Entropy and evolution

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One of the oldest canards in the creationists' book is the claim that evolution must be false because it violates the second law of thermodynamics, or the principle that, as they put it, everything must go from order to disorder. One of the more persistent perpetrators of this kind of sloppy thinking is Henry Morris, and few creationists today seem able to get beyond this error.

Remember this tendency from order to disorder applies to all real processes. Real processes include, of course, biological and geological processes, as well as chemical and physical processes. The interesting question is: "How does a real biological process, which goes from order to disorder, result in evolution. which goes from disorder to order?" Perhaps the evolutionist can ultimately find an answer to this question, but he at least should not ignore it, as most evolutionists do.

Especially is such a question vital, when we are thinking of evolution as a growth process on the grand scale from atom to Adam and from particle to people. This represents in absolutely gigantic increase in order and complexity, and is clearly out of place altogether in the context of the Second Law.

As most biologists get a fair amount of training in chemistry, I'm afraid he's wrong on one bit of slander there: we do not ignore entropy, and are in fact better informed on it than most creationists, as is clearly shown by their continued use of this bad argument. I usually rebut this claim about the second law in a qualitative way, and by example — it's obvious that the second law does not state that nothing can ever increase in order, but only that an decrease in one part must be accompanied by a greater increase in entropy in another. Two gametes, for instance, can fuse and begin a complicated process in development that represents a long-term local decrease in entropy, but at the same time that embryo is pumping heat out into its environment and increasing the entropy of the surrounding bit of the world.

It's a very bad argument they are making, but let's consider just the last sentence of the quote above.

This represents in absolutely gigantic increase in order and complexity, and is clearly out of place altogether in the context of the Second Law.

A "gigantic increase in order and complexity" … how interesting. How much of an increase? Can we get some numbers for that?

Daniel Styer has published an eminently useful article on "Entropy and Evolution" that does exactly that — he makes some quantitative estimates of how much entropy might be decreased by the process of evolution. I knew we kept physicists around for something; they are so useful for filling in the tricky details.

The article nicely summarizes the general problems with the creationist claim. They confuse the metaphor of 'disorder' for the actual phenomenon of entropy; they seem to have an absolutist notion that the second law prohibits all decreases in entropy; and they generally lack any quantitative notion of how entropy actually works. The cool part of this particular article, though, is that he makes an estimate of exactly how much entropy is decreased by the process of evolution.

First he estimates, very generously, how much entropy is decreased per individual. If we assume each individual is 1000 times "more improbable" than its ancestor one century ago, that is, that we are specified a thousand times more precisely than our great-grandparents (obviously a ludicrously high over-estimate, but he's trying to give every advantage to the creationists here), then we can describe the reduction in the number of microstates in the modern organism as:

microstates.jpg

Now I'm strolling into dangerous ground for us poor biologists, since this is a mathematical argument, but really, this is simple enough for me to understand. We know the statistical definition of entropy:

entropy.jpg

In the formula above, kB is the Boltzmann constant. We can just plug in our estimated (grossly overestimated!) value for Ω, have fun with a little algebra, and presto, a measure of the change in entropy per individual per century emerges.

change_in_entropy.jpg

Centuries are awkward units, so Styer converts that to something more conventional: the entropy change per second is -3.02 x 10-30 J/K. There are, of course, a lot of individual organisms on the planet, so that number needs to be multiplied by the total number of evolving organism, which, again, we charitably overestimate at 1032, most of which are prokaryotes, of course. The final result is a number that tells us the total change in entropy of the planet caused by evolution each second:

-302 J/K

What does that number mean? We need a context. Styer also estimates the Earth's total entropy throughput per second, that is, the total flux involved from absorption of the sun's energy and re-radiation of heat out into space. It's a slightly bigger number:

420 x 1012 J/K

To spell it out, there's about a trillion times more entropy flux available than is required for evolution. The degree by which earth's entropy is reduced by the action of evolutionary processes is miniscule relative to the amount that the entropy of the cosmic microwave background is increased.

This is very cool and very clear. I'm folding up my copy of Styer's paper and tucking it into my copy of The Counter-Creationism Handbook, where it will come in handy.


Styer DF (2008) Entropy and evolution. Am J Phys 76(11):1031-1033.

237 Comments

This is magnitudes better than my counter-argument of “if evolution violates the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, how do you think babies and embryos are formed?”

I have found the best argument against evolution violating the 2nd law is to point out that it specifically states WITHIN A CLOSED SYSTEM, and if the creationist does not understand what that means then I bring her/him into the Sun’s warm glowing warming glow.

I have no objections to the science that you present, but I have reservations about - well, I guess I’d call it the rhetoric.

It may give the impression to the intended audience that there is some highly technical point being argued between two legitimate scientific points of view. Someone could think that among all of the scientific language we are being asked to decide between two competing, equally legitimate, scientific points of view.

For people who are able to follow the math, Styer’s approach has its place. It makes an interesting and important point, but there are a lot of people who will just remain mystified by it all.

I’d suggest another response, one that could be understood even by people with “math phobia”. One which does not allow the impression that there is a legitimate thermodynamics objection to evolution.

That’s why I would go along with Stanton’s response. (BTW, a lot of the complaints that we hear about evolutionary biology are no less applicable to reproductive biology.) Oak trees and acorns - how much disorder/entropy is produced when an oak tree produces an acorn; how much when an acorn produces an oak tree?

Other alternatives that I would suggest would be something like these:

1. One of the founders of thermodynamics, Ludwig Boltzmann, someone who surely understood thermodynamics, was an admirer of Charles Darwin.

