeing 747, they would not throw all the parts into the air and hope that they came down as a fully assembled airplane [Keleman, 1990]."
The origin of life is precisely 'to develop from scratch'. Additionally he was unaware that the analogy was from Fred Hoyle (Hoyle is absent from his book altogether). The same ignorance about the whole argument holds for Brain Charlesworth reviewing Dembski's No Free Lunch. He defines "specified complexity" as
"the improbability of assembling a functioning complex system by randomly combining numerous individual components. This is a variant of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe's old claim that the probability of assembling a functioning protein out of a random set of amino acids is similar to that of Concorde being constructed by a tornado hitting a junkyard."
Hoyle's argument is subject to descent with modification (Boeing becomes Concorde). But again the origin of the first proteins, the first DNA's, and the first cells is quite a different matter than Darwinian accumulative selection of single point mutations in living organisms. Finally Richard Dawkins (2003) uses the argument again:
"Creationists love sir Fred Hoyle's vivid metaphor for his own misunderstanding of natural selection. It is as if a hurricane, blowing through a junkyard, had the good fortune to assemble a Boeing 747. Hoyle's point is about statistical improbability. () My answer is that natural selection is cumulative. () Small improvements are added bit by bit."
Indeed, once you have life, it can be improved in a Darwinian fashion. But can Darwinian processes create the first living cell? That's another question. Philosopher Philip Kitcher (2007) in his Living with Darwin writes:
"To use an argument much beloved by ealier creationists, Darwinian claims about selection and the organization of life are equivalent to the idea that a hurricane in a junkyard could assemble a functioning airplane."
Two deletion mutations occurred in the argument: 'Hoyle' and 'Boeing-747'. Boyd and Silk (2009) (borrowing from The Blind Watchmaker) compare the chance that a fully formed human eye would arise by chance in a single trial with the statement of astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle
like a hurricane blowing through a junk yard and chancing to assemble a Boeing 747."
Ecologist John Kricher (2009) deletes 'Boeing':
"Fred Hoyle was fond of saying that the evolution of complex life forms by natural selection was as probable as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a 747 jet aricraft".
Chemist Addy Pross (2012) wrote:
"To draw on an analogy popularized by Fred Hoyle, the well-known astronomer (though famously misapplied), the likelihood of such an event would be similar to that of a whirlwind blowing through a junkyard and assembling a Boeing 747." (no source given).

Few writers about the origin of life fail to mention Hoyle's Boeing-747 analogy. However, Hoyle is absent from university textbooks on evolution. All creationists accept the Boeing-747 argument as a disproof of the natural origin of life, and evolutionists reject it as such. Yockey is the only writer who improves the argument. A definitive answer to the Boeing-747 argument is not yet possible. Just as Maxwell's demon has set a puzzle that is still not fully resolved. A convincing rebut is nothing less than the solution of the problem of the origin of life. As long as science doesn't have a satisfactory and complete theory of the origin of life, science cannot answer Hoyle's Boeing-argument.

Bad science

Hoyle's Boeing-747 is an anti-spontaneous-origin-of-life-argument. The argument uses logic and probability. Hoyle did not publish the argument in scientific journals. However Hoyle and Wickramasinghe published in scientific journals between 1977 and 1981 about interplanetary dust particles. I was shocked by what Brian Silver (1998) wrote about those publications. What H&W did was to examine the infrared (IR) light coming from interstellar dust clouds and "identify" materials present in these clouds.

