Evolution and the Second Law

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the creationist chestnut that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics. For people with a basic science education it is something of a litmus test. As soon as you hear someone make this argument you can be certain that you are dealing with a crank. You see, if someone says that he has considered the evidence for evolution and finds it unconvincing, we might shake our heads in disbelief or wonder how seriously he has studied the matter, but in the end it is a matter of opinion whether the evidence is compelling. But if someone says that evolution contradicts the second law then that person is simply wrong about a question of fact.

Most people know that the second law has something to do with entropy and that entropy has something to do with randomness and disorder. Creationist uses of the second law seldom go beyond this rudimentary understanding. Usually there is little more to the argument than the claim that the second law says natural forces always lead to increases in entropy, while evolution implies that the entropy of the Earth has decreased.

It s important to realize, however that the second law is ultimately a mathematical statement. In its classical form it says this:

\Delta S \geq \int \frac{dQ}{T}.

Giving precise definitions for all these variables, and understanding exactly what they represent in concrete cases, is a daunting task, which is why thermodynamics textbooks do not make for light reading.

But a quick overview will be sufficient for the point I want to make. The basic scenario is that we are imagining some well-defined physical system that has gone from an initial state to a final state via some transfer of heat.

The term on the left is the change in entropy of the system that resulted from the change in state. The T represents something called the “equilibrium temperature” of the system. The term dQ represents (very roughly) the quantity of heat that has been transferred during the process.

The inequality above applies to any sort of thermodynamical system, regardless of whether or not it is open to its surroundings. But if we imagine that our system is completely isolated, so that neither matter nor energy is crossing the boundary, then dQ will be 0. In this case, elementary calculus tells us that he integral will be 0 as well. We then have the statement that the change in entropy for an isolated system must be positive or zero, which is equivalent to saying that it cannot decrease. Moreover, it will only be zero in the special case of a “reversible” process, which no actual physical process is. This is where we get the notion that the second law says that a spontaneous natural process in an isolated system always causes entropy to increase.

Don’t sweat it if you have long forgotten your freshman calculus class. The point is simply that the second law is ultimately a mathematical statement. That means that if someone claims that evolution, or anything else, violates the second law, they must back up the claim with an actual calculation. If they don’t, if they’re arguing solely at the level of generalities about order and disorder, then the second law is not really playing any role in their argument at all. One hardly needs fancy principles of physics to understand that things tend to break down unless energy is expended to prevent them from doing so, but creationist presentations of the second law are rarely any more sophisticated than that.

Now, anti-creationist literature tends to argue at a popular, qualitative level. In responding to the creationists the point is usually made that the Earth is not isolated, since it receives energy from the Sun. The decrease in entropy on the Earth is more than compensated for by the increase in entropy of the universe generally as a result of the heat radiated by the Sun and Earth into space. These are cogent points, and are sufficient for seeing the flaws in most creationist versions of the argument. (Sometimes creationists will retort that entropy can only decrease if some sort of “energy conversion mechanism” works to overcome the second law, but this is just a lot of made-up gibberish. You will not find such language in any serious textbook on thermodynamics.)

Entropy calculations tend to be very difficult in practice, and no one knows how to calculate the change in entropy of the Earth in the course of evolution. However, certain crude estimates can be made, with the intent of determining whether evolution needs to be nervous about a possible thermodynamics problem. One such calculation was carried out by physicist Daniel Styer in a paper published in The American Journal of Physics (“Entropy and Evolution,” Vol. 76, No. 11, Nov. 2008, pp. 1031-1033.) His conclusion was that, “the Earth is bathed in about one trillion times the amount of entropy flux required to support the rate of evolution” assumed in the paper.

In a subsequent paper for the same journal, physicist Emory Bunn argued that Styer’s calculation contained an unrealistic assumption. (“Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics,” Vol. 77, No. 10, Oct. 2009, pp. 922-925.) He redid the calculation, bending over backwards to make assumptions that would overestimate the entropy reduction on the Earth in the course of evolution. His conclusion was that “we find that he second law … is satisfied as long as the time required for life to evolve on Earth is at least 107 seconds, or less than a year. Life on Earth took 4 billion years to evolve, so the second law of thermodynamics is safe.”

As it happens, I discussed these points in more detail in this essay. I was specifically responding to an attempt by mathematician Granville Sewell to revive the second law argument against evolution. Sewell has now popped up again, in this blog post.