2. How does the order in the fossil record come about? Henry Morris suggested that the fossils could be ordered by hydrodynamic sorting. Wouldn’t it be contrary to Morris’s understanding of the second law for the order of the fossils to come about by such a process? Perhaps Morris intuitively understood that undirected natural processes really can increase order, and they don’t violate the 2nd law when they increase order.

3. The laws of thermodynamics apply to human actions as well as natural processes. Intelligent, purposeful agents cannot bypass the second law of thermodynamics any more than anything else. After all, the laws of thermodynamics were discovered precisely because the very clever engineers of the 19th century came up against certain limitations. They couldn’t design their way around these limitations. So, if we ever were to discover a process which violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics - well, then, intelligent, purposeful design is the last place to look for an explanation. Perhaps natural processes that increase order are not in violation of the 2nd law.

4. And that leads to the question of how intelligent, purposeful design would increase order. Even if it could be shown that evolution couldn’t do it, that doesn’t show how design could do it. As long as there is no description of how design could do it, design is no improvement on evolution. Why would a designer/creator make the laws of thermodynamics, only to bypass them when they are inconvenient?

5. Evolution does happen. Even a lot of the creationists have been forced to concede that a certain amount of evolution happens - what they call “micro”evolution, or evolution within a “kind”. Evolution can be observed to happen, and can be studied in the wild and under laboratory conditions. The 2nd law of thermodynamics does not allow of “just a little violation”, so “just a little evolution” is not allowed a bypass of the 2nd law.

For a while, I’ve been thinking of an argument along the following lines:

“What, in actual numbers with units, is the thermodynamic entropy of a human body? What is the thermodynamic entropy of an equivalent mass of bacteria? Are they different? If you can’t answer those questions, then you can’t even start to make the argument that 2LoT prevents prokaryotes from evolving into humans”.

Of course, being neither a chemist nor a biologist, I have no idea whether the above is valid (as an engineer, my thermo was mostly restricted to heat engines and refrigerators). And not being a creationist, I’m not going trot out an argument just because it sounds good ;-).

The local entropy reduction of evolution is trivial compared to that of normal growth of egg or seed to adult organism.

Normal growth is observed to happen.

Therefore limits on local entropy reduction don’t prevent evolution.

QED

I prefer to point to the formation of snowflakes. If the creationists are correct that everything must proceed to disorder, wouldn’t that also prevent highly disordered water molecules from forming strongly ordered snowflakes?

TomS said:

1. One of the founders of thermodynamics, Ludwig Boltzmann, someone who surely understood thermodynamics, was an admirer of Charles Darwin.

Why would this impress anybody, let alone a creationist? History is full of brilliant people who admire all sorts of loony ideas and people.

Well, creationists love that kind of bullshit argument by admiration. Maybe if it’s used in favor of reality, something creationists would rather die than accept, they’ll realize the argument is bullshit.

Just like Ken Ham loves lying constantly, writing entire books for the sole purpose of slander, but accuse him of raping piglets and he gets all offended, almost like he thought there was something wrong with making shit up.

tomh said:

TomS said:

1. One of the founders of thermodynamics, Ludwig Boltzmann, someone who surely understood thermodynamics, was an admirer of Charles Darwin.

Why would this impress anybody, let alone a creationist? History is full of brilliant people who admire all sorts of loony ideas and people.

I prefer to point to the formation of snowflakes. If the creationists are correct that everything must proceed to disorder, wouldn’t that also prevent highly disordered water molecules from forming strongly ordered snowflakes?

It’s more fun to mess with them and ask why a mixture of oil and water spontaneously forms into the more ordered state of separation. When you then explain that the more ordered state is also at a higher level of entropy than the mix, it’s priceless to see them realize that an increase in order doesn’t have to be accompanied by a decrease in entropy. It pulls the rug out from under their entire argument.

People always get confused about the second law of thermodnamics because they don’t understand their system boundaries.

The second law says that the entropy of any CLOSED SYSTEM must always increase.

So to apply the second law to a biological system you need to apply it to a closed system. This means you need to take into account all the air we inhale and exhale, and the food and water that passes through our systems.

Ultimately the food we excrete has much more entropy than the food we ate etc. The energy we derive from the food and air is used by our biological processes to create a LOCAL decrease in entropy. This may look like a violation of the second law of thermo, but it isn’t because you need to account for the increase in entropy in the food we excrete and the CO2 we exhale.

That is why the “closed system” part of the second law is so important.

The second law says that the entropy of any CLOSED SYSTEM must always increase.

Not to mention that entropy refers to the possible states of the quantum particles making up the system, which has nothing to do with the number of possible arrangement of codons in a polymer.

Henry

FYI here’s the link to Styer’s article:

Styer DF (2008) Entropy and evolution. Am J Phys 76(11):1031-1033. http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.2973046

PS Styer is well aware of and already said the various points people are making:

Does the second law of thermodynamics prohibit biological evolution?

The erroneous answer “yes” is sometimes presented in the creationist literature,1,2 and more often in creationist web sites. Henry Morris, for example, finds it “obvious that the Second Law of Thermodynamics constitutes a serious problem to the evolution model” because “every system left to its own devices always tends to move from order to disorder.”1

The creationist argument is that advanced organisms are more orderly than primitive organisms, and hence as evolution proceeds living things become more ordered, that is less disordered, that is less entropic. Because the second law of thermodynamics prohibits a decrease in entropy, it therefore prohibits biological evolution.

This argument rests upon two misconceptions about entropy.

