Second Law Watch

Over at Uncommon Descent, Granville Sewell has popped up one more time to write the same post he always writes. It's the one about how the second law of thermodynamics totally refutes evolution. It's a worth a look, since he is even more explicit than usual that there is nothing more to his argument than: The second law says things break down, but evolution says things get built up. His post comes in a series of numbered points. I especially liked this:

3. Since the reason thermal and carbon (and chromium, etc) distributions become more uniform in an isolated system is that the laws of probability favor more random, more probable, states, some scientists generalized the second law with statements such as “In an isolated system, the direction of spontaneous change is from order to disorder.” For these more general statements, “entropy” was simply used as a synonym for “disorder” and many physics texts gave examples of “entropy” increases that had nothing to do with heat conduction or diffusion, such as tornados turning towns into rubble, explosions destroying buildings, or fires turning books into ashes.

4. Some people then said, what could be a more spectacular increase in order, or decrease in “entropy”, than civilizations arising on a once-barren planet, and said the claim that entirely natural causes could turn dust into computers was contrary to these more general statements of the second law.

Truly there is nothing too stupid that an ID proponent won't write it. Those physics texts are not “generalizing” the second law, for heaven's sake. You will search those texts in vain for definitions of “order” and “disorder” that can actually be applied in any rigorous way. Nor are they naively applying the concept of entropy to tornados and explosions. Those texts are simply trying to communicate the flavor of the second law to novices. This is obvious. Invariably they quickly get down to the real business of discussing heat engines and functions of state and whatnot.

You should read the rest of the post. Sewell seems honestly to believe that he has actually discovered something novel about the second law, and also to believe that he has influenced the discussion in some salutary direction. Standard crackpot stuff. Wade into the comments as well. Gordon Davisson patiently explains why Sewell is full of it, while Sewell's defenders (and Sewell himself!) keep digging.

I might have let this go, except that, incredibly, this is only the second dumbest post on the second law to appear recently at UD. Top honors go to this post, by Denyse O'Leary, writing as “News.”

O'Leary's post at least points us to this interesting essay, by Brenden Brewer writing at Quilette, addressing the second law and evolution. Brewer writes:

I first encountered the second law as a teenager, while reading an issue of the fundamentalist Christian magazine Creation, given to me by my grandmother. Since the article's author wanted to argue against biological evolution, it claimed that the second law of thermodynamics implies evolution is impossible. Its definition of the second law was that disorder always increases with time. At first glance, this does seem incompatible with evolution by natural selection, which can lead to more complex, “better designed” organisms over time. At the time, I thought it was unlikely that mainstream biology would flagrantly contradict mainstream physics, so I remained sceptical of this argument, even though I couldn’t understand the counterarguments I found on the Internet at the time.

Look pretty sensible to me. I had a similar reaction when I first started reading creationist literature. I didn't know enough to refute the creationist arguments off the top of my head, but I found it unlikely that scientists could be collectively guilty of the crass incompetence the creationists were alleging.

O'Leary had a different reaction:

As soon as one hears that, be suspicious. The author is saying that he needs Darwin to be right. Many of these people would trash falsifiability to make Darwin right. Even as top thinkers in biology are quietly departing from him.

Sewell must be drooling with envy. Such concentrated stupidity!

Brewer said merely that he found it hard to believe that biologists were being systematically incompetent. I fail to see how that implies he needed Darwin to be right.

The “falsifiability” link is to a previous UD post, which in turn discussed that notion in the context of certain cosmological theories regarding the multiverse. It had nothing whatever to do with evolution.

The “quietly departing from him” link leads to a discussion of an upcoming conference in England discussing certain conceptual issues in evolutionary biology. The conference is about the sort of esoteric issues academics care about, but which have no relevance at all to any of the arguments made by ID folks.

So much for that. The post does not get better from here.

On the other hand, maybe Sewell deserves the top spot. He is a professional mathematician and really should know better. O'Leary, by contrast, labors unencumbered either by professional training or by conscience.

More like this

Over at Uncommon Descent, there's a bit of a kerfuffle going on about the second law of thermodynamics. Salvador Cordova got the ball rolling back in July with this barn-burner of a post excoriating his fellow ID proponent Granville Sewell for making bad thermodynamical arguments: ID proponents…
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…
A reader sent me a link to an article by that inimatable genius of the intelligent design community, Granville Sewell. (As much as I hate to admit it, Sewell is a professor of mathematics at Texas A&M. I don't know what his professional specialty is, but if his work in that area is anything…
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…

O'Leary has blundered onto fresh turf for her apolgetically, by failing to spot that the 2nd Law argument is normally a YEC preserve, one having nothing fundamentally to do with the viability of Darwinism, but more about the dig in the heels grasping at straws methodology of YEC apologetics. I've been tracking O'Leary's postings for my #TIP project & where she qualifies as one of the busier secondary analyst (citing scads of technical work but largely second hand by accounts in commentaries). Its easy for grassroots antievolutionists to feed off both YEC & ID arguments (because the latter never directly criticizes the former) but O'Leary has kept to in-house ID aplogetics so far. By intimating that criticism of the 2nd Law argument is related to "Darwin" as opposed to the basics of biology, O'Leary is poised over a perilous trap door, just awaiting the lever to be pulled.