Sewell has been peddling this argument for quite some time, having first presented it in two opinion pieces for The Mathematical Intelligencer in 2000 and 2001 (the second being a reply to critics of the first). Recently he presented the same argument
in a paper which somehow made it through peer review at the journal Applied Mathematics Letters. As I shall make clear, this represents an astonishing breakdown in the peer review process.

As the article was in press, the editor had it called to his attention that it wasn’t very good. The editor then suddenly refused to publish the paper. This led to a kerfuffle culminating with the journal paying Sewell ten thousand dollars, nuisance money to avoid a lawsuit one suspects.

It is close to incomprehensible that a competent reviewer could have signed off on Sewell’s paper. For one thing, it contains very little that was not in his Mathematical Intelligencer pieces, meaning this new paper consists mostly of previously published material. Even worse, here’s the first sentence of the abstract:

It is commonly argued that the spectacular increase in order which has occurred on Earth does not violate the second law of thermodynamics because the Earth is an open system, and anything can happen in an open system as long as the entropy increases outside the system compensate the entropy decrease inside the system.

The reviewer could have stopped right there, since that is not at all what’s commonly argued. I would be interested to see a quotation from a reputable person who has claimed that anything can happen in an open system. The actual argument is much simpler. It is that the second law only precludes processes that violate the inequality presented earlier, and it is perfectly clear that evolution does not violate it.

Later in the paper Sewell writes:

Of course the whole idea of compensation, whether by distant or nearby events, makes no sense logically: an extremely improbable event is not rendered less improbable simply by the occurrence of “compensating” events elsewhere.

But this is just bizarre. That local decreases in entropy are possible so long as they are offset by global increases is not some excrescence tacked on to the second law by people desperate to protect evolution. It’s just an immediate consequence of what the second law says. Moreover, the assertion that evolution does not contradict the second law has nothing to do with whether evolution is a credible or reasonable theory. There might, in principle, be a hundred good reasons for rejecting evolution. It’s just that “It contradicts the second law” is not among them.

(As an aside, the reference to probability here involves the interpretation of the second law the derives from statistical mechanics. The details of this interpretation is not so important for my present purposes, but I explain the basics in my essay, linked to earlier.)

We move now to Sewell’s current blog post. With standard creationist arrogance, it opens as follows:

The American Journal of Physics article by Daniel Styer which was offered as a “concise refutation” to my Applied Mathematics Letters article by the blogger whose letter apparently triggered the withdrawal of my AML article is possibly the dumbest work ever published by a major physics journal. To demonstrate how absurd the logic in this article is, I wrote a little satire ( here ) which extends Styer’s attempts to quantitatively demonstrate that the decrease in entropy of the universe due to biological evolution is easily “compensated” by the increase in the “cosmic microwave background&rdquo, to the game of poker.

Go to the original for links.

Harsh words, but whenever I read such things I recall the remark made by Richard Dawkins when responding to an especially vicious, and badly misinformed, criticism of his book The Selfish Gene. We are in danger of thinking that no one would dare to be so rude without first taking the elementary precaution of being right. Alas, Sewell’s little satire bears the uninspiring title, “Poker Entropy and the Theory of Compensation.” But, as we have noted, there is no “theory of compensation.” There’s just what the second law says, what evolution says, and the self-evident fact that these statements are not contradictory.

In discussing certain probabilities derived by Styer and Bunn, Sewell writes:

Since about five million centuries have passed since the beginning of the Cambrian era, if organisms are, on average, 1000 times more improbable every century, that would mean that today’s organisms are, on average, about 1015000000 times more improbable than those at the beginning of the Cambrian … And since nothing can have probability more than 1, this would mean today’s organisms have a probability of less than 10-15000000 … of having arisen.

The details of where those numbers came from is not important. It’s that final statement, about the probability of today’s organisms “having arisen” that I find remarkable. You see, neither Styer nor Bunn made any pretense whatsoever of calculating the probability of modern organisms having arisen.

Styer and Bunn were treating organisms as ensembles of atoms and molecules. In keeping with the statistical mechanical interpretation of the second law, they were asking about the number of microstates (roughly, arrangements of atoms) that correspond to the organism’s macrostate (roughly, the gross physical properties of the organism). Styer’s estimate that organisms are, on average 1000 times more improbable every 100 years means essentially that for a given organism, the number of microstates describing the modern organism is smaller, by a factor of 1000, then the number of microstates describing the corresponding organism a century earlier. (It was precisely this assumption that Bunn challenged, replacing it with a much smaller, and better justified, factor.)