• Disorder is a metaphor for entropy, not a definition for entropy.3,4 Metaphors are valuable only when they are not identical in all respects to their targets. (For example, a map of Caracas is a metaphor for the surface of the Earth at Caracas, in that the map has a similar arrangement but a dissimilar scale. If the map had the same arrangement and scale as Caracas, it would be no easier to navigate using the map than it would be to navigate by going directly to Caracas and wandering the streets.) The metaphor of disorder for entropy is valuable and thus imperfect. For example, take some ice cubes out of your freezer, smash them, toss the shards into a bowl, and then allow the ice to melt. The jumble of ice shards certainly seems more disorderly than the bowl of smooth liquid water, yet the liquid water has the greater entropy.5

• Although the entropy of the universe increases with time, the entropy of any part of the universe can decrease with time, so long as that decrease is compensated by an even larger increase in some other part of the universe.6 For example, any hot cup of coffee left to its own devices on a tabletop decreases in entropy.

(This creationist argument also rests upon the misconception that evolution acts always to produce more complex organisms. In fact evolution acts to produce more highly adapted organisms, which might or might not be more complex than their ancestors, depending upon their environment. For example, most cave organisms and parasites are qualitatively simpler than their ancestors.7 This biological misconception will not be discussed in this article.)

These misconceptions have been pointed out numerous times,8 but here we explicitly and quantitatively answer questions such as “What entropy changes accompany evolution?” and “If the entropy here on Earth is decreasing due to evolution, where is the other piece of the universe where the entropy is increasing?”

Quite a few (but not all) creationists but more typically ID’ers (who would fervently deny being creationists) would argue that natural or ‘un-guided’ processes can’t create order from disorder and so evolution can’t work because it would violate the second law. Point out any human made devices that cause local decreases in entropy (i.e a heat pump) and they say that its because they are intelligently designed.

So I often wondered, is this the only law of physics that intelligent humans are allowed to break? Are there any others, gravity perhaps… is it time to unpack my superman outfit?

Scott said:

I prefer to point to the formation of snowflakes. If the creationists are correct that everything must proceed to disorder, wouldn’t that also prevent highly disordered water molecules from forming strongly ordered snowflakes?

Another good rebuttal to the “can’t get something for nothing (information-thermodynamics)” argument is to take 500 of one type of atom and 500 of another atom and arrange them in a 10 x 10 x 10 cube. What’s the odds of them arranging themselves in a sequence in which the two types of atoms neatly alternate? On the face of it, 2^500 … but if the atoms are sodium and chloride, this is a piece of cake salt crystal. Even a cube 100 atoms on a side (superficial odds 2^500,000) wouldn’t be much trouble.

As Mike Elzinga has pointed out, however, textbook writers tend to bring this down on our own heads by using various mechanical mixing examples (colored balls) to illustrate entropy. Alas thermodynamics is concerned about energy states and such examples are misleading.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

Thanks for this post. I found it interesting.

Now, a few comments on arguing with creationists. Unfortunately, I have to do this a lot in my field (High school education).

First, using examples like sperm/egg to embryo or any other biological example makes sense for those who already understand entropy, but committed creationists always (in my experience) say this is “circular reasoning.” They already believe that biological systems were designed, so pointing out a reduction in entropy by a bio-system proves nothing to them other than what they already believe: somehow life violates the 2nd law. However absurd this is, it’s very difficult to shake them from it because the “tornado in a junkyard argument” and its concomittant confusion of colloquial disorder with entropy is so entrenched in their minds… “it’s just obvious.”

Second, I’ve always been much more successful with examples like the snowflake. Here they usually fall back on the idea that its not “enough” order to be a problem for the 2nd law. Again absurd.

Third, the most successful approach I’ve found is to show them that the 2nd law is a mathematical equation and the mathematical definition of entropy, to point out that entropy is, at least in principle, a value that can be calculated, or at least estimated. I then ask them how they know that evolution breaks the 2nd law, where the calculations are that show this. I point out that thermodynamic calculations are commonplace and no scientist would make claims about entropy in their experiments without conducting such calculations. I then challenge them to find even a single creationist calculation showing that evolution violates the 2nd law. Almost always they have to admit that they are responding on a “gut” level, which it is easy then to point out is not scientific. The honest creationists I know (not the professional charlatans) have always backed down on this point. Your post adds to this approach, not because the creationists can follow the math, but because it offers an example of the kind of calculation a creationist would have to do in order to support their claims.

When talking with lay persons I prefer to speak about the states of energy how energy from the sun as light is degraded by life processes into latent forms of energy such as heat or fossil fuels representative of only potential energy and in doing so point out that life is an “entropy engine.”

But I’m sorta simplistic myself.…

I was hoping someone could help out a non-scientist here. I get the idea that the 2nd law refers to an entire system, and that it’s just peachy if parts of the system decrease in entropy as long as other parts increase by more.

What I don’t understand is what is meant by something having more entropy than something else. The oil and water example wouldn’t have impressed me for this reason. Is there an easy way to explain it to me so I can explain it easily to others?

An example I would like to be able to use is the Hindenburg. Two disordered gases combining into a more ordered compound, with a huge release of entropy. That so many people have seen so graphic an image would be a big plus. Am I right in seeing this as an example?

Sylvilagus said:

Second, I’ve always been much more successful with examples like the snowflake. Here they usually fall back on the idea that its not “enough” order to be a problem for the 2nd law.

That’s the old comedy routine:

ORDER CANNOT ARISE SPONTANEOUSLY FROM DISORDER. THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SUCH THING AS A FREE LUNCH.

“But what about snowflakes, salt crystals, spontaneous separation of mixtures and so on? Don’t they count?”

NO. THEY ARE TOO TRIVIAL.

“Ahhh … so there’s absolutely no such thing as a free lunch – but free snacks are OK!”

Along the same lines it is useful to point out that evolution by natural selection simply says that organisms reproduce, they undergo mutations that lead to modified offspring, and environmental selection picks out the modified offspring that are better suited to survive. Which of these steps violate the Second Law? Reproduction? Mutation? Selection? If none of three violate the second law on their own, how do they do so in combination? Of course this leads straight to:

THERE IS ABSOLUTELY NO SUCH THING AS A CONSTRUCTIVE MUTATION.

