The Second Law (and Discovery Institute) Defeat Evolution Once Again

I am moving @Ashwin_s’ particular challenge to a new thread since the other one is about whale evolution. One might ask why must we have another topic on the 2nd law of thermodynamics and evolution when it’s been discussed here, here, here, or here- which is a good question. None the less, I present this 2013 article from the Discovery Institute’s scientific journal:

I personally believe that I have been bested here by a mathematician (not a physicist or a computational biologist?-ah no matter) who references a college Physics textbook, some atheists’ quotes and a few papers on the topic.

It’s laughable, especially this part:

“It is widely argued that the spectacular local decreases in entropy that occurred on Earth as a result of the origin and evolution of life and the development of human intelligence are not inconsistent with the second law of thermodynamics, because the Earth is an open system and entropy can decrease in an open system, provided the decrease is compensated by entropy increases outside the system. I refer to this as the compensation argument, and I argue that it is without logical merit, amounting to little more than an attempt to avoid the extraordinary probabilistic difficulties posed by the assertion that life has originated and evolved by spontaneous processes.” [emphasis mine]

It is without logical merit? Really? The Earth’s oceans are not at thermal equilibrium. The water at the equator is warmer than the water at the poles. According the the Discovery Institute, this should not be the case. It seems that reality itself disagrees with the Discovery Institute.


I’m finally sitting down to look at it @Ashwin_s , thanks @T_aquaticus for your post! Before I begin though, Ashwin, presumably you believe that this paper is accurate and thorough. Is that true?

And also I will note, Bio-Complexity is the big academic side of the Discovery Institute that is aiming to flex the muscles of intelligent design and compete with academia. Let me see what kinds of things I see in the paper.

  1. It begins with a joke! There is NOT a long standing debate, at least not in any academic circles between the 2nd law and evolution.
  2. The textbook definitions of the second law… they’re fine but very easy to misunderstand and the second law of thermodynamics is not absolute. I don’t see why statement 1 doesn’t have any relevance to evolution AND why on earth is this his basis for evaluating such a big topic. That is just wrong and crazy to me to base and begin their argument off of a 1973 undergraduate Physics textbook.
  3. The compensation critique is unjustified and just plain silly. The compensation argument is a fact. The author doesn’t seem to acknowledge this. I wonder how he imagines ice is made or mountains come into existence. Maybe tornados have something to do with it.
  4. His four test scenarios are ridiculous and set up a ridiculous set of strawmen. Forget it I can’t read this paper anymore. If you want to look at a certain point I can but this is one of the poorest, most ridiculous papers that I’ve ever tried to read. I am flabbergasted that he imagines anyone who acknowledges the fact of compensation actually argues for his scenario’s C and D. He challenges them to prove that tornadoes can create airplanes from a junkyard. I’m just shaking my head.

Let me just note a few things here in general about entropy:

  • In the early universe, there was just a sea of particles (quarks, gluons, neutrinos, electrons, etc.). It increased the overall entropy for them to combine and clump together once the temperature decreased enough. From our perspective, we would say ‘bah, this is breaking the second law’ but we’d be incorrect in our intuition. The gravitational clumping of matter and formation of particles actually increased the total entropy of the universe despite the clear ‘organization of matter into early seeds of galaxies.’
  • First year Chemistry students study ‘spontaneous chemical reactions’ by looking at the overall entropy of a reaction- some reactions are spontaneous, but other require some additional energy to overcome the reaction barrier. One can also understand why lipid bilayers also tend to form spherical shapes by looking at the overall binding energy and thermal energy of the system.
  • You can break the second law even with thousands of molecules:
  • The second law is also not absolute in that given sufficient time, systems near equilibrium will spontaneously fluctuate into lower-entropy states:
  • I think Jeremy England of MIT has a really neat approach to the origins of life and entropy:

It reminds me of a bunch of climate change deniers I’ve met which stated that the earth getting hotter was against the second law because heat tends to dissipate…Oh boy…they even stated that climate change was anti-scientific for that.


The paper is a simple argument for a concept. It does not have any in depth mathematical treatment. I do agree with the main argument though- That the second law is not only about energy, but also about use of energy.The main challenge found in life is not just order, its also organisation.

