Ever since Darwin, there has been one main argument against evolution. I am referring to the general feeling that things don’t naturally get more complex over time. Evolution says that novel structures and functionalities can evolve through entirely natural means, but that is counter to intuition.
Richard Dawkins has quite properly mocked this as, “The argument from personal incredulity.” The evidence against evolution is that I find it hard to believe! Of course, expressed in that way even creationists can see the argument has little force. What they need, therefore, is a way of giving the argument a patina of scientific respectability. That’s where the second law of thermodynamics comes in. Tell an audience that you find it hard to believe that evolution could be true and you just look silly. But tell them that the second law of thermodynamics forbids evolution and you suddenly sound wonderfully scientific, especially if your audience has never studied any physics.
Young-Earther Henry Morris was especially fond of this argument. In his book The Troubled Waters of Evolution he gives a blunt statement of the basic argument (these quotes are taken from John Patterson’s essay “Evolution and Thermodynamics,” in the book Scientists Confront Creationism):
Evolutionists have fostered the strange belief that everything is involved in a process, of progress, from chaotic particles billions of years ago all the way up to complex people today. The fact is, the most certain laws of science state that the real processes of nature do not make things go uphill, but downhill. Evolution is impossible!
There is … firm evidence that evolution never could take place. The law of increasing entropy is an impenetrable barrier which no evolutionary mechanism yet suggested has ever been able to overcome. Evolution and entropy are opposing and mutually exclusive concepts. If the entropy principle is really a universal law, then evolution must be impossible.
That’s all very blunt, but it is completely asinine for two reasons. The first is that, to the extent that the second law really does say something like, “the real processes of nature do not make things go uphill,” it says it only for isolated systems, which the Earth definitely is not. The second reason is that, contra Morris, it is a simple empirical fact that known biological mechanisms can account for the decreases in entropy seen in the evolution of organisms over time.
That last point really should be the end of it. Things that are thermodynamically impossible do not occur. But natural selection does occur, and it demonstrably has the power to lead to increases in anatomical complexity. On a small scale you can see it happening, and that is enough to show that no principle of thermodynamics rules out evolution.
Of course, that was not the end of it. Ever since Morris revived this argument in the 1960s, creationists have flopped about in their search for a way of making it respectable. Lately, the folks over at Uncommon Descent have been beating this dead horse with gusto. But they have only succeeded in confirming that they haven’t the faintest idea what they are talking about.
Take this post, for example, by someone calling himself niwrad. After a faux scientific discourse on the nature of “organization,” he writes:
Biological unguided evolution.
Evolution supposes that all the biological organization on Earth arose spontaneously (naturalistic origin of life + naturalistic origin of species).
Corollary of the 2nd law.
In an isolated system, organization never increases spontaneously. Hence the 2nd law refutes evolution. The absurdity of evolution is illustrated in the following picture:…
Evolution would involve countless scenarios where the red balls stay permanently on the top of the peaks. Consequently the 2nd law disproves evolution because evolution would represent a set of events practically impossible.
I invite you to go to the original post to look at the picture. If you do, please explain to me what it’s supposed to show. The more important point, however, is that niwrad pulled that “corollary” straight out of his ass. You will find no such corollary in any thermodynamics textbook.
The second law is a very narrow, and very specific, statement. It gives a precise, mathematical inequality that is satisfied by the change in entropy in a spontaneous, thermodynamical process. That’s it. The mathematical details require some calculus, but suffice it to say that if your system is isolated, then the inequality reduces to the statement that the change in entropy must be positive, which is to say that it must increase.
To say that a theory is in accord with the second law is to say it does not violate that inequality. There might be a hundred other reasons for finding a theory to be implausible, but if it does not violate that inequality then there is no conflict with the second law. And since the best attempts to estimate the change in entropy of the biosphere over the course of evolution have shown that it is many orders of magnitude away from violating the inequality, I’d say the creationists have a mighty stiff burden of proof. Witless hand-waving about “organization” is not going to cut it.
Once that is understood, it is easy to see where niwrad next goes wrong (smileys in original):
Evolutionist “compensation argument”.
To rebut the above corollary, usually evolutionists resort to this argument. Since the Earth is not isolated, the 2nd law does not forbid a local (on Earth) decreases in entropy (which is all biological organisms represent, and no more than evolution is posited to do), gained at the cost of increased entropy in the surroundings (the solar system) (or, as long as the system exports a sufficient amount of entropy to its surroundings). So evolution can happen on Earth.