My apologies for the jargon. The point is simply that these numbers have nothing to do with the probability of modern organisms “having arisen,” unless you think evolution assembles organisms by trying out random configurations of atoms. I suspect, though, that Styer and Bunn would be among the first to point out that natural selection is a great probability shifter. Indeed, the whole point of evolutionary theory is that structures that almost certainly would never evolve by chance become vastly more probable when the role of selection is considered.

In the end this whole issue is really very simple. Things that are thermodynamically impossible do not occur. But evolution by natural selection plainly does occur, and there is no reason in principle why it cannot account for the growth in complexity in organisms. Scientists routinely apply evolutionary thinking to their work and are rewarded with tangible progress in their research. Rough order of magnitude calculations regarding the decrease in entropy of the Earth show that evolution is not even close to violating the lower bound given by the second law.

Against this Sewell offers nothing but the usual hand waving.

I’d say the presumption should be that evolution does not violate the second law, wouldn’t you?

Now we come to the big finish of this whole saga. Sewell sent his little poker essay to the American Journal of Physics (AJP). It was immediately rejected. At his blog post, Sewell presents the reason he was given:

I do not see any educational value in your manuscript. Because it is well established in the physics community that there is no conflict between the second law of thermodynamics and evolution, we can consider manuscripts which help students understand why. However, papers that promote views that are contrary to accepted understanding in physics should be sent to research journals not to AJP.

Sewell was outraged, of course:

In other words, we will print anything that supports the accepted view, no matter how stupid, and won’t consider anything that challenges it, no matter how logical.

Yes, that’s clearly a perfect paraphrase of what the editor said. But if we read carefully and piece together the clues found in the editor’s reply, we might discern that AJP is actually an educational journal directed at students and teachers, and not a research journal directed at professional scientists. If we jaunt on over to the “About” section of the journal’s website, we find this:

AJP publishes papers that meet the needs and intellectual interests of college and university physics teachers and students. Articles provide a deeper understanding of physics topics taught at the undergraduate and graduate level, insight into current research in physics and related areas, suggestions for instructional laboratory equipment and demonstrations, insight into and proven suggestions for better teaching methodologies, insight into how college students learn physics, information on historical, philosophical and cultural aspects of physics, annotated lists of resources for different areas of physics, and book reviews.

Given the aims of the journal, I’d say the editor’s reply was entirely correct. A paper claiming that the physics community is totally confused on a question as basic as whether evolution contradicts the second law belongs in a research journal, not an educational journal.

Sewell continues:

Any suggestions as to which “research journals” might consider papers which “promote views that are contrary to accepted understanding?”

I’m really more familiar with the mathematical literature than I am with physics. But I will conservatively go out on a limb and suggest that it’s actually every research journal in physics that is interested in papers that challenge accepted understandings. In fact, I am guessing that it’s actually pretty hard to publish a paper that just says, “The conventional view is entirely correct.” It’s just that research journals usually have this silly requirement that the challenge be backed up with strong evidence and cogent argumentation, both of which are lacking in Sewell’s papers.

All in all, it’s pretty standard stuff. An ID proponent presents a bad argument, then pompously struts around as though it is everyone else who is confused. Nothing to see here, everyone move along now…


  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    June 23, 2011

    According to creationist “logic”, there can’t be any waves in oceans, because gravity pulls water only downwards.

  2. #2 TomS
    June 23, 2011

    IMHO, to go into any detail about the second law of thermodynamics is to give the impression that there is something complicated or controversial about the creationist rhetoric on this point.

    Among my favorite responses to the creationist pseudo-2lot:

    How did the fossils get arranged in order after Noah’s Flood? Can “hydrodynamic sorting” violate the 2lot? For that matter, how did any of the complex patterns in nature which point to descent with modification over many millions of years arise? Was nature intelligently designed to look that way?

    The 2lot was discovered when the very clever engineers of the industrial revolution ran up against limitations on what they could intelligently design. If there is a violation of the 2lot, then “intelligent design” is the last place one should look for an explanation.

  3. #3 anon
    June 23, 2011

    If you have a pond full of identical one-celled animals, then the 2LOT (or a sufficiently simplified and bastardized version of it, reduced to baby talk so that fundamentalists can try to pretend to understand it) requires that the next generation will not be identical, and will contain many one-celled animals that differ from this generation.

