Evolution and the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Author: Roddy M. Bullock
Subject: Physics
Date: 01/30/2007
Adapted from The Cave Painting: A Parable of Science (Access Research Network, 2006), by Roddy
M. Bullock.

Abstract: On its face, the Second Law of Thermodynamics stands diametrically opposed to any theory, including biological evolution, that
requires matter to go spontaneously from a simple, random form to a more complex, specified form. The stock reply from virtually all
Darwinists to this objection is that the Second Law applies only to closed systems. In the case of evolution, Darwinists say, the Second Law’s
tendency to prevent the incredible ordering necessary for evolution is circumvented by including the sun in our local earth system. Usually the
Second Law is dismissed flippantly and casually, as if its inapplicability to evolution is hardly worth elaboration. Understanding the Second Law
(and the evolutionist response) is necessary for an understanding of how it is a powerful argument against natural, unguided evolution. For this
reason, the reader is urged to consider carefully the following discussion, where every effort has been made to avoid overly tedious detail.

“Available energy” is required for any process to do “work”—a term having a defined meaning in physics of “force multiplied by distance.”i Directed work is required to drive a process of any kind in a direction of increasing order—such as is necessary for Darwinian evolution. Available energy is energy having the potential to exert a force through a distance. Thus a water wheel (as on old mill houses) is driven by the force exerted by moving water as it falls and applies a force through a distance. Before the water fell it had a certain “potential” energy available to do the “work” of turning the wheel. After falling, it no longer had potential energy with respect to the water-water wheel system. Thus, within the constraints of the system (and assuming the water fell to a flat, level surface), the water is at its lowest available energy state, constrained by the ground so that it can do no more work. If the water had anywhere else to flow or fall, it could lose additional “potential,” which could likewise be directed as work if harnessed.

What do work and energy concepts have to do with evolution? The concept of available energy, especially “potential energy,” has been well developed in science, and is expressed by the laws of thermodynamics. There are two important laws of thermodynamics, aptly named the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (the “Second Law”) in particular bears on evolution in a way that must be understood, given that on its face it flatly contradicts the ideas of evolution. Darwinists are predictable in their disregard and dismissal of the serious problems presented by the Second Law. Understanding the Second Law (and the evolutionist response) is necessary for an understanding of how it is a powerful argument against natural, unguided evolution. For this reason, the reader is urged to consider carefully the following discussion, where every effort has been made to avoid overly tedious

Water wheels rely on a difference in water level to create the energy “potential” necessary to do work. But falling water is not the only form of potential energy available for work. Differences in temperature create a potential for heat engines, such as the automobile engine. Electrical potential differences in batteries represent available energy, as do chemical potential differences in certain chemical formulations. In short, in whatever form energy exists, work can be obtained only if the energy is present in a state of greater intensity in one portion of the system and lesser intensity in another portion.ii

In a real sense, the idea of an energy “potential” is the idea of energy being able to go “down hill” to be useful. As long as energy can still go down hill, more work can “potentially” be extracted. Thus, more water wheels can be placed downstream from the first, each one driving more mill stones. Heat can be extracted and used to run a heat engine, batteries can run radios, and chemical reactions can drive to final products. But at some point, the river can no longer run down hill, the temperature differences disappear, the electrical charges equalize, and the chemical reactants are spent. At that point there is no more “available energy” within the “constraints of the system.”

Keeping in mind the example of the water wheel, it is easy to see that you can never expect the water wheel to turn faster than the water is falling. Nor can you get the wheel to turn if the forces of friction are too great for the force of the water to overcome. In general, it is clear that one cannot extract from a system more energy than the total energy present in the first place. This is, in fact, is the essence of the First Law of Thermodynamics (the First Law).iii

In addition to the First Law, the Second Law states that it’s impossible to extract more work (i.e., useful, directed energy) from a system than the quantity of available energy will permit. The idea here is that you “can’t get something for nothing” or, “you can’t get more than you started with.”iv The practical implications of the First and Second Laws are that no matter how the energy is supplied, for any system the amount of unavailable energy always increases with time. We might say that the unavailable energy in any system can remain unchanged under ideal conditions, but always increases with time under actual conditions.v

