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FAQ: LIFE: THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS
Although I am a creationist, I do not claim that evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If the Second Law of Thermodynamics could be violated, then it would not be a Law!
Christian philosopher of science Del Ratzsch, under the chapter heading: "Creationist Theory: Popular Evolutionist Misunderstandings," has pointed out that:
"Perhaps the most prevalent of the misconstruals of creationism involves the Second Law of Thermodynamics."1
Ratzsch points out that when creationists say that "evolution violates the
Second Law of Thermodynamics, they are usually referring to evolution in its most overall sense2:
"First, when claiming that the Second Law flatly precludes evolution, major creationists almost invariably have in mind evolution in the overall cosmic, "evolution model" sense. The clues to that meaning are the almost invariable use (especially in Morris's writings) of phrases like philosophy of evolution or cosmic or universal or on a cosmic scale. The universe as a whole system is taken to be a closed system (classically), and according to the creationist definition of evolution model, that model is unavoidably committed to an internally generated overall increase in cosmic order, since on that view reality is supposed to be self-developed and self-governing. What Morris and others mean to be claiming is that any such view according to which the entire cosmos is itself in a process of increasing overall order is in violation of the Second Law."3
By "evolution" I mean here the General Theory of Evolution which includes Prebiotic or Chemical Evolution.4
From personal experience of debating this on the Internet since 1995, the subject quickly becomes mired in a labyrinth of technical terms, and both sides talking past each other. Because of this I will use non-technical terms like `obeys' and `downhill' 5 because they are more easily understood by layman (like me!). When I use the term "Second Law of Thermodynamics" I mean it the sense of the Law of Increasing Disorder6, which is its most general sense.7
Everything in the universe `obeys' the Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLoT), with the sole apparent exception of life. That is, everything in the universe goes inexorably `downhill' in the direction of increasing disorder, except life which appears to `disobey' the SLoT, by going `uphill'.
Of course individual living organisms only temporarily `disobey' the SLoT until they die. And, if the universe as a whole continues to slide `downhill' from order to disorder to heat death8, even life itself will be seen to have only temporarily `disobeyed' the SLoT.
Evolutionists typically point to the fact that the inevitable `downhill' direction of the SLoT only
applies to closed systems (like the universe as a whole) and not to open systems receiving a steady stream
of energy like the Earth is from the Sun. But this, while true, misses the point, which is that energy
is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to be met in order for the SLoT to be temporarily
`disobeyed', as Old-Earth creationist biologist Michael Pitman points out:
"The arrow of time points downwards. Just as water finds its own level, so chemical reactions tend toward the stability of equilibrium and a `heat death' of the universe where everything is at the safe temperature with no energy available for use. Life is different. Death levels individuals but, like a spring, generation after generation, life itself wells up. It keeps juggling; it stays unstable. Its molecules are built up into improbable, unnaturally complex groups. Evolution requires an increase, not just in physical size of molecules but in organization. Organized systems are purposive, assembled element by element according to an external 'wiring diagram', with a high information content. You may throw letters together and, by chance, make words But organization requires that words are assembled more often than chance alone would achieve, and grouped in sentences to make meaning statements. Wherever such high-grade organization appears to counteract, at least temporarily, the general tendency to disorder, dilapidation and `deadly' randomness, inspection reveals a feature behind it - plan. A pile of bricks and planks becomes a house, a seed grows into a tree. In both we see plan one in the builder's mind, the other encoded in DNA. 'Hold on!' cries the evolutionist, 'a plan represents an increase in information. You say the Second Law of Thermodynamics forbids this happening spontaneously. That may apply to closed systems. But the earth is an open system with an external source of energy (the sun). This energy is sufficient to generate local increases in information, such as complex chemical compounds and, eventually, life-forms.' 'Untrue,' says the creationist. 'Raw, uncontrolled energy is destructive. To build the biologically complex from the simple (and a cell is certainly very complex) four, not two, conditions are required: (1) An open system (such as earth) (2) An adequate energy supply (3) Energy-conversion mechanisms (4) A control system directing, maintaining and reproducing the energy-conversion systems. The hypothetical primordial earth would have satisfied only (1) and (2). Yet (3) and (4) are essential criteria for the development and maintenance of biotechnology. For life (3) means photosynthetic, respiratory and other metabolic systems; (4) means reproductive apparatus including DNA (the genetic code). How did the precise, highly informed engineering required for (3) and (4) occur by chance?'" (Pitman M., "Adam and Evolution," Rider & Co: London, 1984, p.232. Emphasis in original).