    If you view adaptation to the environment as a sort of successive relaxation process that decreases the tension between animals and environment, then the 2LOT (as above) requires that the population of animals will become better adapted to the environment in the pond. The most likely way for this to happen is for the animals that are best adapted to the pond to leave more offspring.

    So we see that the 2LOT requires evolution.

  4. #4 Raskolnikov
    June 23, 2011

    How can this Sewell guy be taken seriously as a mathematician? His “probabilistic argument” is the most stupid thing coming from a self-proclaimed mathematician that I have ever read! It’s like arguing that the lottery is impossible because the probability of winning is so extremely low.

  5. #5 Raskolnikov
    June 23, 2011

    (continued) it is also pernicious since it further propagates the lie that evolution is like a lottery. No, evolution works like a ratchet, when someone wins the lottery, the earnings are carried over to the next generation, which explains how “seemingly more improbable” configurations can arise incrementally. But I guess this is totally lost on people like Sewell, who clearly has an agenda to further idiocy.

  6. #6 Garnetstar
    June 23, 2011

    Many, many chemical reactions proceed with an increase in entropy. Small molecules bind together to produce one larger molecule, thus decreasing the disorder of the system a lot. In a typical reaction to produce polyethylene (plastic), a million small molecules self-assemble into one long chain, in less than a second.

    The increase in entropy is compensated for by the energy released upon forming all those new, more energetically stable, chemical bonds.

    If “everything must proceed to a more disordered state”, most of chemistry would be impossible.

    I often use this as an example when banging my head against the wall by talking to ignorant creationists.

  7. #7 jtradke
    June 23, 2011

    Good stuff, Jason.

    I’m confused by the wording at this part:

    The inequality above applies to any sort of thermodynamical system, regardless of whether or not it is open to its surroundings. But if we imagine that our system is completely isolated…

    Doesn’t the second sentence partially contradict the first? If the system is not open to its surroundings, isn’t it isolated? Or is the distinction between “pretty much closed” and “100%, super-duper, thermodynamically isolated”?

  8. #8 eric
    June 23, 2011

    One of the simplest counter-arguments to the creationist claim is to point out that nowhere in the equation is there any exception for intelligent agents. Anything physically possible for us is physically possible for nature to do without us.


    Jtradke: you may be getting confused by your own ellipsis. The equation applies to all systems, but the statement “dQ = 0” – which is the bit of the second sentence you left off – only applies to isolated systems.

  9. #9 M
    June 23, 2011

    The description of order to disorder is not the right way to think about entropy – although it is the one that we are always taught. I use a model with four pins and a box with partitions. If I have a box with no partitions in it there is only one way to put the four pins into the box. This box has a low entropy. If I have a box with one partition in it I have 5 ways of putting the pins in the box. This box has higher entropy. As I add partitions to the box, I have more and more ways to put the pins in the box and thus higher entropy.
    The box with no partitions looks more organized than the box with 10 partitions – the pins look sort of randomly thrown into the box box with 10 partitions.

    In the universe entropy trends toward a maximum. Even in evolution since diversity gives us more ways to organize the pins in the box. I have never really thought evolution shows a lowering of entropy. Entropy oscillates all over the place on short terms, but it still heads toward a maximum over long time scales. Just like evolution and diversity.

  10. #10 Surgoshan
    June 23, 2011

    Actually, there *is* an energy conversion mechanism. It’s called chlorophyll. It turns sunlight into sugar.

  11. #11 eNeMeE
    June 23, 2011

    Doesn’t the second sentence partially contradict the first?

    No, it’s more of a “This works in all cases – even if we take the most restricted case, one that never occurs in reality, it still holds and this happens…”

  12. #12 Juice
    June 23, 2011

    No, it uses sunlight to convert CO2 and H2O to sugar.

  13. #13 rob
    June 23, 2011

    if the 2nd law and evolution confuse sewell, he must be flabbergasted by his refrigerator and how utterly improbable it should be for it to get cold. cuz, you know, the 2nd law says it should get hotter.

  14. #14 Routemaster
    June 23, 2011

    If, for the purpose of argument, the second law were violated by evolution, surely the correct response would be to discard the laws of thermodynamics. Evolution is a well-evidenced natural process, physical laws are merely mathematical descriptions of nature. Sewell is demonstrating that the second law must go the way of the luminiferous aether, not modern evolutionary theory. He just hasn’t realised what his true achievement is

  15. #15 Michael Webster
    June 23, 2011

    I like m’s approach the best: order to disorder is not the right description of the process described by entropy. Good example, also.