The term “entropy” was invented to serve as a measure of the unavailability of energy.vi Therefore, as Asimov states:

We can say then that the entropy of a system can remain unchanged under ideal conditions, but always increases with time under actual conditions. And this, too, is an expression of the second law of thermodynamics.vii

The Second Law and entropy are each expressed in various ways depending on the particular discipline of science to which they are applied. But in any context, entropy is in essence a measure of disorder, or the “evenness” of energy distribution. For example, when an electrical battery discharges, its electrical energy is more and more evenly distributed over its substance and over the material involved in the electrical flow of current.viii The increasing evenness with which energy is spread out is one manifestation of increasing disorder.ix This “evenness” is an invariable result of the Second Law and its effects are universal to all aspects of nature. As Asimov states:

For this reason, when we shuffle a neatly stacked deck of cards into random order, we can speak of an increase in entropy. And, in general, all spontaneous processes do indeed seem (in line with the second law of thermodynamics) to bring about an increase of disorder. Unless a special effort is made to reverse the order of things (increasing our own entropy), neat rooms will tend to become messed up, shining objects will tend to become dirty, things remembered will tend to become forgotten, and so on.x

It’s the “special effort” referred to by Asimov that is the problem for Darwinists. As mentioned previously, the universality of the Second Law is unquestioned; it is sometimes referred to as the basis for our perception of time itself. The Second Law says that in the absence of directed energy (the “special effort” Asimov referred to), natural laws and physical constraints in the system will always result in a “winding down”; systems always go from a relatively ordered to a relatively more disordered state; from high energy to low energy; from hot to cold; from organized to disorganized.xi

On its face, therefore, the Second Law stands diametrically opposed to any theory, including biological evolution, which requires matter to go spontaneously from a simple, random form to a more complex, specified form. The stock reply from virtually all Darwinists to such an objection is that the Second Law applies only to closed systems. In our case, Darwinists say, the Second Law’s tendency to prevent the incredible ordering necessary for evolution is
circumvented by including the sun in our local earth system. Usually the Second Law is dismissed flippantly and casually, as if its inapplicability to evolution is hardly worth elaboration.xii For example, in evolutionist Ernst Mayr’s 318-page book What Evolution Is, fully one paragraph of seven lines is employed on page 8 to assure us:

[T]here is no conflict, because the law of entropy is valid only for closed systems, whereas the evolution of a species of organisms takes place in an open system in which organisms can reduce entropy at the expense of the environment and the sun supplies a continuing input of energy.xiii

The idea referred to by Mayr, which is the standard refutation invariably flashed like a fake ID to get past all but those who actually care, is that the Second Law applies only to systems closed to external sources of energy input, and our earth system has unlimited energy input from the sun. Therefore, because the earth is not a closed system, the sun can supply energy for local entropy reduction on earth at the expense of an increase in entropy elsewhere. Other Darwinists agree. For example, with respect to the Second Law and closed systems Richard Dawkins refers with typical condescension to:

[A]n irony in the claim, made by lay opponents of evolution, that the theory of evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics … within any closed system.xiv

In typical “up is down” thinking, Dawkins explains:

If anything appeared to violate the law (nothing really does), it would be the facts, not any particular explanation of those facts! The Darwinian explanation is the only viable explanation we have for those facts that shows us how they could have come into being without violating the laws of physics. xv

It’s difficult to grasp Dawkins’ point here, at least rationally. Without question the facts appear to violate the Second Law—that is the reason for the inquiry in the first place. We are seeking to understand how any natural process could make water go uphill, so to speak, in the way Darwinism requires. To simply presume as a fact that Darwinism is the only viable explanation for these facts is a bald, question-begging assertion—putting forth as a conclusion what is actually the question under consideration.