Even a rudimentary search will show you several papers published over the last 4 decades dealing with thermodynamics and evolution (esp in origin of life scenarios).
Lte me quote some papers -
One in 1994:

In short, our re-examination of thermodynamics shows that the second law underlies and determines the direction of many of the processes observed in the development of living systems. This work harmonizes physics and biology at the macro level and shows that biology is not an exception to physics, we have simply misunderstood the rules of physics.
Attempts to “harmonise” evolution and physics is still on… you will still find papers trying to do that.
The paper is also useful in showing how exactly biologists hope to “Harmonise” Physics and biology at a macro level.
We take the restated laws of thermodynamics of Hatsopoulos and Keenan and Kestin and extend them so that in nonequilibrium regions processes and systems can be described in terms of gradients maintaining systems away from equilibrium. In this context, the second law mandates that as systems are moved away from equilibrium they will take advantage of all means available to them to resist externally applied gradients. Our expansion of the second law immediately applies to complex systems in nonequilibrium settings
unlike classical statements which are restricted to equilibrium or near equilibrium conditions
.Away from equilibrium, highly ordered stable complex systems can emerge, develop, and grow at the expense of more disorder at higher levels in the system’s hierarchy.

Basically, the science is clear that Biological complexity cannot arise at Equilibrium or near equilibrium states… The only thing left is an assertion that such complexity can arise in non-Linear, non-equilibrium states… i.e in complex situations with a continuous energy supply through a phenomenon called self organisation.
That’s definitely interesting. What exactly does such a system that can simulate life look like ? What are the constraints required? Until this is defined, all we have is speculation based on faith in materialism.

Last time i checked, ice is made through loss of heat… i assure you, putting ice under the hot sun will not help the process :slight_smile: Ice can and does exist without the help of the sun.
Are you claiming mountains come into existence because of the Sun?

What makes the compensation theory applied to evolution ridiculous is that it connects things which are not necessarily connected.The earth as a planet receives sunlight and radiates heat out. This is a loss of entropy of the sunlight.Mercury also does this. and so does jupiter and mars … Do they have life?
I have read papers in biology which have more or less made the laws of thermodynamic teleological…
And this is more or less the authors point when he wonders whether tornadoes can create?

Actually, no one would claim that…
A calculation will show that free energy with planets is less than for a corresponding mass of free quarks/gluons etc. This works on an intuition level too… no one is surprised by steam condensing to water.

Over time, the law will hold. There is no free lunch.

This ones a really weird paper… more about the magic of statistics than reality. And it is not relevant to origins of life/evolution…

More computer simulations with improbable conditions.
In his own words:
“That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to acquire that structure,” England explained. The dynamics of the system are too complicated and nonlinear to predict what will happen."

The second law says nothing about the specific use of energy. That is something the ID crowd has tried to tack on to the law with no justification.

They are saying that in biological systems there are regions that are far from equilibrium which allows the evolution of complexity.

Doesn’t change the fact that you can have pockets of negative entropy within a system, as long as there is an increase in entropy in the system as a whole. It is completely within the second law for this to happen.


Ever heard of a guy called Clausius? Or Gibbs free energy?

Yes they are… because systems near or at equilibrium cannot generate said complexity…
And there is no proof that even systems far from equilibrium can generate the kind of complexity in a cell… That’s just an extrapolation from observations of increased order in some special cases of systems far from equilibrium and the fact that there is no other possible explanation currently.
Hence thermodynamics is still a problem for evolution in two ways

  1. it rules out life emerging in equilibrium/near equilibrium conditions.
  2. It makes situations where life emerges extremely improbable.
    I recently read a paper regarding life emerging in other planets… let me leave their concluding remarks for you to think on:

As Elbert Branscomb argued in this meeting, life is not a means
of aggregating ‘building blocks’, but instead is concerned with developing nanoengines (not mere catalysts) that can couple thermodynamically opposed processes, in order to create one disequilibrium at the expense of dissipating another.

In short… life is a miracle.

Sure… even the working of an IC engine is within the second law.
The question is whether “natural processes” that are accomplish far more work than an IC engine can emerge from natural chemical/physical interactions.
There are constraints involved in converting energy to work. “It needs to create “one disequilibria while dissipating the other” … and creating nano machines while doing that”…

I’m not sure I follow you here.

You don’t need to quote any papers. Sure, people have written about it, focused on it, but it’s not such an alarming topic of concern that many anti-evolutionary creationists make it out to be. The idea of a ‘long standing debate’ is not whether or not the two ideas of entropy and evolution are compatible (which they are) but rather the specific details of how we should apply the concept of entropy to the evolutionary process and abiogenesis.

What specifically are you trying to argue here and what does ‘biological complexity’ look like to you? I gave an example of a lipid bilayer that starts to come together via electrostatic and hydrophobic interactions that eventually spontaneously form a near perfect sphere.