  16. #16 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 23, 2011

    Routemaster —

    If, for the purpose of argument, the second law were violated by evolution, surely the correct response would be to discard the laws of thermodynamics

    I agree completely!

  17. #17 Jerry Ryberg
    June 23, 2011

    As a 68 year-old atheist who’d rather be known as a humanist, I
    like articles such as this one. An intelligent, knowledgeable man, giving us interesting facts about entropy and evolution. If only we could find why some people want to believe that ancient, ignorant people, with no benefit of science and centuries of observation and research, somehow came up with “the answer to everything”, involving a magical deity. Why do they believe this fairy tale? A very good question.

  18. #18 harold
    June 23, 2011

    if the 2nd law and evolution confuse sewell, he must be flabbergasted by his refrigerator and how utterly improbable it should be for it to get cold. cuz, you know, the 2nd law says it should get hotter.

    Funny, the very first time I heard a creationist talk about 2LOT, probably circa 1999-2000, I told him that by that standard I had a device at home that could also “violate 2LOT”; an ice cube tray. He flew into an incoherent rage. At that time I was still in my phase of thinking that creationists were sincere, mistaken, and actually trying to understand, and I thought he had come up with the 2LOT thing on his own.

    I now realize that they are emotionally motivated, ego-committed authoritarian apologists who will say anything to “contradict evolution”.

    Anyway, nice blog post.

  19. #19 Tenncrain
    June 23, 2011

    Even some leading young-earth creationists have been strong opponents of using the 2LOT against evolution (such as A.E. Wilder-Smith who was a well known British YEC, such as Walter Lammerts who was co-founder of the Creation Research Society). The Creation Research Society Quarterly, while hardly a legit peer review science journal, published numerous 1970s articles from individuals (who were otherwise faithful YECs) harshly criticizing the 2LOT chestnut. Despite this, the 2LOT became a popular weapon.

    As it is, I’m a former YEC. While growing up, I heard the 2LOT argument considerably less than other anti-evolution diatribes which might suggest creationist use of the 2LOT declined somewhat after peak use during the 70s and 80s. Whatever the case, I suppose it’s still not too surprising that some anti-evolutionists still cling to this canard.

  20. #20 Greg Goebel
    June 23, 2011

    And then there’s old rejoinder, hinted at above, that if the SLOT outlaws evolution, it must also outlaw aircraft, PCs, and every human machine or structure. After all, since we can’t violate the SLOT either, then if evolutionary “constructions” are impossible, then so are human constructions.

    “But human intelligence allows us to overcome the SLOT.”

    “Nobody’s been intelligent enough so far to figure out a way around the SLOT, and if anyone was, the news would spread around the world very quickly.”

  21. #21 Robert Parson
    June 23, 2011

    Jason, a small error in an excellent article. You write:

    “In responding to the creationists the point is usually made that the Earth is not isolated, since it receives energy from the Sun. The decrease in entropy on the Earth is more than compensated for by the increase in entropy in the Sun, and of the universe as a whole as a result of the heat radiated by the Earth into space.”

    The entropy of the sun is decreasing, not increasing, because nuclear fusion reduces the number of free particles which results in an entropy decrease (fewer degrees of freedom.) Of course the overall entropy of the universe increases due to radiation into space.

  22. #22 mrcreosote
    June 23, 2011

    I would challenge any creationist who uses this argument to explain how sand dunes form.

  23. #23 Jason Rosenhouse
    June 23, 2011

    Robert Parson —

    Thank you for the correction. I’ve revised the opening post to fix the error.

  24. #24 David vun Kannon
    June 23, 2011


    I think the failure of the peer review at AML may be the responsibility of Dr Sewell himself. He submitted (according to the workflow outlined on the AML site) a panel of 8 possible reviewers. If this worked in any way like Sternberg’s review process on Meyer’s paper, the reviewers nominated were names like Dembski, Bob Marks, and other doctorates in the ID stable.

  25. #25 jtradke
    June 23, 2011

    eric #8 and eNeMeE #11 – aha, you are both correct, of course. I see what was intended there.

  26. #26 Collin Brendemuehl
    June 24, 2011

    I’ve interacted with a number of fellow non-naturalists on this and corrected them with a practical example: If the 2nd Law was always in force in every instance then we would not be born and grow. Growth itself is a violation of that “law” if it were intended to be applied so superficially.