Other Darwinists inadvertently prove themselves wrong while pretending to give a scientific answer to the question. For example, Dr. Tim M. Berra addressed “Some Creationist Claims” including the claim that “evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics” in his book Evolution and the Myth of Creationism.xvi Clumsily brandishing his fake ID, he answers:

These statements conveniently ignore the fact that you can get order out of disorder if you add energy. For example, an unassembled bicycle that arrives at your house in a shopping carton is in a state of disorder. You supply the energy of your muscles (which you get from food that came ultimately from sunlight) to assemble the bike. You have got order from disorder by supplying energy. The Sun is the source of energy input to the Earth’s living systems and allows them to evolve.xvii

Berra’s blunder is easy to see;xviii it doesn’t take a PhD. to see that Berra’s science is doctored with philosophy. Obviously, it is not only energy that is supplied to the bicycle parts; a large dose of intelligent direction is also necessarily present. If Berra wants to use the bicycle analogy, he must explain how raw, undirected energy might combine with chance processes to do anything but cause the bicycle parts to decay, rust, or otherwise deteriorate. As he has set up his illustration, Berra has succeeded in proving that an intelligent being is necessary to direct energy (even if all the parts are in existence, and the energy ultimately comes from the sun). Like Berra’s bicycle, living organisms also need a “maker” otherwise the component parts would simply bask in the sun until they break down into even greater and greater disorder.

For a serious evolutionist perspective on the difficulties of reconciling evolution with the Second Law, the reader should consider Paul Davies’ treatment in The Fifth Miracle.xix Subtitled The Search for the Origin and Meaning of Life, Davies’ book treats this critical topic with the attention it deserves. In Chapter 2, entitled “Against the Tide” Davies notes that, rather than simply being ignorant nonsense among the “lay opponents of evolution,” serious evolutionary thinkers see problems with evolution in light of the Second Law:

Some eminent scientists have been deeply mystified by this contradiction [i.e., natural examples of an increase in order]. The German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, himself one of the founders of the science of thermodynamics, was one of the first to suggest that life somehow circumvents the second law. … Eddington likewise perceived a clash between Darwinian evolution and thermodynamics, and suggested either that the former be abandoned or that an “anti-evolution principle” be set alongside it. … Even Schrödinger had his doubts. In his book What Is Life he examined the relationship between order and disorder in conventional thermodynamics and contrasted it with life’s hereditary principle of more order from order.xx

To be clear, Davies is an unequivocal evolutionist, and to the question “Is there a problem with the second law of thermodynamics when it comes to biological evolution?” he answers forthrightly, “No, there isn’t.”xxi Unfortunately, Davies’ justification for this conclusion falls short of being persuasive. Discarding the standard-issue fake ID, Davies has a custom-made ID with a more realistic background that requires a little closer inspection. He begins by stating that the standard “the second law applies only to closed systems,” argument and gives the example of a refrigerator, which decreases entropy inside at the expense of an increase in entropy outside.xxii This, of course, is a correct characterization of the Second Law, and when applied, as Davies does, to existing organisms it explains how they can exhibit entropy-decreasing characteristics because they are designed to do so.xxiii For example, Davies’ explanation accounts for how things designed to direct energy, like refrigerators and rhododendrons, can process raw energy into increased order in entropy-decreasing processes such as refrigeration or photosynthesis. Unfortunately, this line of thought misses the point of explaining how the photosynthesis process, much less the rhododendron itself, got there in the first place—and that’s what Darwinism must account for.

