Evolution’s Thermodynamic Failure

Posted by Chris Parker
Jan 03 2006

By Granville Sewell
Published 12/28/2005 12:05:33 AM

In the current debate over “Intelligent Design,” the strongest argument offered by opponents of design is this: we have scientific explanations for most everything else in Nature, what is special about evolution? The layman understands quite well that explaining the appearance of human brains is a very different sort of problem from finding the causes of earthquakes; however, to express this difference in terms a scientist can understand requires a discussion of the second law of thermodynamics.

The first formulations of the second law were all about heat: a quantity called thermal “entropy” was defined to measure the randomness, or disorder, associated with a temperature distribution, and it was shown that in an isolated system this entropy always increases, or at least never decreases, as the temperature becomes more and more randomly (more uniformly) distributed. If we define thermal “order” to be the opposite (negative) of thermal entropy, we can say that the thermal order can never increase in a closed (isolated) system.

However, it was soon realized that other types of order can be defined which also never increase in a closed system. For example, we can define a “carbon order” associated with the distribution of carbon diffusing in a solid, using the same equations, and through an identical analysis show that this order also continually decreases, in a closed system.

With time, the second law came to be interpreted more and more generally, and today most discussions of the second law in physics textbooks offer examples of entropy increases (order decreases, since we are defining order to be the opposite of entropy) which have nothing to do with heat conduction or diffusion, such as the shattering of a wine glass or the demolition of a building.

It is a well-known prediction of the second law that, in a closed system, every type of order is unstable and must eventually decrease, as everything tends toward more probable states. Not only will carbon and temperature distributions become more disordered (more uniform), but the performance of all electronic devices will deteriorate, not improve.

Natural forces, such as corrosion, erosion, fire and explosions, do not create order, they destroy it. The second law is all about probability, it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change: the reason carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an insulated solid is, that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative.

The reason natural forces may turn a spaceship, or a TV set, or a computer into a pile of rubble but not vice-versa is also probability: of all the possible arrangements atoms could take, only a very small percentage could fly to the moon and back, or receive pictures and sound from the other side of the Earth, or add, subtract, multiply and divide real numbers with high accuracy.

The discovery that life on Earth developed through evolutionary “steps,” coupled with the observation that mutations and natural selection — like other natural forces — can cause (minor) change, is widely accepted in the scientific world as proof that natural selection — alone among all natural forces — can create order out of disorder, and even design human brains with human consciousness. Only the layman seems to see the problem with this logic.

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