    That said, the simple response that is heard from many who disagree with naturalistic evolution is not a matter of ego or stupidity. It is a matter of ignorance — not being fully informed on a topic. It boils down to churches (and para-church organizations) not placing a strong emphasis on education. There is this revivalistic (19th c. revival influence) tendency to use cliche. This has reduced church education to something less than stellar. Though there are seminaries and colleges which will do a fine job on the issue, these do not often make for interesting blog posts.

    That said, I also can count the number of evolutionists, even in this forum, who do not understand their own system and will not take on the challenge of properly defining “science” or the challenge of multiple models or, as of late, the issue of directionality as a religious concept.

    Ignorance is a fact of life. Wrongly ascribing motives is equally ugly.

  27. #27 JohnK
    June 24, 2011

    Perhaps Granville S could address Bunn’s demonstration, which does not rest on dubious (im)probability estimates.

    Rate of earth’s entropy change from solar energy:

    dS/dt = 4×10^14 Joules/Kelvin/sec = 3×10^37 k /sec (k is Boltzmann’s constant)

    Consider the entropy difference between two systems: present Earth and a hypothetical Dead-Earth on which life never evolved, which are identical except that every atom in present Earth’s biomass is located in Dead-Earth’s atmosphere in its simplest molecular form. To turn Dead-Earth into Earth, pluck every atom required for the biomass from the atmosphere and place it into its exact present-day quantum state. Because gas has high entropy this assumption grossly overestimates the required entropy reduction for the production of life in its present form.

    Use the standard thermodynamic result −∂S/∂N = µ/T, which implies ∆S = −N µ/T, to estimate the entropy difference as
    ∆S(life) = S(earth) − S(dead-earth) ≈ N µ/T
    where µ is a typical chemical potential for a molecule in the atmosphere and N is the number of molecules required to make up the biomass.

    The total carbon biomass of Earth is ∼ 10^15 kg. Increasing this value by a generous factor of 100 to account for other elements results in an overestimate of 10^43 molecules of biomass.

    For standard relations for an ideal gas, µ/T ∼ −10 k (Boltzmann’s constant).
    Thus the entropy reduction required for life on Earth is less than |∆S(life)| ∼ 10^43 x 10k = 10^44 k.
    Given the rate of entropy production due to sunlight 3×10^37 k /sec, the second law is satisfied as long as the time for life to evolve on Earth is at least
    ∆t = |∆S(life)| / (dS/dt) ∼ 10^7 seconds (less than a year)

    Simple, elegant, no statistical mechanics probability handwaving.

  28. #28 pluky
    June 24, 2011

    “Thermodynamics textbooks do not make for light reading”

    When does understatment cross over into snark?

  29. #29 FastLane
    June 24, 2011

    JohnK @ 27:

    Therefore, the earth could be less than 10k years old!!

    I dread seeing this taken out of context somewhere and used by a cretinist, but it’s bound to happen. Is there a name for that internet law?

  30. #30 eric
    June 24, 2011

    Collin: I’ve interacted with a number of fellow non-naturalists on this and corrected them with a practical example: If the 2nd Law was always in force in every instance then we would not be born and grow.

    Collin, I hope that’s merely a misphrase on your part, because the 2nd law IS always in force in every instance.

    Your comparison is a good one that many people use. But the point of the comparison is that growth and evolution don’t automatically violate the law…the point of the comparison is not to show that the law is violated in many other cases too.

  31. #31 Mark Farmer
    June 24, 2011

    My favorite creationist quote of all time:

    “The idea of their being a, you know, a little mud hole and two mosquitoes get together and the next thing you know you have a human being… is completely at odds with, you know, one of the laws of thermodynamics which is the law of, of.. in essence, destruction.”
    -Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina
    WIS – TV – January 29, 2006

    Gosh we miss you Mark. Happy hiking on the AT !

  32. #32 themann1086
    June 24, 2011

    Mark Farmer, my all-time favorite is this classic from FSTDT:

    One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

    Yes. If only the earth had a giant outside source of energy supplying us with huge amounts of energy…

  33. #33 mrg
    June 24, 2011

    Oh, that’s cute @MF: “It would have to be 1.4 million kilometers across and supplying the Earth with an average of 200 watts per square meter.”