Nevertheless, Davies does make an honest attempt to apply the entropic principle to biological evolution, rather than deny its applicability:

The appearance of new species marks an increase in order, but Darwin’s theory identifies the price that is paid to achieve this. To evolve a new species requires many mutations, the vast majority of which are harmful and get eliminated by the sieve of natural selection. … The carnage of natural selection amounts to a huge increase in entropy, which more than compensates for the gain represented by the successful mutant.”xxiv

This argument is almost persuasive. However, it fails by falling short of explaining how the ordering of specified complexity came to be in the lucky mutant. The “carnage of natural selection” is nothing more than the death of already-existing (if not unlucky) complex living things. But the death of the unlucky does not explain the creation of the lucky—the information rich,  complex, entropy-decreasing order necessary for Darwinian survival. Davies’ line of reasoning is a specific instance of the general argument that the Second Law permits a local decrease in entropy as long as there is an offsetting increase in entropy  somewhere else in the system. This is accurate, but equally accurate and required by the Second Law is that a decrease (local or otherwise) in entropy comes about only in the presence of some ordering force or principle. That is, just as photosynthesis locally decreases entropy due to the programmed instructions in the plant, an entropy-decreased organism must have some ordering principle to account for local decreases in entropy. Like trying to claim water can locally run uphill if there are enough offsetting downhill runs, such a claim requires an explanation of how the uphill run happens.xxv Including the sun in the system does not suffice.

Nevertheless, Davies’ in-depth attempt is appreciated as a good-faith effort to reconcile the Second Law with evolution, rather than all but ignore the inquiry as if it was just a misunderstanding among “lay opponents of evolution.” Davies clearly comprehends the problems of explaining evolution in the face of the Second Law, and his various theories on the subject, particularly with respect to the origin of life, are worth considering. And while his attempts at “reconciliation” strike an anti-evolutionist as contrived and somewhat far-fetched, at least he’s making an honest attempt instead of denying the conflict.xxvi

One of Davies most important contributions to the inquiry of the Second Law is his acknowledgment of the role information plays in living organisms. Davies is particularly interested in finding an explanation for the source of information as it relates to the origin of life in the first place, but his comments and insights are equally applicable to the Darwinian process of evolution, that must (if it is to be science-based) explain increasing, directional, specified  complexity.xxvii Specifically, the contribution Davies makes to the inquiry is recognizing that for origin of life, we need to “explain, not the origin of material stuff, but the origin of information.”xxviii Specifically, he realizes:

We seem to be faced with a disturbing contradiction. The second law forbids the total information content of the universe from going up as it evolves, yet, from what we can tell about the early universe, it contained very little information. So where has the information present in the universe today come from? Another way of expressing the problem is in terms of entropy. If the universe started out close to thermodynamic equilibrium, or maximum entropy, how has it reached its present state of disequilibrium, given that the second law forbids the total entropy to go down?xxix

The fact that Davies recognizes the problem in terms of the universe (i.e., the ultimate “system” of interest) is noteworthy. Equally notable is the fact that he also recognizes that simply attributing the energy of the sun to our “earth system” as an explanation for an information-building process falls short of being an explanation—scientific or otherwise. He clearly admits,  for example, that protein formation from amino acids requires an “uphill process” that “heads in the wrong direction, thermodynamically speaking.”xxx And it is not simply for lack of energy input into the system that such a process is in the “wrong  direction.” As Davies notes:

To be sure, there would have been no lack of available energy sources on the early Earth to provide the work needed to forge the peptide bonds, but just throwing energy at the problem is no solution. The same energy sources that generate organic molecules also serve to destroy them. To work constructively, the energy has to be targeted at the specific reaction required. Uncontrolled energy input, such as simple heating, is far more likely to prove destructive than constructive.xxxi

Again, not to misrepresent Davies, he is discussing origin of life in the first place, not Darwinian descent with modification. However, the same considerations come into play with the Darwinian simple-to-specified-complex origin of species. The Darwinian process requires massive amounts of entropy-reducing gains in specified complex information to be generated naturally (albeit over long periods of time, but the Second Law is not any less applicable over long periods of time).xxxii Simply attributing such entropy-defying requirements to “energy from the sun,” as Dawkins and Berra do, suffers from the same defects as Davies’ origin of life explanations would if he also took such a lazy, circumspect route.

