That Pesky Second Law of Thermodynamics

It seems creationists never get tired of this one. I've lost count of how many times I've been told that it makes evolution impossible, and I just ran into someone using it again over here.

Let's begin by getting something straight. This is the actual, real life, second law of thermodynamics:

∫(δQ/T) ≥0

It is not some kind of cosmic legislation written down in the Universe's list of statutes that states "things shall not get more complex naturally!" It's a mathematical expression. More precisely, it's a mathematical expression that describes a specific set of conditions. But when you need to explain what that means to people who don't "speak math" you have to translate it into english instead, which is where the problem happens.

You can do it well:

"The total energy available to do work in an isolated system can never increase."  or... "The total entropy of an isolated system can never decrease" or several other formulations that are all equally valid. (The "isolated system" part is particularly critical)

Or you can do it like creationists:

"The Second Law of Thermodynamics, simply stated, says that everything has a tendency to run down, decay and get worse, if left to itself.

Click the link, I don't make this stuff up. They actually say this. The second law of thermodynamics makes abandoned houses get run down and cars left outside get trashed. It's not just that guy, I've heard this so many times I've lost track. Ugh.

While we're on the subject, you can do the same thing with the meaning of entropy.

Real definition: Entropy = The total energy in a system no longer available to perform work.

Creationist definition: Entropy = Disorder and decay!

Now to get into why creationists have no idea what they're talking about when it comes to thermodynamics we should start by defining some terms...

Entropy: See above
System Boundary: The dividing line between the system you are examining and it's surrounding environment. Can be physical, or simply definitional... but MUST BE SPECIFIED.
Open System: A system which can exchange matter and energy with it's surroundings across the system boundary.
Closed System: A system that can exchange energy but NOT matter across it's boundary.
Isolated System: A system that cannot exchange either matter or energy across it's boundary.

It's only in that last one where the second law says you can't see a decrease in entropy. Where there is no external source of energy providing fuel for the process the system is going to continuously use up the energy it has available to work with until it's all gone.

Creationists try to claim the second law means evolution is impossible because it causes localized decreases in entropy. For the second law to actually say that was impossible evolution would have to be doing this without getting the energy for it from anywhere... the earth would have to be an isolated system that does not receive any external energy input.

So... the next time a creationist tells you the Second Law makes evolution impossible then assuming it's daytime tell them to go outside, look up, and ask them if they see a giant ball of burning plasma in the sky bombarding them with light and heat. (a.k.a.... energy!)

I almost feel embarassed to be burning a post on such a worn out issue, but as long as creationists keep using it people need to keep correcting them I guess.


  1. My point, retard, is you got a lot of nerve to tell me what to do. I noticed I never tell you suck-up wimps what to do. But I will tell you right now anyway. You suck-ups are just as responsible for religious insanity (terrorism, creationism, etc.) as the worst fundamentalists. Terrorists, creationists, and other religious extremists need your respect to exist. So fuck off asshole.

    I've had it with your spam. I was hoping you would have decency to take a hint, but since you can't do that, now I have to waste my time creating a gmail filter to vaporize your comments.

  2. Oh look, that first one did get through. I thought I accidentally deleted that.

    For anyone who might stumble across this and wonder what the heck he's talking about, I was recently nacigating the intertubes when I came across this posting:


    ...at Human Ape's blog, and left a comment (which he apparently declined to allow to be published) giving him the advice that if he wanted to be more effective at presenting his case he should consider taking a deep breath and counting to 10 before posting these things... and that getting as worked up as he does over these issues is counter-productive.

    This is the result.

  3. Hey Grant:

    Lance here . . . the guy you and Ape think is so mentally handicapped and dangerous. I was re-reading our string of post several months ago and decided I'd see if you were still writing a blog. Looks like you are and have been rather prolific. Way to go.

    Regarding this article I think your are missing a couple things.

    First I agree that the earth itself is indeed an open system and that it does get energy from the sun. Where did the sun's energy come from however? According to the big bang theory the universe is an isolated system . . . Where did the energy come from in the universe in order to act upon the many semi-closed systems (such as the earth) within it?

    Second, is energy and matter alone enough to create the order of life we see on earth? You seem to like analogies so here's one that may help the discussion: Energy and material are certainly required to build the computer I am typing on yet they alone are not exclusively able to do so. To do the "work" that the energy did to produce the purposeful components that make up a functioning computer there also had to be information in the form of plans (that came from creative ideas). The energy applied to the raw materials that make up this computer had to be precisely and purposefully directed to create the order. Energy alone is not work. Only directed energy toward a purpose is work.

    Where does the information to direct the energy in earth's admitedly open system come from? Wouldn't such information be neccessary to create and sustain the order we plainly see as everyday life?

  4. Lance, I'd appreciate it if you'd read a little more carefully. A few points:

    That person Human Ape is calling a retard in that comment up there is *me*. And the reason he is calling me a retard is because I disagreed with his calling people like yourself one and told him so... which got me labelled a terrorist sympathizer somehow. Not only did I disagree with his calling you that here, I went over to his blog and disagreed with him there, and I wrote an entire posting here ("People who just aren't helping") disagreeing with his approach in general.

    What I DID say about you, and stand by that statement, is that it was just plain bizarre that you thought I was some kind of imposter ringer in a comments section discussion of evolution who had created a fake blog as part of my fake identity... and that that kind of conspiracy oriented mindset appears to be built in to creationist worldviews considering the degree to which one has to decide all scientific evidence on the matter is either false or somehow manufactured in order to discount it.