So how does life temporarily `disobey' the SLoT? It does this by its complex cellular machinery, which under the direction of coded instructions.9, takes in solar energy from the sun and converts it into fuel and building materials enabling living things to fuel, grow, maintain, repair and reproduce themselves. Once those coded instructions are in place, life is able to temporarily `disobey' the Law of Increasing Disorder. In fact life does not so much `disobey' the SLoT but harness it! But without that code-directed machinery totally in place and functioning, the SLoT would disorder the machinery and the code's individual components.10
It is the origin (not the ongoing operation) of life's complex cellular machinery and its coded
instructions, which is the real problem for evolution to explain:
"In existing living systems, the coupling of the energy flow to the organizing "work" occurs through the metabolic motor of DNA, enzymes, etc. This is analogous to an automobile converting the chemical energy in gasoline into mechanical torque on the wheels. We can give a thermodynamic account of how life's metabolic motor works. The origin of the metabolic motor (DNA, enzymes, etc.) itself, however, is more difficult to explain thermodynamically, since a mechanism of coupling the energy flow to the organizing work is unknown for prebiological systems." (Thaxton C.B., Bradley W.L. & Olsen R.L., "The Mystery of Life's Origin: Reassessing Current Theories," , Lewis & Stanley: Dallas TX, 1992, p.127).
So I do not claim that evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I claim that the Second Law of Thermodynamics violates evolution!
1Ratzsch D.L., "The Battle of Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate," InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL., 1996, p.91. [Return to text]
2Examples of evolution in this overall, "evolution model" sense include: "All reality, in fact, is evolution, in the perfectly proper sense that it is a one-way process in time, unitary; continuous; irreversible; self-transforming; and generating variety and novelty during its transformations." (Huxley J.S., "Evolution in Action," , Penguin: Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK, 1963, reprint, p.12); "...all aspects of reality are subject to evolution, from atoms and stars to fish and flowers, from fish and flowers to human societies and values - indeed that all reality is a single process of evolution." (Huxley J., "The Humanist Frame," in "Essays of a Humanist," , Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK, 1969, reprint, p.78); and "Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow." (Teilhard de Chardin P., "The Phenomenon of Man," , Fontana: London, 1967, Fifth Impression, p.241). [Return to text]
3Ratzsch, 1996, pp.91-92. [Return to text]
4"There is a theory which states that many living animals can be observed over the course of time to undergo changes so that new species are formed. This can be called the "Special Theory of Evolution" and can be demonstrated in certain cases by experiments. On the other hand there is the theory that all the living forms in the world have arisen from a single source which itself came from an inorganic form. This theory can be called the "General Theory of Evolution" and the evidence that supports it is not sufficiently strong to allow us to consider it as anything more than a working hypothesis." (Kerkut, G.A., "Implications of Evolution," in Kerkut G.A., ed. "International Series of Monographs on Pure and Applied Biology, Division: Zoology," Volume 4, Pergamon Press: New York NY, 1960, p.157. My emphasis) [Return to text]
5"This is the absolutely fundamental way of nature, expressed by what scientists call the second law of thermodynamics, often shortened simply to the Second Law: If you have to work for it, you are going in the forbidden direction. In the allowed direction, on the other hand, the phenomenon, properly harnessed, may work for you, though it will never give you as much work as you would have to carry out yourself to reverse it. With a rope and pulley, you can use a falling apple to lift another apple, but only if the other apple is lighter. A convenient image to describe the two directions is downhill for what is allowed and uphill for what is forbidden. Perfectly horizontal means no work in either direction. It is the state of equilibrium, or perfect balance.." (de Duve C.R., "Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative," , Basic Books: New York NY, 1998, reprint, p..402). [Return to text]