To reiterate, simply “throwing energy” at the problem of the Second Law’s applicability to evolution is not a solution—natural laws based on chance and necessity are incapable of converting raw energy into information-rich, complex, specified structures.xxxiii Simply invoking the sun into the earth’s system as a cure-all for evolutionary complexity ignores the fact that raw, undirected energy is not known to be capable in itself, i.e., in the absence of a directing law or process (or person, such as Berra’s bicycle maker), of providing order out of disorder, much less specified order, and further much less specified complexity. As mentioned previously, and confirmed by Davies, the undirected energy of the sun has the opposite effect—in the absence of an imposed ordering principle (like photosynthesis), the sun’s radiation tends to break down matter into less ordered states.

The British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington regarded the Second Law as occupying the supreme position among the laws of nature. He once wrote:

[I]f your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest

To this sentiment Darwinists have yet to answer. That is, Darwinists have yet to propose any natural law, process, or mechanism that can “get something for nothing” as evolution requires. Specifically, what Darwinists have yet to explain is the origin of the information-rich, specified complexity exhibited by living organisms. Appealing to the sun to explain Second-Law-defying phenomena is like assuring us that somewhere a water wheel is pushing water uphill on its own simply because the sun is shining brightly.

With rare exceptions humility is not a selected trait among leading Darwinists. Nevertheless, Eddington is correct; and, like water running downhill against an earthen dam, the unyielding reality of the Second Law will continue to build up against the leaky dike of Darwinism. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before Darwinism is washed away by a flood of inviolable truth.

Roddy Bullock, Executive Director of Intelligent Design Network of Ohio (www.idnetohio.com), is an engineer, lawyer, and the author of The Cave Painting: A Parable of Science (Access Research Network, 2006), from which this piece is adapted. Copyright Roddy M. Bullock 2006, all rights reserved. Citations and quotations permitted with attribution.