Ashwin what are you talking about here exactly? I think perhaps what you are talking about is related to the origin of life itself? In that sense, sure, new structures/features/etc. will generally not spontaneously come about in a state of equilibrium. However, in case you aren’t aware, the earth has constantly been changing over the past 4 billion years.

For example, here’s one Origins of Life Researcher, Nick Lane who is working on the hydrothermal vent hypothesis (i.e. he’s not looking at any systems that are ‘close to equilibrium’ as you put it as it)

Or this paper explores the addition of many new trace metals to the Earth starting ~1.9 billion years ago:

The point was supposed to be that the formation of ice represents a local decrease in entropy for the ice/water system. That is, the local decrease in entropy was compensated from somewhere else-say a freezer.

The formation of a mountain represents a local decrease in entropy as overtime, mountains decay and decrease, crumbling down to the ground. But the decrease in entropy of a mountain being formed was the result of plate tectonic movement that is influenced by many other factors including even the sun!

What do you mean? What things are not connected?

No one would claim what?

Okay… but you can break it in miniature systems in a local way. I.e. exactly the types of systems that many elementary biochemical processes are based on.

At least he’s trying to solve the problem and not content to sit in a theological armchair simply saying “ah you don’t know but I do; God just did it!”

And the crazy is that he is showing, using the same equations that you are claiming prove that there cannot be any natural origins of life, that collections of molecules can arrange themselves in such a way that decreases their entropy but increases their ability to increase entropy as a collection-that is cool! But you appear to just casually dismiss him.

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I guess that is a good opportunity to discuss that theory

What do you guys think, @pevaquark @T_aquaticus?

I particularly found it a little bit weird since it seems to postulate that entropy not only has to increase but that it also tries to find the most efficient way of doing so, which is not at all postulated by the second law (I.E. You can accelerate the rate of increase of enthropy by burning wood, but there is no law stating that it cannot go to the higher entropy state at a very slow rate, as it indeed does without interference). For me that theory of his would only make sense if there was some law dictating that entropy has to at least tend to accelerate the rate of its increase, but maybe I’m just misunderstandng the theoretical basis of his theory.,

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Yes, have you? Gibb’s free energy is the foundation of biochemistry, and is used to model all reactions in the cell. Guess what? Biochemistry follows the laws of thermodynamics.

That is not an issue for thermodynamics. The second law clearly states that systems which are not at equilibrium can result in parts of the system losing entropy (i.e. gaining order). It is completely allowable within the laws of thermodynamics.

So what part of the evolutionary process do you think is violating the laws of thermodynamics?

Random mutations?
Vertical inheritance?
Natural selection?

That’s abiogenesis, not evolution.

The Earth does that on a daily basis. Sea currents are a perfect example.

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If that were the case then refrigerators wouldn’t work. Since refrigerators do work . . .

Also, I see no reason why heat loss would go by the most efficient route possible. It’s not as if the universe materializes a copper wire out of the void in order to short out two sides of a capacitor so that the difference in voltage can be brought to equilibrium in the most efficient manner.

Exactly. But he does seem to be a serious researcher and has publisehd these models in respectable journals, which is why I think I may be missing something in his theory. But if it does in fact need to postulate some principle of ever increasing dissipation eficiency then it does seen very flawed for the reasons we discussed.

I think the idea is that given some kind of external energy source/field, molecules can arrange themselves in a very orderly way (i.e. with lower entropy) that leads to their collective ability to dissipate energy even better than a random array. That is to say that ultimately, life-in an increasing way on Earth is more and more effective at increasing the total entropy of our surroundings. Human beings are the most extreme example of this at least on Earth with some kind of curve like this from a BioLogos post:

Righto. It is definitely not a matter of the most efficient route possible and as of now England’s idea is just a microscopic type of idea that applies to atoms and molecules that have more freedom to move around at least as I understand it.

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Most of the current theories in origin of life speculate upon a phenomenon described by Prigogine- in Some cases where there is continuous supply of energy to sytems in far from equilibrium states, there is a tendency for increase in order (example convection of water when heated). Of course this order is far from what is requird to form even the simplest biomolecules. So a Guy called Alan Cottrell hypothesised that small machines are sometimes formed at disequilibria conditions and these machines produce free energy which is in turn used to produce more complex machines and so on… leading to further development through evolution. This is the idea that is developed in many origin of life investigations.
Machines of course mean organisation… and that’s the improbable miracle that needs to happen fro life to form (a chain of machines , one creating the other progressively
till we have the first machine capable of metabolism/reproduction). I will link to cottrells paper below -

Read origins of life papers. Its one of the major hurdles to be overcome.
And of course, papers which don’t deal with origins already have awell functioning system to base their assumptions on.