– sometimes enshrined as the “law of genetic entropy”, but that’s another kettle of slippery eels.

It has been pointed out that complexity tends to arise as a “hangup” on the road to higher entropy – complex storm systems for example, produced essentially by solar heating. If there weren’t such complexity “hangups” the heat death of the Universe would have likely happened a long time ago.

White Rabbit (Greg Goebel) http://www.vectorsite.net/gblog.html

Nick,

If you are out there, could you please close the thread on “immune to evidence”. It has become infested by a banned troll who has excreted 2700 off-topic comments there. Thanks.

What’s always fascinated me about creationists lying about thermodynamics is that even though just six words sum up how absurd the lie is (Earth is not a closed system.) they continue to repeat the lie. To prepare the flock for the obvious rejoinder, they produce a counter argument that’s even more absurd. They redefine the 2nd law till its more to their liking, essentially ignoring the 2nd law and making a new argument. http://www.christiananswers.net/q-e[…]ynamics.html To their minds, apparently, this allows them to continue making the same absurd claim.

A mathematical explanation of entropy for the rest of us is at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/the[…]ability.html

What’s always fascinated me about creationists lying about thermodynamics is that even though just six words sum up how absurd the lie is (Earth is not a closed system.) they continue to repeat the lie.

Another point is that if there were an obvious simple argument that would somehow undermine the whole theory, the theory would never have been accepted in the first place. That’s because in that case, one or more scientists would have tried to make themselves famous by clobbering somebody else’s theory, and if the argument were valid they would have.

Henry

OK I’m closing this ridiculous thread. In the future email matzkeATberkeley.edu directly if you really need action…

Actually I closed the 2700 comment thread I mean…

Nick,

Thanks, you are my hero. Please everyone, take note of what can happen if you allow this troll to post on any other threads. Anything that it posts under any name should be removed immediately.

I always simply ask them what the 2nd law actually says (or the 1st law, or the 0th law).

I have never gotten an answer more coherent than “entropy increases”.

this is a very thinky post, it makes my head hurt. I was going to suggest that for most creationists it’s best to just say “do you realise 2LOT is an actual equation with numbers and symbols and such”?, but I’m pleased to see Sylvilagus has already suggested essentially the same thing as the most effective direction in his experience … the harsh realisation that 2LOT isn’t the convenient english sentence they think it is, and the unsettling feeling that someone is about to expect you to do some math.

If you have time to spare, the fun way is to feign ignorance on being told “2LOT therefore blah blah blah” and ask “that’s interesting. what exactly IS the 2LOT, then”? You let them run around in circles as you reject suggestions, and you can reveal quite early that you actually know and you’re not telling - after all, they are the one telling you how much they know about 2LOT. And if they ever do manage to find something with a delta S in it, you can stare at it blankly and say “well how does that prove evolution isn’t true”?

naturally, this post is excellent and has it’s place. I just wanted to emphasise that it’s a pretty rare situation where this is the relevant information you’ll be needing.

While we’re at it, can somebody explain the entropy units - J/K?

Joules/Kelvin is not an intuitive unit for me, and I can’t quite wrap my head around exactly what that would mean.

Pearls before swine! … But, nice try.

The religionists are too dumb to understand what you just told them, even if they were inclined to look at your proof. Nonetheless, we appreciate your efforts.

Let us know if you have any success with that.

Matherly Wrote:

I have found the best argument against evolution violating the 2nd law is to point out that it specifically states WITHIN A CLOSED SYSTEM, and if the creationist does not understand what that means then I bring her/him into the Sun’s warm glowing warming glow.

Lemme guess. Then they trot out another canard (e.g. “where are the transitionals?” or “why are there still monkeys?”) and save the 2LOT argument for someone who will fall for it, right?

To be fair, surely some rank-and-file creationists might actually learn and stop misrepresenting science, but too often I find that those who peddle those canards are at least partly in on the scam.

What does complexity or order have to do with the existence of what we call life in a collection of organic molecules? Are we on the wrong set of concepts in trying to figure out how abiogenesis occurred?

Yep. Since changes in entropy related to evolution are a tiny fraction of those related to mere growth, and those are a tiny fraction of the total changes in entropy of the system, I’d conclude that entropy is not really the determining factor in biology or abiogenesis. Maybe for some particular chemical reactions along the way, it might be, but not for the overall system.

Henry

Not to nitpick, but I believe it was Spencer not Darwin who came up the phrase “survival of the fittest”.

Henry J said: …changes in entropy related to evolution are a tiny fraction of those related to mere growth…

Good idea for a follow-up calculation! How does the entropy associated with an “information adding” point mutation compare to the entropy associated with developing a single cell into a mature human? According to creationists, the former is not allowed by the 2LOT but the latter is. So the entropy of the former must be more negative than the latter. I bet its not.

Actually since amino acids are 3-letter “words” you could hypothetically calculate the entropy associated with every possible single point mutation (GAG to GTG, etc…) Presumably the mutations that “add information” will be instantly apparent from their enormously huge negative entropy values. Heh. :)

The problem there would be separating the entropy increase of beneficial mutations from those of neutral or detrimental ones. Off the top of my head, I’m guessing that there isn’t any significant correlation between benefit/detriment and affect on entropy for the various types of mutations.

Henry

Henry J said:

The problem there would be separating the entropy increase of beneficial mutations from those of neutral or detrimental ones. Off the top of my head, I’m guessing that there isn’t any significant correlation between benefit/detriment and affect on entropy for the various types of mutations.