"However convincing identification depends absolutely on the presence of well-defined frequencies in the IR spectrum. This was far from the case in the IR spectra of dust clouds. The gross uncertainty of the authors' methods is tellingly illustrated by the history of their publications."
H & W changed their interpretations: graphite, silicates; an organic polymer; many more organic polymers; cellulose; dried bacteria. A change of opinion can be a good thing. Changing it many times demands an explanation. But when the changes are caused by bad methods and low-quality data then this is bad science. Revolutionary ideas and bold hypotheses are a good thing too. Bad methods, bad data are inexcusable for a scientist.
Remarkably, the delivery of cosmic 'organic' material to the Earth is in no way an explanation for the origin of life on Earth. Because those materials can only constitute building blocks! And according to Hoyle's own Boeing-747 argument, building blocks are not sufficient for the spontaneous origin of life! Even when dried bacteria delivered to the earth constituted a full explanation for the origin of all life on earth, the origin of those bacteria is still not solved! end


Fred Hoyle died on 20 August 2001 at the age of 86.
  1. F. Hoyle and C. Wickramasinghe(1986) Archaeopteryx, the Primordial Bird - a Case of Fossil Forgery, Christopher Davis. A detailed account can be found in: Paul Chambers (2002) Bones of contention. The Archaeopteryx Scandals, chapter 13.
  2. Fred Hoyle(1983): "The Intelligent Universe", page 19. The Boeing 747 metaphore is reported in Nature, 294 (1981), p.10. I need to check this reference (quoted in S.J. Freeland (2008) 'Could an intelligent alien predict earth's biocehmistry?' in: J.D. Barrow et al (2008) Fitness of the Cosomos for Life, note 11.
    According to Greg Reinking, Zuckerman's article ("Extraterrestrials - Where Are They?" Nature, Vol. 294, Nov. 5, 1981, pp. 10-11) does not mention the Boeing 747 analogy. [8 Jun 2009]
  3. Elliot Meyerowitz of Caltech quoted by Gail Vines, New Scientist 2 Dec 2000 p36-39.


  • Barrow & Tipler (1994): The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, page 22.
  • Peter Bowler (1989): Evolution: The History of an Idea, page 352.
  • Robert Boyd, Joan Silk (2009) How humans evolved, page 13.
  • A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985): Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, p.7.
  • Brian Charlesworth (2002): Evolution by design?, Nature, 418, 129, 11 July 2002.
  • Paul Davies (1992): The Mind of God, page 229.
  • Paul Davies (1999): The Fifth Miracle, chapter 9, page 243.
  • Paul Davies (2006): The Goldilocks Enigma, page 219
  • Richard Dawkins (1991): The Blind Watchmaker, page 234.
  • Richard Dawkins (2003): A devil's chaplain, page 211.
  • William Dembski (1994): The Incompleteness of Scientific Naturalism in: "Darwinism: Science or Philosophy?", page 91.
  • William Dembski (1999): Intelligent Design, page 267.
  • Daniel Dennett (1995): Darwin's Dangerous Idea, page 314,164.
  • Michael Denton (1986): Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, page 323.
  • Michael Denton (1998): Nature's Destiny, page 12.
  • Gabriel Dover (2000): Dear Mr. Darwin. Letters on the Evolution of Life and Human Nature, p.61.
  • Christian de Duve (1995): Vital Dust. The Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth, page 6,7.
  • Niles Eldredge (2000): The triumph of evolution, p.141.
  • David Foster (1993): The Philosophical Scientists, p.170.
  • James Hayward (1998): The Creation/Evolution Controversy.
  • Phillip Johnson (1993): Darwin on Trial, p.106.
  • Stuart Kauffman (1995): At Home in the Universe, p.44.
  • Philip Kitcher (2007): Living with Darwin. Evolution, Design and the Future of Faith, p.91.
  • John Kricher (2009) The Balance of Nature, p. 126.
  • John Maynard Smith (1986): The Problems of Biology, p.49.
  • Tom McIver (1992): Anti-Evolution. A Reader's Guide to Writings before and after Darwin.
  • Dean Overman (1997): A Case Against Accident and Self-Organization, page 58-60.
  • Gary Parker (1980,1994): Creation: The Facts of Life. page?
  • Robert Pennock (1999): Tower of Babel, p.91.
  • Addy Pross (2012) What is Life? How chemistry becomes biology (Chapter 1).
  • Rudolf Raff (1996): The Shape of Life, p.315.
  • Walter Remine (1993): The Biotic Message.
  • Peter Skelton (1996): Evolution. A Biological and Palaeonotlogical approach., p.682.
  • Steven Rose (1997): Lifelines. Biology, Freedom, Determinism, p.256.
  • Robert Shapiro (1986) Origins. A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth, p.127.
  • Robert Shapiro (1999): Planetary Dreams, p.88.
  • Brian Silver (1998): The Ascent of Science, page 341-342.
  • Lee Spetner (1998): Not By Chance!, p.119.
  • Arthur Strahler (1987): Science and Earth History. The Evolution/Creation Controversy, p.426; 512.
  • Hubert Yockey (1992): Information theory and molecular biology, p.247,248.
  • Matt Young (2001): No Sense of Obligation, p.62,63.