6"To get a feel for the concept of entropy, we can relate it to the concepts of order and disorder. In fact, the entropy of a system can be considered a measure of the disorder of the system. Then the second law of thermodynamics can be stated simply as: Natural processes tend to move toward a state of greater disorder." (Giancoli D.C., "Physics: Principles with Applications," , Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs NJ., Third Edition, 1991, p.402). [Return to text]
7"Thus the famous law of entropy simply amounts to this-that every ordered arrangement tends to become disordered ... Strictly speaking the law of entropy is a particular example of the more general law (the law of morpholysis) that disorder increases." (Clark R.E.D., "The Universe: Plan or Accident?: The Religious Implications of Modern Science," , Paternoster: London, Third Edition, 1961, p.23). [Return to text]
8"The universe is a closed system-that is, neither matter nor energy enters or leaves the system. The matter and energy present in the universe at the time of the "big bang" are all the matter and energy it will ever have. Moreover, after each and every energy exchange and transformation, the universe as a whole has less potential energy and more entropy than it did before. In this view, the universe is running down. The stars will flicker out, one by one. Life-any form of life on any planet-will come to an end. Finally, even the motion of individual molecules will cease. Take heart though. Even the most pessimistic among us do not believe this will occur for another 20 billion years or so." (Raven P.H., Evert R.F. & Eichhorn S.E., "Biology of Plants," , W.H. Freeman & Co./Worth: New York NY, Sixth Edition, 1999, p.97). [Return to text]
9"We have repeatedly emphasized the fundamental problems posed for the biologist by the fact of life's complex organization. We have seen that organization requires work for its maintenance and that the universal quest for food is in part to provide the energy needed for this work. But the simple expenditure of energy is not sufficient to develop and maintain order. A bull in a china shop performs work, but he neither creates nor maintains organization. The work needed is particular work; it must follow specifications; it requires information on how to proceed. ... In showing that the organization of living matter is controlled by information in the chromosomes, genetics provides only the beginnings of a full explanation. We need to know not only where the information is and how it is decoded by the organism, but how it got there." (Simpson, G.G. & Beck, William S., "Life: An Introduction To Biology," , Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, Second Edition, 1965, p.466. Emphasis in original). [Return to text]
10"The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that all energy systems run down like a clock and never rewind themselves. But life not only 'runs up,' converting low energy sea-water, sunlight and air into high-energy chemicals, it keeps multiplying itself into more and better clocks that keep 'running up' faster and faster. Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? What's the motive? If we leave a chemistry professor out on a rock in the sun long enough the forces of nature will convert him into simple compounds of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and small amounts of other minerals. It's a one-way reaction. No matter what kind of chemistry professor we use and no matter what process we use we can't turn these compounds back into a chemistry professor. Chemistry professors are unstable mixtures of predominantly unstable compounds which, in the exclusive presence of the sun's heat, decay irreversibly into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. That's a scientific fact. The question is: Then why does nature reverse this process? What on earth causes the inorganic compounds to go the other way? It isn't the sun's energy. We just saw what the sun's energy did. It has to be something else. What is it?" (Pirsig R.M., "Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals," Bantam: London, 1991, pp.144-145). [Return to text]Stephen E. (Steve) Jones
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Copyright © 2000-2001, by Stephen E. Jones. All rights reserved. This page and its contents may be used for non-commercial purposes only. If used on the Internet, a link back to my home page at http://members.iinet.net.au/~sejones would be appreciated. Created: 30 October, 2000. Updated: 31 December, 2001.