Henry

I agree; and this can be demonstrated with many systems that are much simpler and non-living.

Take the “simple” case of low-temperature superconductivity, for example. Here the collective interactions of the phonons (lattice vibrations of the atoms) with the electrons in the conduction band results in what are called “Cooper pairs” in which electrons of opposite spin are paired up and form a Bose-Einstein condensation into a superconducting state.

No one doubts that the overall entropy of the universe increases in this phenomenon. One could say that there is a high degree of “organization” or “order” generated in superconductivity, but these terms are seldom used in discussing this “esoteric” phenomenon. The Bardeen, Cooper, Schrieffer theory describes this process in terms of well-known physical concepts. There are no violations of any laws of thermodynamics anywhere in this process.

The point here is that we know about all kinds of physical/chemical systems in which emergent phenomena occur that are unpredictable from underlying processes before the fact, but which can subsequently be understood as a result of those underlying processes after the fact once we have studied and understood the emergent phenomenon. This very likely will be the case when we discover what early living systems looked like.

It is this process of discovery that I see being misrepresented by the ID/Creationists and unconsciously being picked up and argued by laypeople on these forums.

Henry J said: The problem there would be separating the entropy increase of beneficial mutations from those of neutral or detrimental ones.

That’s not the problem, that’s the point!

The entropy associated with the (e.g.) GTG -> GAG substitution will be the same regardless of the ultimate fitness value that mutation brings to the organism. The molecular properties of the system determine whether the substitution is kinetically and termodynamically possible; not how that system will be used in future development. This is what makes the creationist argument such complete, utter rubbish.

eric said:

Henry J said: The problem there would be separating the entropy increase of beneficial mutations from those of neutral or detrimental ones.

That’s not the problem, that’s the point!

The entropy associated with the (e.g.) GTG -> GAG substitution will be the same regardless of the ultimate fitness value that mutation brings to the organism. The molecular properties of the system determine whether the substitution is kinetically and termodynamically possible; not how that system will be used in future development. This is what makes the creationist argument such complete, utter rubbish.

I think you, Henry and I are alluding to the same general ideas here but saying them in different ways.

Taking your specific example (and being sure we are talking about the energy exchanges with the surroundings and not spatial order) I believe we agree that the physics and chemistry of any molecular swapping will most likely increase entropy

As the energy is released from breaking and making bonds, energy is going to go out in the form of photons or in the form of phonons as ripples dissipate energy along the molecular chains or perhaps as energy is transferred to some other molecules depending on the process.

So the underlying physics and chemistry are not in question.

Where we start seeing the issues arising, is with your “information adding point mutation comparison to the entropy associated with developing a single cell into a mature human”.

This is where the murky confusions about “information” or “order” start clouding the discussions. It is here where the mechanisms of selection come into play.

I like to use some simple analogies from dendritic growth to ask questions about “information” contained in a specified dendrite relative to other possibilities that could have developed had environmental contingencies been different.

How much more information is contained in that particular dendrite compared to any other dendrite that might have developed? This raises the important question of just how much information “accumulates” in a particular line of development. And, if this “information” has any meaning, what is it about?

Maybe we are looking at it the wrong way, and it is this wrong perspective that makes the issue of development from single cell to mature adult animal or plant (or the emergence of new species) appear more difficult than it is.

This is somewhat related to the “paradox” of the lottery winner (the probability that a specified individual would win instead of the probability that someone would win).

Henry was saying that, off the top of his head, he suspects there may be little correlation between the entropy increases associated with growth and development from a specific initial state to any of the various possible specific outcomes of this growth and development in a contingent environment (with selection).

I believe that is also what you were alluding to; am I correct?

If so, I believe this begins to get to the heart of these issues.

Henry J said:

When Darwin said “survival of the fittest”, did he indicate that he was referring to individuals or to varieties within the population?

It was Herbert Spencer, not Charles Darwin, who characterized the mechanism of evolution as “survival of the fittest”. Darwin, never a great debater or word-smith or sound-bite generator, used the less sexy “natural selection”. After Spencer coined and popularized the term, Darwin adopted it, but it didn’t appear in Origin of Species until the fifth edition.

eric said:

Henry J said: …changes in entropy related to evolution are a tiny fraction of those related to mere growth…

Good idea for a follow-up calculation! How does the entropy associated with an “information adding” point mutation compare to the entropy associated with developing a single cell into a mature human? According to creationists, the former is not allowed by the 2LOT but the latter is. So the entropy of the former must be more negative than the latter. I bet its not.

Not to further muddy the waters, but that isn’t really the typical creationist argument. Theirs is even sillier than that. Most creationists would argue something like that the difference between the “info adding” mutation and human development is not amount of entropy, but the nature of the system. Most would probably gladly accept that the growth of fertilized egg to adult human involves much more decrease in entropy, but in their minds, human development is possible because of an intelligently designed “energy transfer system” that allows “order” to increase despite the 2LOT; they pretty much take it as a given that “life” can work against entropy because it is “life”. Mutations are seen as unplanned and hence incapable of working against entropy. The same with abiogenesis. It all comes back to this ridiculous notion that there are exceptions to 2LOT for intelligence or some such nonsense.

Sylvilagus

Sylvilagus Wrote:

Not to further muddy the waters, but that isn’t really the typical creationist argument. Theirs is even sillier than that.

And this is why it is important to keep in mind that famous aphorism, “If an ID/Creationist tells you that the sky is blue, you had better go outside and check.”

Mike Elzinga said: Henry was saying that, off the top of his head, he suspects there may be little correlation between the entropy increases associated with growth and development from a specific initial state to any of the various possible specific outcomes of this growth and development in a contingent environment (with selection).

I believe that is also what you were alluding to; am I correct?