  34. #34 Collin Brendemuehl
    June 24, 2011

    My intention was to show that growth is not the same as the implication of persistent disintegration which might be taken form an even more simplified view of it.
    But perhaps there are better ways to say it.

  35. #35 Modusoperandi
    June 26, 2011

    Pah! It’s not the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it’s the Second Law of Aerodynamics, “That which goes up must come down”.
    Hah! Explain balloons, Darwinists!

  36. #36 AmosZ
    June 26, 2011

    One of the first things I learned in freshman biology was that every reaction in a cell increases the entropy of the universe. It follows that life (and the evolution of it) is still cooperating with the 2LOT even though on the cellular scale entropy is decreasing.

  37. #37 Theodore Hoppe
    June 27, 2011

    The second law of thermodynamics, or the law of entropy, is one of the most fundamental laws of physics. What that tells us is that the tendency of the universe is to move from order and structure to lack of order and lack of structure
    The a wonderful TED talk ‘Big History’ David Christian ask the question, “In a universe ruled by the second law of thermodynamics, how is it possible to generate the sort of complexity” we find in the world, ” the sort of complexity represented by you and me?” The answer he explains, is that the universe creates complexity, but with great difficulty. Christian’s colleague, Fred Spier, calls it “Goldilocks conditions”; not too hot, not too cold, but just right, for the creation of complexity to occur.” And slightly more complex things appear. And where you have slightly more complex things, you can get slightly more complex things. And in this way, complexity builds stage by stage.”
    Christian goes on to say, “Now we as extremely complex creatures desperately need to know this story of how the universe creates complexity, despite the second law, and why complexity means vulnerability and fragility.”

    A talk worth listen to.

    He adds

  38. #38 AL
    June 27, 2011

    If, for the purpose of argument, the second law were violated by evolution, surely the correct response would be to discard the laws of thermodynamics. Evolution is a well-evidenced natural process, physical laws are merely mathematical descriptions of nature. Sewell is demonstrating that the second law must go the way of the luminiferous aether, not modern evolutionary theory. He just hasn’t realised what his true achievement is

    I don’t know how many Creationists you’ve ever argued with, but a not so insignificant proportion of them subscribe to this notion that there is a hierarchy of scientific concepts, with “law” being on top, and “theory” being well subordinated beneath. Under this view, when a “theory” and a “law” clash, it is the “law” that wins.

  39. #39 MomentumKickwheel
    June 27, 2011

    Evolution doesn’t violate SLOT but is SLOT valid? Roger Penrose suggests not.

    In The Road to Reality he asks us to evaluate the world around us at a moment in time and predict the entropy in the future. Our answer is that the entropy in the future will be higher. Fair enough.

    He then asks us to retrodict the entropy in the past (again basing our answer on the state of the world in the present). Our scientific answer must be that the entropy was higher ie, the odds are higher for the past to be more disordered than more ordered.

    So SLOT is only valid if we move away from a scientific evaluation of the world around us and bring in human bias such as a preferred direction of time, a low-entropy initial singularity etc etc

    (I leave it to a Creationist to take the next step. That if evolution doesn’t contradict an invalid law, creationism must be right…)

  40. #40 Jud
    June 27, 2011

    @MomentumKickwheel –

    So SLOT is only valid if we move away from a scientific evaluation of the world around us and bring in human bias such as a preferred direction of time, a low-entropy initial singularity etc etc

    The way I’d prefer to put this is that we know SLOT is valid, and we are looking for a reason why, such as “time’s arrow” due to initial low-entropy conditions. This isn’t “human bias,” it’s an attempt at understanding. In fact I’d say the bias is against special initial conditions.

    All the writing I’ve seen on the subject treats such a requirement as problematic, at least without a theory showing why such initial conditions would be inevitable, or (less satisfactory) that we are living in one of many possible/actual universes, which happens to be one where such initial conditions obtained.

  41. #41 eric
    June 27, 2011

    @MomentumKickwheel – He then asks us to retrodict the entropy in the past (again basing our answer on the state of the world in the present). Our scientific answer must be that the entropy was higher ie, the odds are higher for the past to be more disordered than more ordered.

    Perhaps it’s just your paraphrasing of his idea, but that last bit is where you (or he) goes wrong. Its not about “order,” or “disorder,” its about distribution of energy among available energy states. I have no problem evaluating the past and expecting that the energy in it was not distributed as evenly among available energy states.