Refutation of the “compensation argument”.
The main counter-point is that, no, decrease in entropy is not “all biological organisms represent”. Organisms eminently represent organization. They are even ultra-complex systems. As said above, simple decrease in entropy is not organization. Evolutionists use “entropy” as a “free lunch” for evolution: entropy increases there, so entropy decrease here and organisms arise here at zero cost, while the 2nd law is safe. Too good to be true. Since entropy is related to disorder, then I cause a big mess (easy task) there to get organization (difficult task) here? Do you see the nonsense?
Second, call A the open system and B its surroundings. “Increased entropy in the surroundings” means that B has increased its disorder, going towards a more disordered state. This additional disorder in B becomes (in the mind of evolutionists) sort of “money” to pay the organization in A. Just this concept appears paradoxical: to pay organization by means of disorder. It is like to say: a disease in my wife 🙁 increases my health 🙂 .
Third, the reasoning is also absurd when we speak of probability. “Increased entropy in the surroundings” means that in B happened events more probable than the events happened before. These more probable events become (in the mind of evolutionists) sort of “magic” that creates organization in A. In turn, this organization in A is events with low probability that happen. So the whole reasoning is: probable events happened in B cause improbable events in A. It is like to say: the shopping expenses of my wife 🙁 cause my winning the lottery 🙂 .
In short, the evolutionist “compensation argument” is something like “non-X causes X”. It helps exactly zero the case for evolution, and doesn’t save evolution against the 2nd law.
The bottom line is: improbable events related to organization in a system remain improbable independently from the fact that we consider the system closed or open. Unless evolutionists are able to prove that some external cause is really able to reduce somehow such improbabilities, by injecting CSI to create organization. So far evolutionists have not succeeded in such task, their “compensation argument” is laughable. While IDers have a name for an organizational cause: intelligence.
What on earth could he possibly be talking about?
What niwrad refers to as the “compensation argument” is just a straightforward consequence of what the second law says. It is not some desperation move summoned forth by evolutionists to avoid a creationist challenge. The second law implies that in an open system entropy can decrease locally, just so long as globally the entropy increases. It’s just a fact that the increase in the Earth’s entropy resulting from the inflow of radiant energy from the Sun is vastly greater than the decrease in entropy resulting from evolution. Therefore, there is no violation of the second law. Simple as that.
As for the rest of this little screed, it’s so off the wall crazy it’s difficult even to find a clear entry point for correction. Let’s just consider a few lines:
The main counter-point is that, no, decrease in entropy is not “all biological organisms represent”. Organisms eminently represent organization. They are even ultra-complex systems. Who ever said that a decrease in entropy is all biological organisms represent (whatever that even means)? The point is that entropy is all that matters when you are discussing the second law. If you are talking about something other than entropy, say, if you are talking about the precise processes and mechanisms that make it possible for the Sun’s energy to fuel evolution, then you are no longer talking about the second law. You are asking interesting and important questions, but you have changed the subject nevertheless.
This additional disorder in B becomes (in the mind of evolutionists) sort of “money” to pay the organization in A. Just this concept appears paradoxical: to pay organization by means of disorder. It is like to say: a disease in my wife 🙁 increases my health 🙂 . Actually, it’s much more like saying that to make an omelette you need to break a few eggs. Perhaps someone needs to explain to niwrad why you can’t cool your house by leaving the refrigerator door open. It’s the same principle.
I can’t make heads or tails out of his third point. But let’s close by considering this:
In short, the evolutionist “compensation argument” is something like “non-X causes X”. It helps exactly zero the case for evolution, and doesn’t save evolution against the 2nd law. Of course, the compensation argument was never intended to help the case for evolution, except in the trivial sense of swatting away a potential challenge. The only time evolutionists bring this up at all is when we are forced to converse with creationist pseudointellectuals who are throwing around jargon they don’t understand. Personally, I think that pointing out that the second law asserts X, while evolution says nothing that conflicts with X, rather effectively responds to this argument.
This is only one of several recent posts over at UD on the subject of the second law, but none of the are any more intelligent than this. The rule of thumb is this: If you are going to claim that evolution is in conflict with the second law, then present the entropy calculation to back it up. If you are not doing that, if instead you are just blathering about organization, randomness, chaos, or order and disorder, then the second law is not really playing any role at all in your argument. You are just presenting the argument from personal incredulity with a scientific gloss.