Yes. The critical point here is that physical laws don’t see past history or the future. Invoking “intelligence” as a reason why some reactions can occur but not others violates the first part of this point - it requires a molecular system know how it was created. Invoking the value to the organism (i.e. beneficial mutation vs neutral or deleterious) violates the second part - it requires a molecular system know how it will be used.

At the risk of using technical terms inappropriately, one way of phrasing the creationist’s error is to say that they don’t understand that state functions are path-independent.

Eric wrote:

“At the risk of using technical terms inappropriately, one way of phrasing the creationist’s error is to say that they don’t understand that state functions are path-independent.”

Exactly. That makes creationist arguments nothing more than begging the question. For example, if you claim that “there are no beneficial mutations”, then logically an intelligence is required. After all, when mutations arise they may be deleterious, but if the environment changes they may become beneficial. That means than in order for no beneficial mutations to occur, an intelligence must anticipate all possible environmental changes and for some reason prevent any changes that could ever become beneficial. There you go, all you have to do is assmue that your assumption is correct and the entire game is over.

Of course, if mutations occur randomly with respect to the needs of the organism, then no intelligence whatsoever is required and some mutations can be beneficial, whether the environment changes or not. That is exactly what the evidence shows.

Why is this so difficult for creationists to understand? How could anyone possibly think that “genetic entropy” prevents mutations form arising because they might be beneficial in some future environment? How could anyone believe in “conservation of information” when there is information in the observed allele frequencies that are produced by random mutation and natural selection? How could anyone believe in a God who willfully allowed deleterious mutations but scrupulously prevented any possible beneficial mutations? Now that would violate every known law.

DS said:

How could anyone believe in a God who willfully allowed deleterious mutations but scrupulously prevented any possible beneficial mutations? Now that would violate every known law.

It’s not that hard to reconcile within a creationist framework, in which one could explain mutations as a result of the Fall. If one reads Genesis literally, beneficial mutations would not be needed before the Fall (since all the originally created living things were good and perfect), and deleterious mutations could be explained as the consequences of Adam and Eve violating a commandment from the Almightly. For all I know, some creationists might attribute the second law itself to the Fall; the Fall is a really convenient catch-all for anything you don’t personally happen to like.

BTW, has anyone else noticed the silence from SB?

Who? :-)

Maybe it’s like on that Jack Benny radio show - he’s thinking, he’s thinking?

Henry J said:

Maybe it’s like on that Jack Benny radio show - he’s thinking, he’s thinking?

Should be:

“Your money, or your life!”

*long pause*

“Listen, your money, or your life!”

I’m thinking it over!

SWT said:

For all I know, some creationists might attribute the second law itself to the Fall; …

This would be even funnier.

The second law shows that energy can be released from a system (via photons, phonons, other particles, etc.).

If energy can’t be released from a system, nothing could settle down into crystalline arrays (ice and snow, for example), and no systems would work because there could be no temperature gradients for energy to flow.

In other words, everything would be in a quark/gluon state. No atoms, no molecules, no life, nothing we recognize as patterns in this universe.

SWT wrote:

“BTW, has anyone else noticed the silence from SB?”

Well, once it was outed there really wasn’t any point in trying to argue endlessly with experts about things it knew nothing about. Sooner or later someone would have pointed out that it still hadn’t read the paper.

I know, why don’t we have a contest to guess the name of it’s next reincarnation. I’ve got dibs on BS, even if that is a little obvious. How about BFS?

Daniel Styer seems to fall into the old creationist trap whereby he lets the creationists define all the terms. A very similar CREATIONIST argument is to be found here: http://www.ldolphin.org/mystery/chapt8.html

The creationist response to Daniel Styer’s argument would be: “You have proved that evolution results in a decrease in entropy but you fail to explain the mechanism by which the undirected energy from the sun causes the precise molecular changes required to produce evolution and thus this decrease in entropy”

The problem goes back to the 19th century. Classical thermodynamics tells little about the behaviour of systems on an atomic scale - Boltzmann could not even prove that atoms existed. Unfortunately this has led to all sorts of nonsensical descriptions of the nature of ‘entropy’ - untidy desks and such-like. This has provided creationists with their background material - it is noticeable that Henry Morris himself cites no higher authority than Isaac Asimov.

‘Entropy’ is a term having a precise mathematical definition in physics. Its units are J/K - Energy and Temperature - nothing else. Hand-waving and talking about ‘complexity’ has nothing to do with it - it all comes down to hard physical terms.

Looking at Daniel Styer’s calculation, the result -302 J/K. Where does the minus sign come from? If the creature evolved from its latter state into it former one, would that be changed to plus? He just seems to be playing the creationist game - more ‘complexity’ = less ‘entropy’. He even drags in the term ‘microstate’, however completely misusing it.

Sometime, I would like to write a book about this - both creationists and their opponents are such a rich source of material.

Alan Barnard Wrote:

Daniel Styer seems to fall into the old creationist trap whereby he lets the creationists define all the terms.

Much of what you are objecting to has already been discussed on this thread. I think if you go back over the entire thread, you will find that we are aware of these issues.

What Dan’s calculation does is to give the creationists what they want in generous measure and then show that living systems exist in and are intricately interwoven with in environment in which entropy is increasing. Living systems simply do not violate any laws of thermodynamics and are perfectly consistent with them (as any system that exchanges matter and energy with its surroundings must be).

That calculation and the discussion on this thread illustrate that the ID/Creationists are perpetuating serious misconceptions not only about what entropy is, but that there is some kind of “entropy barrier” to evolution. These arguments are wrong, and they are irrelevant red herrings designed deliberately to sound scientific and confuse the public.