    And to answer your questions:

    1. The sun's energy comes from hydrogen fusion. And nobody is claiming the *net* entropy of the solar system isn't increasing as that fusion occurs. The entropy decrease occuring in the form of biological life on earth developping is so incrediubly massively dwarfed by that increase at the sun that the 2nd law simply isn't a factor in discussions of evolutionary theory.

    2. The universe in it's entirety hasn't been thermodynamically defined as an isolated system because we don't know the nature of the system boundaries or the manner in which the laws of physics operate on them. Even were that not the case however the origins of the universe is a question of cosmology, not biology, and has absolutely nothing to do with evolutionary theory.

    3. Define "information" as you are using it please, I suspect you have fallen for the usual ID buzzword salad approach to convincing people they have any idea what they are talking about. Information theory has been one of their favorites in recent years. What specific technical type of information are you speaking of?

    Leaving that aside... energy, matter and the laws of physics and chemistry are, yes, quite enough to create the "order of life" we see on earth without any external intelligent intervention required. Evolution does not require "plans", it just requires environmental constraints on organism viability and reproduction with variation. The rest inevitably takes care of itself once those conditions are established.

  5. I’ll agree with you that the second law of thermodynamics alone cannot be used to disprove the observed increase in order on earth because the earth is open to energy from the sun. To make the claim however, that critics of evolutionary theory are applying the second law of thermodynamics without considering this is a mischaracterization. You’re making it a little too easy on yourself.

    The 2nd law (along with the first) is used to point out that a materialistic theory for the origins of any system that demonstrates order (life on earth, the solar system, the universe) must call upon something outside of itself to explain its origin and sustenance. When addressing this aspect of the universe you yourself address the issue by stating that:

    “we don't know the nature of the system boundaries or the manner in which the laws of physics operate on them.”

    Basically, you - right along with those of us who believe there is a God - are saying that there is something more than what is currently scientifically measurable that is required to explain the realities we observe.

    The 2nd law argument is used to establish that all of us holding theories of life’s origins must call upon transcendent factors . . . even atheists. In this regard it is very applicable to the debate on evolutionary theory.

    Regarding information; in the case of life origins, I am of course speaking of the information coded in genetic material. But really the concept of information is one that is bigger than just this and I don’t want to get distracted by the minutia of technical arguments. The reason I introduced the analogy of the computer is to show that the concepts of energy, matter, work and information are inseparably tied together in any system that displays an increasingly complex order.

    If you are uncomfortable with the term “information” because it is somehow associated with a group you don’t like we could always make the terminology more inclusive and state that: for evolution to take place we would need matter, energy, and something "metaphysical." This metaphysical category would/could now include not just information but the physical laws of chemistry and physics that you say are necessary constraints. By the way . . . what was the origin of these constraints?

    If you wish to stay true to your atheistic beliefs you must explain if the metaphysical components came from the matter and energy on earth, or from matter and energy in the universe . . . To claim that they came from some yet to be explained force or entity does not put you in a position to criticize one who calls this force God.

  6. It is not a mischaracterization. When you start taking poetic license with laws of physics by saying things like "demonstrates order" and "call on something outside itself" you are just asking to get into trouble. What the second law says is that the net entropy of a thermodynamically isolated system never decreases.

    Any minute decreases in entropy happening on the earth as a result of biological processes are absolutely dwarfed by the constant entropy increase occuring in the sun as it burns fuel, which is all that we need to know about how the 2nd law applies to those biological processes. They need energy, they have an energy supply, so we have no problem.

    Taking that to the level of the ultimate origins of the universe as part of a critique of evolution is no different than claiming the computer you are working on right now is obviously scientifically impossible because it requires energy and the energy needs to come from somewhere and you can't say the battery or the power grid because where did the energy for THAT come from.... all the way until you get to the level of where all the energy in the universe came from and AHA! We're violating the second law of thermodynamics by building computers!

    Go ahead and ask the question of where the energy in the universe came from... but it isn't an argument that **building a computer** is violating the 2nd law of thermodynamics now is it?

    Nor are evolutionary processes violating the second law of thermodynamics. In any way.

    "Basically, you - right along with those of us who believe there is a God - are saying that there is something more than what is currently scientifically measurable that is required to explain the realities we observe."

    Please don't try to equate one person simply saying there are still things we don't know with another person saying the things we don't know are the result of the actions a super-powerful supernatural entity that defies scientific explanation.

    Moving on to the information issue, it is not the term "information" I have a problem with, it is using terms that are not properly defined that causes me concern. And when you say things like you don't want to get distracted by "the minutia of technical arguments" that is a big red flag.

    If we are talking about information in a quantitative way, in a way that we are somehow supposed to measure and say "there is this much information here... and this much here... and look, for this to happen information must increase from this level to this level"... then you need to define the term mathematically. Now that has been done in information theory but ID people ignore that because they can't use that definition to make their argument. It doesn't work. If we measure information the way information theory measures it evolutionary processes "creating information" is a perfectly natural and expected result that requires no external "planner" of any kind to explain it.

    So generally Intelligent Design advocates simply refuse to technically define what they're talking about when they use the word "information" at all. They just repeat over and over that there is "information" in the genome, that it had to come from somewhere, and that evolution can't create it. They have no actual substantive arguments to back that last part, they just hope people don't notice. If we're using an actual technical definition of information, like Shannon information... then a mutation creates new information.

    "By the way . . . what was the origin of these constraints?"

    If you mean the laws of physics and chemistry, don't make me start talking about how it's scientifically impossible to build computers again.

    If you're talking about the basic fundamental concept of natural selective pressures... the fact that energy/food sources are not infinite... the fact that habitable surface area is not infinite... etc...