Re: evolution and 2. law of thermodynamics

Allan Harvey (aharvey@boulder.nist.gov)
Fri, 05 Nov 1999 08:37:28 -0700

At 12:19 PM 11/5/99 +0100, Inge Frette wrote:

>In his book "The battle for the beginnings" philosopher
>Del Ratzsch writes that evolutionists generally misunderstand
>creationists when the creationists argues against evolution
>basing the argument on thermodynamics.
>He writes that when the creationists uses this argument, the system
>they have in mind is the whole universe, and that the evolutionists normally
>respond with discussing biological systems on earth.
>On page 92 he writes
>"Critics of creationism almost without exception take this initial creationist
>claim to be about purely biological evolution on the earth and respond that
>the Second Law applies only to closed systems, whereas the earth, receiving
>energy from the sun, is thermodynamically open. But since the system
>actually in question here is the entire universe, which is the "prime
>example"
>of a closed system, the response that the Second Law only applies to closed
>systems is beside the point creationists mean to be making in this case."
>
>Is Ratzsch correct when he argues that creationists GENERALLY have the
>entire universe (as a system) in mind in their argumentation ?
>Are the evolutionists that respond generally missing the point
>of the creationists?

I was frustrated by that piece of Ratzsch's book, which overall I found
to be pretty good. It is true that, on rare occasions, the
"creationists" use more sophisticated versions of the 2nd law argument
than the usual "entropy must increase and it hasn't on the Earth"
version. But it is silly to fault those who respond to them for
rebutting the argument as it is presented 98% of the time rather than
focusing on the 2% whose argument is slightly less specious.

Ratzsch and the 2% fail to mention that looking at the whole universe
does not help the anti-evolutionist cause. If one applies the 2nd law to
the whole universe, one finds that it has been obeyed very well (even
Hugh Ross makes this point). If the universe is the system, the
development of complex life in our little corner is negligible and
permitted by the 2nd law.

The other more sophisticated version one sees occasionally is to go back
to the Earth as the system, recognize that it is not isolated, but say
that there must be "energy conversion mechanisms" to overcome the
tendency of the isolated system toward increasing entropy. I believe
this is the tack taken by Bradley, Thaxton, et al. And that is basically
right, though a more usual scientific name for these mechanisms would be
"dissipative structures". But that still doesn't help the
anti-evolutionists, because these mechanisms exist (all sorts of
biochemistry). Then they usually fall back on the unlikelihood of such
structures arising naturally (arguments like those of Yockey or Behe).
I'm not qualified to judge those particular arguments, but at that point
one is talking about biochemical probabilities and is no longer really in
the realm of thermodynamics proper.

I discuss most of this and some other things in my essay "The Second Law
of Thermodynamics in the Context of the Christian Faith":
http://www.shawangunk.com/scichr/essays/thermo.html

-------------------------------------------------------------------------
| Dr. Allan H. Harvey | aharvey@boulder.nist.gov |
| Physical and Chemical Properties Division | "Don't blame the |
| National Institute of Standards & Technology | government for what I |
| 325 Broadway, Boulder, CO 80303 | say, or vice versa." |
-------------------------------------------------------------------------