By James Downard (not verified) on 21 Feb 2016 #permalink

Has anyone ever explained to these second law subgeniuses how a thunderstorm becomes an organized system in the presence of entropy?

I find it amusing that Sewell lists
"Entropy and Evolution"
"In the Beginning and other Essays on Intelligent Design"
"A Mathematician's View of Evolution"

on his personal website at UTEP. It would be interesting to know what his students think of his views.

Just spent the day following up on O'Leary's posting links, one of which involved origin of life issue. While I've never learned anything by reading O'Leary directly, she scattershot links to so many technical papers secondarily that she often points the way to interesting work (which she does not bother to think about herself). Quite a few new origins work papers lurk behind her sublinks (though in almost all cases they have to be ferreted out as many of her secondary links to ScienceDaily etc don't have direct citations to the original paper, but merely mention an upcoming paper in PNAS etc).

Anyway it was a fine netting for #TIP dataset, papers (most available full text free) that never crossed O'Leary's mental scope even though she was bringing them up:

Arsuaga et al. 2012. “Establishing a molecular relationship between chondritic and cometary organic solids.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (29 Nov): 19171-19176.

Childers et al. 2010. “Peptides Organized as Bilayer Membranes.” Angewandte Chemie 49 (1 June): 4104-4107.

Hansma. 2010. “Possible origin of life between mica sheets.” Journal of Theoretical Biology 266 (7 Sep): 175-188.

And a follow-up paper O’Leary never bothered to search for, Hansma. 2013. “Possible origin of life between mica sheets: does life imitate mica?” Journal of Biomolecular Structure & Dynamics 31 (August): 888-895.

Kim & Caetano-Anolles. 2011. “The proteomic complexity and rise of the primordial ancestor of diversified life.” BMC Evolutionary Biology 11 (25 May): 140.

Liang et al. 2010. “Direct observation of nucleation and growth in amyloid self-assembly.” Journal of the American Chemical Society 132 (12 May): 6306-6308.

Ruiz Bermejo et al. 2009. “Thermal wet decomposition of Prussian Blue: Implications for Prebiotic Chemistry.” Chemistry & Biodiversity 6 (Sep): 1309-1322.

Subramaniam et al. 2011. “Semi-permeable vesicles composed of natural clay.” Soft Matter 7 (6), 2600-2612.

Yang et al. 2013. “Enhanced transcription and translation in clay hydrogel and implications for early life evolution.” Scientific Reports 3 (7 Nov): 3165.

The joys of research!

By James Downard (not verified) on 21 Feb 2016 #permalink

... listening quietly from the back ...

sean s.

By sean samis (not verified) on 22 Feb 2016 #permalink


Guess not. Snowflakes and crystalline materials must similarly be impossible. Or else maybe God enjoys snow and crystals so he sits there with nothing better to do than arrange atoms into neat little orderly structures :).

Is not going from simple organisms to complex ones and the multiplication of species an increase in entropy rather than a decrease?

Jason, you are a fellow mathematician, and you have published devastating critiques of Sewell. Has he ever responded in any way?

By the way, my hypothesis is that he is suffering from a type of mental illness. I have personally seen brilliant physicists who have become thoroughly delusional on some aspect of science, but still manage to function in most other areas of life.

By Warren Johnson (not verified) on 23 Feb 2016 #permalink

Here is the arxiv version of a peer-reviewed article:

Evolution and the second law of thermodynamics

Emory F. Bunn
(Submitted on 26 Mar 2009)
"Skeptics of biological evolution often claim that evolution requires a decrease in entropy, giving rise to a conflict with the second law of thermodynamics. This argument is fallacious because it neglects the large increase in entropy provided by sunlight striking the Earth. A recent article provided a quantitative assessment of the entropies involved and showed explicitly that there is no conflict. That article rests on an unjustified assumption about the amount of entropy reduction involved in evolution. I present a refinement of the argument that does not rely on this assumption."

(Accepted for publication in American Journal of Physics)

The ball is in Sewell's court to respond with a peer-reviewed, accepted-for-publication in an established journal, article. Which of course he cannot do.

This graphic piece by Nick Sousanis, "Against the Flow" (that is, evolution as being "against" the flow of entropy), is both informative to laypersons in itself, and contains citations from peer-reviewed scientific works.

By Owlmirror (not verified) on 27 Feb 2016 #permalink