    Just as one example, more matter was hydrogen and less of it was anything else. The energy contained in some amount of hydrogen is not as distributed amongst as many different energy states as the same amount of energy contained in a mix of elements; there are fewer different methods of bonding, fewer different excitation and ionization states, fewer types of materials, etc., etc., etc.

  42. #42 Beau
    June 27, 2011

    So, according Sewell, when I took my disordered ingredients out of the refrigerator this morning, and made an orderly plate of breakfast, I was breaking the second law of thermodynamics!

    Somebody arrest me!

  43. #43 John
    June 28, 2011

    From what I’ve heard from creationists, they argue about the Second Law of Thermodynamics in relation to mutations not being able to build more complex, sophisticated organic forms, that logic is not related to this article.

  44. #44 cshardwick
    June 29, 2011

    If the creationist slot argument were valid, not only would evolution be impossible, LIFE would be impossible, since the growth of any living thing involves a much more direct and observable increase in order. Ergo, we are here, therefore the argument is wrong, and no further consideration is required.

  45. #45 eric
    June 29, 2011

    John @43 – yes, it is directly related. The 2LOT applies to all mechanisms, mutation included. In fact, it doesn’t matter for 2LOT terms which mechanism you use, entropy is path-independent.

    I sometimes think that part of creationist confusion with the 2LOT is that they don’t understand the implications of it being a state function.

  46. #46 rob
    July 1, 2011

    another problem with most people’s understanding of the 2nd law is that it is only defined for isolated systems in equilibrium (or very close to equilibrium.

    you cannot apply 2nd law arguments to systems that are not isolated or far from equilibrium.

    if someone tries to do this, it shows that they do not have a full understanding of the subtleties of the second law.

  47. #47 Michael Kingsford Gray
    July 5, 2011

    You have (understandably) neglected to qualify that the second law of thermodynamics ONLY applies to thermodynamic systems where gravity is neglected.
    Gravity clumps stuff together, DECREASING entropy.
    (See Prof. Stewart, I. “The Second Law of Gravitics and the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics”)

  48. #48 David Roemer
    May 7, 2012

    I agree with your statement that it is wrong for creationists to say evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics unless they can write down an equation proving this. Since creationists can’t do this, they are being irrational. But I don’t know of any creationist who writes down a fake equation to prove it.

    The article by Daniel Styer (“Entropy and evolution”) does write down a fake equation to prove the opposit. He calculates the entropy of the biosphere using the Boltzmann constant (S = k log W). This makes as much sense as calculating the temperature and entropy of a Boeing 747. I think I do a better job than Granville Sewell in explaining why the article is absurd. It was just published in England at


    I’v pointed this out to the American Journal of Physics and so far they are refusing to publish a retraction. My correspondence with this organization is at


    The behavior of the AJP and the American Association of Physics Teachers when I advised them of the error has been shockingly dishonest. What they should have done is forward my critique of the article to Daniel Styer for rebuttal. Professor Styer has a reputation to protect and may have gotten his ridiculous equation from another peer-reviewed article. Styer also has a conscience, and may not want to perpetrate misinformation.

    Instead, I was told to submit my own article. I did so, and an anonymous reviewer said that I didn’t know what I was talking about. The AJP and AAPT are now using this anonymous review to justify not publishing a retraction.

  49. #49 NJ
    May 7, 2012


    I was told to submit my own article. I did so, and an anonymous reviewer said that I didn’t know what I was talking about.

    Take the hint.

  50. #50 Raging Bee
    May 7, 2012

    So this Roemer guy is complaining to an evangelical publication about the behavior of two scientific organizations. And evangelical publication with articles like “Cosmological Proof of God’s Existence” and “Why Liberalism Is a Neurotic Response to Religion.” Because that’s how scientific disputes are normally resolved by scientists, right?

  51. #51 David Roemer
    May 8, 2012

    @Raging Bee
    If you didn’t take an undergraduate course in thermodynamics, you have an excuse for defending two peer-reviewed articles by PhDs in physics.

    But what is Jason Rosenhouse’s excuse? His reputation as a scientist and atheist is on the line. I emailed him this post, but he hasn’t responded.

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  53. #53 Wow
    May 9, 2012

    “But what is Jason Rosenhouse’s excuse?”

    His excuse, not that one is needed, is that your “problem” is a load of codswallop.

    “I think I do a better job than Granville Sewell in explaining why the article is absurd.”

    I read your attempt.

    Let’s just say it was 30 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back.

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