Further Reading

  • Review of Mathematics of Evolution by Fred Hoyle (on this site)
  • Review of The Intelligent Universe by Fred Hoyle (on this site)
  • In an interview astronomer Martin Rees says: "Astronomer Hugh Ross has compared the state of affairs to "the possibility of a Boeing-747 aircraft being completely assembled as a result of a tornado striking a junkyard." (A saying usually attributed to Fred Hoyle!).
  • Dutch: Arme Gert... is about Richard Dawkins statement in The God Delusion:
    "An exhaustive review of the provenance, usages, and quotations of this analogy is given, from a creationist point of view, by Gert Korthof, at http://wasdarwinwrong.com/kortho46a.htm."
    This is wrong. I am not a creationist.
  • The junkyard appears in the title of a creationist book: Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism by James Perloff (1999).
  • Hoyle's fallacy (a wikipedia article)

Design Flaws in the Boeing 737

On Sunday 8 January 1989 a brand-new Boeing 737-400 crashed, killing 47 of the 126 people on board. The ultimate cause was a design flaw in the CFM56 engine. It was an upgraded version of a previous model but was only tested on the ground, not in flight. That flaw caused damage of the left motor at high altitude. Subsequent fatal decisions were caused by the design of the human-machine interface and the unfamiliarity of the pilots with the improved display of instruments. The captain shutdown the right-hand motor while the left motor was on fire. They completely depended on the display of their instruments and simply could not see from the cockpit which motor was on fire. Some passengers could see fire in the engine with their own eyes, but trusted that the pilots knew what they were doing. Tragically, despite the state of the art technology in the cockpit, some passengers in the plane knew more than the captain. Knowledge on which their lives depended. So, the direct cause of the crash was shutting down a well-functioning motor and later, after a second explosion, the malfunctioning motor, which left the plane with no upward power. Although there was apparently still some power on board to power the instruments, the machine was going down before they could reach a save place for an emergency landing and the pilots thought they could not do anything about it. They tried but failed to restart the intact motor (why?). For a detailed description see: Kegworth air disaster in wiki.

Comparing airplanes and birds

Peregrine falcon Airplanes are definitely more vulnerable for crash than any bird. Air Crash Investigation reveals causes such as: pilots are not aware that if an engine fails which one fails; sometimes they do not know that their engine is on fire; sometimes they do not know their fuel is zero; sometimes their landing gear is not in proper position for landing and they don't know or cannot do anything about it; they don't know they carry too much cargo; often the instruments in the cockpit give wrong information (height, speed, fuel consumption, autopilot on/off); they don't know how to glide efficiently without power; ice on the wings reduces lift; objects (birds!) fatally damage engines; mid-air collision of two planes; fuel tank explosion; uncontrolled decompression; controlled flight into terrain; flying and especially landing is very vulnerable for conditions such as thunderstorms, snow, ice, hail, wind, shear, turbulence, headwinds and tailwinds; take-off with under-inflated tyres (tires) can cause a fire.
Allmost all these causes are absent in bird flight except possibly exhaustion above sea during migration (but no data are known), in flight predation by a bird of prey (Peregrine falcon) or shot by human gun fire. Never is a structural or mechanical failure the cause, nor knowledge about height or speed.

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Copyright © 1999 G.Korthof . First published: Oct 10 1999 Updated: 26 Aug 2014 Notes/FR: 5 Mar 2013