The creationist response to Daniel Styer’s argument would be: “You have proved that evolution results in a decrease in entropy but you fail to explain the mechanism by which the undirected energy from the sun causes the precise molecular changes required to produce evolution and thus this decrease in entropy”

Obviously this would be another misrepresentation by the creationists. What would the creationist mean by “decrease in entropy” without betraying further misconceptions about what entropy is?

In fact, as Sean Carroll also noted, and as the discussion that followed indicates, there may not be a consistent relationship between entropy (essentially the multiplicity of energy states) and the “complexity” or “order” in living organisms.

Parts of the organism (e.g., its genome) might be seen as some kind of quasi-crystal in which a given set of molecules or atoms occupy a diminished number of energy states. However, no set of atoms or molecules can condense into a smaller number of energy states without giving up energy to its surroundings. Those energy states that carry energy away from the subsystem of molecules or atoms of interest into the surrounding environment are the reason total entropy increases even though the entropy of the subsystem decreases. This is true at every level of complexity in condensed matter.

But the relationship between entropy and organization or order or information or complexity is ill-defined and is very likely meaningless in the context of living systems. It misdirects the focus of what is important in the definition of living organisms and how they are related to the entire environment. ID/Creationists have been trying to dominate and define the discussion for decades. All they have done is create confusion.

The actual physics and chemistry of life is far more interesting but doesn’t find its way into these discussions because of all these creationist pseudo-science diversions. In fact, most of the science of condensed matter, emergent phenomena, of autocorrelations or phase-locking of phenomena never appears in discussions with creationists. They never take the time to learn the science. Instead they quote-mine and invent words and misconceptions. We have seen this process take place in real time.

PZ Myers’ and Styer’s articles are being debated at the popular (1.1M posts) religious forum at: http://www.theologyonline.com/forum[…].php?t=53199

It’s gettin’ feisty!

-Pastor Bob Enyart KGOV.com

Bob Enyart said:

PZ Myers’ and Styer’s articles are being debated at the popular (1.1M posts) religious forum at: http://www.theologyonline.com/forum[…].php?t=53199

It’s gettin’ feisty!

-Pastor Bob Enyart KGOV.com

Sheesh! Flying over that website is like flying over a cargo cult.

I have no access to Daniel Styer’s paper at the moment so I can only go by PZ’s extracts from it, but, if PZ has rightly represented it, I would say that it is complete nonsense of the same order as the chapter from the book on idolphin.org

Any argument concerning a discrepancy between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics has got to start with an absolutely precise definition of entropy. You can use a definition from quantum physics or one from classical thermodynamics (though beware of stretching the latter beyond its legitimate field of application). That definition is the rock upon which your argument stands.

I said:

The creationist response to Daniel Styer’s argument would be: “You have proved that evolution results in a decrease in entropy but you fail to explain the mechanism by which the undirected energy from the sun causes the precise molecular changes required to produce evolution and thus this decrease in entropy”

And you replied:

Obviously this would be another misrepresentation by the creationists.

Actually, I would say that the creationist is in the right here. Daniel Styer has fed him with a quantity of entropy (-302 J/K) and he would be quite justified in asking where has it gone - the fact that it is a rather small quantity is beside the point.

The real test of a change in entropy due to evolution would be to take the evolved creature and its ancestor and cool both down to absolute zero and measuring the absolute entropy of each specimen. Obviously this is a nonsense because you would somehow have to isolate the portion of the creatures’ anatomies that actually contain the supposed entropy change - perhaps he is referring to the entropy change in a single strand of DNA - it does not really matter - if a change in entropy is supposed to have occurred, then at least in principle, that change should be a measurable quantity. But does evolution produce a positive or a negative change in entropy? Daniel Styer has arranged his calculations to force a negative result - in accordance with creationist thinking. But does the theory of evolution have a direction? Is it devolution when the whale lost its legs? Did entropy increase on that day? I think not - but then I think that his calculations are not based on sound physics.

The problems of arguing against the creationist case are two-fold. Firstly the creationist argument depends on the creationist and the listener not understanding, indeed totally misunderstanding, thermodynamics. Secondly the listener always seems to respond by assuming that the creationist has only somewhat misrepresented the science and can be corrected by a few remarks about ‘open systems’, crystals, oak trees and the like. This is like cleaning the Augean stables with a teaspoon.

Unfortunately it is impossible to argue with the creationist because he would rather accept Henry Morris as the word of God than the realities of science. We have a Professor of Thermodynamics (not far from where I write) who actually believes this creationist nonsense about the second law http://www.answersingenesis.org/art[…]t-add-energy

Alan Barnard Wrote:

I have no access to Daniel Styer’s paper at the moment so I can only go by PZ’s extracts from it, but, if PZ has rightly represented it, I would say that it is complete nonsense of the same order as the chapter from the book on idolphin.org

I have Dan’s paper (As a member of AAPT, I get AJP). There is absolutely nothing wrong with his definition of entropy; you can be assured he knows exactly what entropy is.

In addressing the so-called entropy argument of the creationists, Dan is explicit in his paper about the misconception that the creationists use, and he uses the correct definition in his calculation.

If you read my previous posts, you will note that he makes an extremely generous assumption on how much the entropy decreases as a result of evolution for all life on the planet. By using the Boltzmann expression for the change in entropy, he is taking the ratio of the number of available energy states at the end of a second to the number of available energy states at the beginning of a second.

As I mentioned before, the fact that it is a ratio means it makes no difference if the numbers are actually available energy states or are the erroneous spatial order assumed by creationists. If the number of available states is proportional to spatial order, the proportionality cancels and we don’t have to know the connection.

