One of the great frustrations in responding to creationist literature is their penchant for using technical sounding jargon in ways no scientist would recognize. A good example is their use of the word “information.” This word has a variety of meanings within mathematics, but creationists usually do not intend any of them when they say, “Natural selection can not lead to information increase in the genome.” Instead they mean something like, “I find it hard to believe that evolution can lead to organisms becoming more complex over time.” That is why they are generally unmoved when you ask them to clarify what they mean by information, and are uninterested in the distinctions, say, between Shannon and Kolmogorov.
Another example is the term “entropy,” and the closely related term “second law of thermodynamics.” A creationist will say something like, “Evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics,” but that is not really what he means. Instead they mean something like, “I find it hard to believe that evolution can lead to organisms becoming more complex over time.”
A typical example is the following, from this article in the right-wing magazine The American Spectator. It’s author is mathematician Granville Sewell.
The development of life may have only violated one law of science, but that was the one Sir Arthur Eddington called the “supreme” law of Nature, and it has violated that in a most spectacular way. At least that is my opinion, but perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn’t, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we aren’t.
A while back I wrote a detailed reply to Sewell. In reply to the above paragraph I wrote:
Knowledgeable people will not show any respect for Sewell’s argument, because he has produced virtually no argument at all. He describes it as his opinion that evolution violates the second law. This is not the sort of thing about which scientists are supposed to have opinions. We have ample evidence that evolution happened and that natural selection was the driving force of it. Biologists find evolutionary thinking to be very helpful in their research. If Sewell believes that it runs afoul of the second law nevertheless, then he needs to carry out the calculations that show that to be case. Otherwise he has only an opinion based on nothing.
This comes at the end of an essay in which I observed that the second law plays only a rhetorical role in creationist argumentation. They are happy to use the language of thermodynamics, but they never do the calculations that would be necessary to make a proper argument.
Unlike the creationist rhetoricians, real scientists do occasionally carry out calculations. One such example is a just-published essay by Oberlin College physicist Daniel Styer. The essay bears the intriguing title, “Evolution and Entropy,” and appears in the November 2008 issue of The American Journal of Physics.
Styer makes some estimates regarding the change in entropy of the Earth’s biosphere as a result of evolution. P.Z. Myers has already posted this essay describing the very conservative assumptions that formed the basis for Styer’s estimates, so I will proceed directly to his conclusion:
In other words, at a minimum the Earth is bathed in about one trillion times the amount of entropy flux required to support the rate of evolution assumed here.
Presumably the entropy of the Earth’s biosphere is indeed decreasing by a tiny amount due to evolution, and the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increasing by an even greater amount to compensate for that decrease. But the decrease in entropy required for evolution is so small compared to the entropy throughput that would occur even if the Earth were a dead planet, or if life on Earth were not evolving, that no measurement would ever detect it.
Very nice. Turns out the creationist argument from thermodynamics is at the same level as all their other arguments. Which is to say, it is complete and utter nonsense.
Styer even anticipates the standard creationist response to this sort of thing:
A creationist confronted with the estimates in this article might respond by saying, “an open system and an adequate outside source of energy are necessary but not sufficient conditions for the complexity, structure, and organization of a system to increase.
I know from personal experience that this is precisely how creationists respond. And Styer serves up the obvious and correct reply:
This article esyablishes hat evolution is consistent with the second law of thermodynamics. Whether or not biological evolution actually happens is a different question, which has been investigated thoroughly.
In my recent trip to the International Conference on Creationism I had a discussion with an earnest young creationist on precisely this question. Sadly, I had trouble getting him to see the light:
When I pointed out the second law implies that while the entropy of the universe as a whole is increasing, it has no problem allowing for local increases in complexity and order, he came back with the standard creationist retort that the mere fact that energy enters a system is not enough to explain increases in complexity within that system. For the life of me I could not get him to understand that he was no longer talking about thermodynamics. If your claim is that evolution runs afoul of the second law, then show me the entropy calculation that backs that statement up. If the issue is growth in complexity over time, then simply say that and stop talking about the second law
So there we go. That there is no conflict between evolution and thermodynamics is a fact. But don’t expect that to stop the creationists from pretending otherwise.