i The term “work” is central to the ideas that follow, but, unfortunately, it has a technical meaning that is unlike the intuitive notion most people have. For a very readable discussion explaining the concept of “work,” as well as “energy,” “entropy,” and other concepts central to the topic of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, see, Isaac Asimov, Understanding Physics, 3 Volumes in 1 (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), pp. 90-92, 220-40. Readers may associate Asimov’s name with science fiction, but Asimov also wrote nonfiction works, including the Understanding Physics trilogy. The books are written for the lay reader with a minimum of jargon and mathematical equations. Also, although Asimov was an admitted atheist and a full-fledged evolutionist, the book is remarkably free of “up is really down” convoluted explanations in the crucial area of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
ii Ibid., p. 230.
iii Ibid., p. 228.
iv Asimov notes another way students have learned to remember the basic idea of the First and Second Laws: “It has been said that the
first law of thermodynamics states: ‘You can’t win,’ and that the second law of thermodynamics adds, ‘And you can’t break even,
either’” (Ibid., p. 229).
v Ibid., p. 231, emphasis added.
vi Ibid.
vii Ibid.
viii Ibid., p. 238.
ix Ibid., p. 239.
x Ibid.
xi It is true that natural processes can produce simple ordered structures; therefore, the lowest energy state can be ordered by physical
constraints such as molecular attraction or barriers to further potential energy loss. Thus, natural laws and physical constraints on a
system can produce well-known “anti-entropic” simple order, such as the order in a crystal structure. The geometrical arrangement of
a crystal lattice is determined predominantly by the interatomic forces operating. Ibid., p. 251. Likewise, marbles dropped on a flat,
level surface come to rest in an “ordered” manner because all come to rest in the same plane. However, such “ordering” is simply a
result of natural laws and physical constraints and is not to be confused with the origin of specified complexity necessary to drive
xii See, e.g., the National Association of Biology Teachers stated in their “Statement on Teaching Evolution,” as one of their “tenets of
science”: “Evolution does not violate the second law of thermodynamics: producing order from disorder is possible with the addition
of energy, such as from the sun” (NAS, Teaching About Evolution, p. 127). Likewise, the subject is dealt with at www.talkorigins.org
on a page that starts, “Creationists believe that the second law of thermodynamics does not permit order to arise from disorder …” In
addition to being a straw man argument that starts from a false premise (at least for intelligent design theorists, who have no doubt that
“order” can arise from disorder in full compliance with the Second Law), the lengthy text-book exposition on entropy does little to
address the issue. The entry closes by noting: “Considering the earth as a system, any change that is accompanied by an entropy
decrease (and hence going back from higher probability to lower probability) is possible as long as sufficient energy is available. The
ultimate source of most of that energy, is of course, the sun” (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/thermo/probability.html, October 28,
2002). The assertions of this statement can easily be refuted, but for our purposes two fallacies need only be identified. First, creation
of “order” is not at issue—creation of “specified complexity” or “irreducible complexity” needs to be explained by Darwinists.
Second it is not true that “entropy decreases” are “going from higher probability to lower probability.” In anti-entropic systems such
as crystal growth, the decreased entropy states are the higher probability states due to restraining forces such as molecular forces.
xiii Mayr, What Evolution Is, p. 8. The Second Law, or thermodynamics in general, is not even mentioned in the index to Mayr’s book.
The only other mention of “entropy” is in the glossary in which it is evident that Mayr apparently does not even understand the
concept. Entropy is defined by Mayr as “The degradation of matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity.
Entropy can be reached only in a closed system” (Ibid., p. 285). The first sentence is not a definition of entropy, but it is at least an
acceptable description of the effects of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and can pass for a description of “entropy” for the lay
reader. However, the second sentence is simply wrong. Entropy is a measure of something, like other measures such as temperature,
weight, or distance. The second sentence is analogous to saying “Temperature can be reached only in a closed system.” Mistakes are
excusable, but such cursory treatment of a topic otherwise given short shrift by someone of Mayr’s stature is difficult to understand.
xiv Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain, p. 84. Elsewhere Dawkins refers to arguments that evolution violates the Second Law of
Thermodynamics as “ignorant nonsense” (Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, p. 94).
xv Ibid., emphasis in original. Dawkins here includes a footnote that the facts referred to are “About life’s functional complexity or
high ‘information content.’”
xvi Tim M. Berra, Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 126.
xvii Ibid., emphasis in original.
xviii Not the blunder referred to as “Berra’s Blunder” by Phillip E. Johnson (Berra showed four Corvette automobiles from different
years to illustrate descent with modification. Thinking he was defending Darwinian evolution against creationist explanations, Berra
unwittingly showed the opposite—creation by design). In the present blunder (perhaps called Berra’s Blunder II), Berra successfully
argues for the necessity of intelligence in utilizing energy to get “order out of disorder.”
xix Paul Davies, The Fifth Miracle, The Search for the Origin of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999).
xx Ibid., p. 52.
xxi Ibid.
xxii Ibid., p. 53.
xxiii Like the person assembling Berra’s bicycle, directed energy is the question, not the answer.
xxiv Ibid., pp. 53-54.
xxv Or, like claiming that a bicycle could put itself together from parts if there are enough other bicycle parts being destroyed while
xxvi For example, in the face of such overwhelming, impossible odds for life forming in the first place, Davies entertains the idea that
life has always existed. That is, there was no origin of life, because life is eternal, “spread around the universe … without having
originated anywhere in particular” (Ibid., pp. 247-49).
xxvii With respect to problems presented regarding the chance origin of life, Davies stated, “If you have found the foregoing argument
persuasive, you could be forgiven for concluding that a genome really is a miraculous object. However, most of the problems I have
outlined above apply with equal force to the evolution of the genome over time” (Ibid., p. 120).
xxviii Ibid., p. 62.
xxix Ibid., p. 63.
xxx Ibid., p. 89.
xxxi Ibid., p. 91.
xxxiii Of course, things designed to do so can convert energy into complex structures.
xxxiv Ibid., p. 51, quoting A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1928), p. 74.

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