The creationist response to Daniel Styer’s argument would be: “You have proved that evolution results in a decrease in entropy but you fail to explain the mechanism by which the undirected energy from the sun causes the precise molecular changes required to produce evolution and thus this decrease in entropy”

As I said before, this so-called argument misrepresents reality. It is the creationist tactic of dictating the territory and assumptions on which a debate is going to take place. It is the tactic of Duane Gish in throwing out some absurd mischaracterizations of science to lure a scientist into a debate, and then to launch into the “Gish Gallop” of repeatedly throwing out nonsense and then finishing off the debate with “Well, you haven’t explained even a tenth of my arguments.” We all know the drill.

In reality, there is no “mechanism by which undirected energy from the sun causes the precise molecular changes required to produce evolution and thus this decrease in entropy.” It is a bogus postulate; simply another sneering challenge that “you haven’t explained why tornados in junkyards don’t produce Boeing 747s.” Or “you haven’t explained why you haven’t stopped beating your wife.”

But does evolution produce a positive or a negative change in entropy? Daniel Styer has arranged his calculations to force a negative result …

Dan simply used the claims of the creationists against them. It has been the creationists who have been insisting that thermodynamics “proves that everything tends toward disorder”. It is they who have invented “entropy barriers” and “genetic “entropy”. All Dan did was to show that even if the entropy of life decreased (and, by taking a ratio, eliminated any argument over whether it is entropy or order) it remains consistent with the laws of thermodynamics. Life doesn’t violate thermodynamics just because ID/Creationist misconceptions say it does.

Dan’s paper doesn’t get into any specific details about whether or not entropy really does decrease in the evolution of living organisms. Those of us in the physics, chemistry and biology communities make no such assumptions. In fact, from everything we know about simpler precursors to life, it is unlikely that there will be any clear relationship between entropy and evolution. Why should there be? Evolution doesn’t require it.

Why should any creature that has evolved from its ancestors have lower entropy? I have lived and worked in the scientific community for many decades, and I have never heard anyone make such a claim. One only hears these kinds of arguments in the context of debates with ID/Creationists. They are bogus creationist arguments designed to confuse and give ID/Creationists the coattails of scientists on which to leverage an illusion of credibility. We all know this drill also.

But does the theory of evolution have a direction? Is it devolution when the whale lost its legs? Did entropy increase on that day? I think not - but then I think that his calculations are not based on sound physics.

As I said before, if you go back over this thread, you will find that we are aware of this. And to repeat, nobody I know in the real scientific community makes any such assumptions about the relationship between the “entropy of a creature” and its place along an evolutionary chain. That would be a foolish assumption given what we know about all kinds of other phenomena in condensed matter at every level.

Scientists in the areas of biophysics and biochemistry are looking at things much differently, and this rarely shows up in discussions with ID/Creationists.

Unfortunately it is impossible to argue with the creationist because he would rather accept Henry Morris as the word of God than the realities of science. We have a Professor of Thermodynamics (not far from where I write) who actually believes this creationist nonsense about the second law …

And I would suggest that his research along these lines is going absolutely nowhere. Unfortunately a PhD is no guarantee of freedom from foolishness.

I will have to wait until I am fit to return to school (work) and look up the article for myself.

Note to self: http://dx.doi.org/10.1119/1.2973046

Clearly I am completely underestimating Dan.

David Fickett-Wilbar said: What I don’t understand is what is meant by something having more entropy than something else. The oil and water example wouldn’t have impressed me for this reason. Is there an easy way to explain it to me so I can explain it easily to others?

Entropy measures the amount of energy in a system that is not available to do work. Keep this in mind. Creationists get this wrong because they neglect to find out what entropy defines.

Oil and water: Imagine combining a cup of oil with a cup of water. Initially, small droplets of oil will randomly be distributed throughout the mixture. Oil droplets will tend to seek out other oil droplets due to their non-polar nature (like reacts with like, water is polar). At equilibrium, oil will sink to the bottom because oil is heavier than water. You will find two distinct layers: water and oil. This is called hydrophobic interaction. At this equilibrium point, entropy is the highest because there is very little energy left to do work (compared to initially). Entropy has increased, satisfying the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. Yet, the system is apparently more ordered (order in terms of physical structure, not energy state).

You can try to imagine the “ability to do work” in this case as the movement of oil droplets to form the final oil layer.

khoa Wrote:

Entropy measures the amount of energy in a system that is not available to do work. Keep this in mind. Creationists get this wrong because they neglect to find out what entropy defines.

[Emphasis added]

Be careful here. Entropy is related to the number of available energy microstates; not simply those in which energy is no longer retrievable.

The reasons that atoms can condense into spatially ordered crystals, for example, is because excess energy can be carried into the surrounding environment by additional energy states such as photons, phonons, or other atoms or particles.

The spatial order comes from the rules of quantum mechanics and any emergent phenomena that occur.

What energy does do, however, is spread among all available states. If a thermodynamic system is isolated, energy distributes itself among all available states that are consistent with the macroscopic state of the system.

If a formerly isolated system suddenly becomes integrated into a larger system or environment, more states become available and energy distributes among these additional states as well. The formation of crystals is an example. If the atoms that would condense into a crystal can’t find additional energy states for distributing energy, the atoms will simply scatter elastically off each other (in fact, the definition of an elastic collision is one in which energy is conserved).

But the interactions among energetic atoms produce photons which become energy states carrying energy off into the surrounding environment where it can be absorbed or scattered and can no longer find its way back into the system of atoms.

After the atoms begin to condense and form a liquid or solid, then phonons become available to carry away energy. If you blow on the forming crystal, atoms carry away energy.

So entropy is not a measure of unavailable energy; it refers to the number of available states. One could, in principle, attempt to enumerate all those states that carried energy away to where it is no longer retrievable, but that would not be called entropy.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on November 10, 2008 11:16 AM.

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