Like i said… read origins of life papers…

There is a direct agent which removes heat and transfers it to a sink in case of a freezer converting water to ice.
In case of the origin of life (which is where things need to start in a system where the sunlight creates increasing complexity); we don’t have any know mechanism which does this.
The compensation theory as an explanation of life is a statement of faith… not a an explanation at all…
Like i have sad before… mercury receives a lot more sunlight than we do,… no life there…

Read the rest of the lines…

Examples please.

Sure its cool… But i have every right to point out that it doesn’t really explain much…
He is being casually dismissed because he (or he article in the news) are making exaggerated claims.

Then you wont have a problem with conceding that thermodynamics is about what energy can do and its use.

A system capable of all this arising by chance through natural processes.

No evolution without abiogenesis…

All we need are a chain of natural refrigerators…
something like a biolab…

The reason the universe needs to find the most efficient way to dissipate energy is to get a direction of development… if it didn’t have a purpose and efficiency is not important, there would be no chain of self organising molecules leading to increasing complexity… every step forward would be followed by a step back… leading to zero net gain in complexity.
Of course its a mute question whether the universe really does that… I am sure there is some probabilty for it to happen… however ridiculously low.

@Ashwin_s (@pevaquark)

A sufficiently large hot cloud of gas, as it cools, eventually aggregates itself via gravity… to the point where the gases once again heat up… gravity conquering molecular resistance, until a blazing ball of nuclear fusion is created…which produces billions of years of a steady stream of energy on the misc. planets now circle the star.

The laws of thermodynamics apply to pockets of reality above and below star formation. If they uniformly applied everywhere… there would be no new stars.

I’m learning a lot from all writers here, including @Ashwin_s. However, it appears to me that in a universe as complex as ours, it’s a simple matter to find a conundrum that we don’t (yet) understand. It’s only moderately harder to delve into that and find a yet more complex problem that we don’t understand (such as the origin of life). We can praise God for the regularity of physics and the joy of finding things about His creation as we learn. However, that doesn’t mean that God ex nihilo “did” it and it’s the point of irreducible complexity, just because we don’t know the ultimate next step in formation. It might even rock someone’s faith if they found that what we thought was a miracle at one point depended on other physics that we don’t yet understand. It’s happened before.

Greg Boyd wrote in “The Benefit of the Doubt” that he gave up, after years of repeated revision of his early (YEC and inerrancy) beliefs, trying to construct a new house of cards, because he repeatedly had to destroy it and build one again. He finally said that God existed and worshiped Him without trying to explain Him. I kind of feel like that when trying to define complexity as “design,” implying a miracle that we can’t understand.

At any rate, thanks for the teaching. It does remind me of the story of the blind men and the elephant–everyone sees something of the truth. Iron sharpens iron, and each seems to contribute to the other’s knowledge (at least, mine)!


There is nothing stopping God from having mechanisms to create (And nothing preventing ex nihilo creation… he must have done it at some point). However, these tools cannot be truly mindless processes… because God is the one welding them.The argument for irreducible complexity is not that such mechanisms cannot arise through natural means… but rather that they cannot arise without intelligent input.Its a question of whom to ascribe the glory.
Design in nature is self evident. We have organisms independently developing the same solutions to problems… like camera eyes, gliding, tail flukes and so on. It’s obvious their must be a cause to this similarity. The common sense is design. However science credits this to natural selection (Dawkins blind Watchman). There is no evidence that natural selection or random mutation can do this kind of thing. It is assumed, and where the facts don’t fit, natural selection becomes a Godlike being that can create anything.

I can understand where you are coming from. As for me, I was an atheist/agnostic when I first learned about evolution in school. The biology class was what made me a theist… It’s not about science so much as It’s about world view . It’s not that Darwinism or naturalistic explanations are the best explanations. It’s just that they are the only ones considered as a matter of deliberate choice. As a result, science has replaced a miracle done by God with an accident of chance.
Besides, science also has to rebuild it’s deck of cards when it falls. Darwinism fell and had to be replaced by neo Darwinism… and that’s also in bad straights… Scientists have to keep revising their beliefs too…
Already they are looking for a magic wand to replace or at least booster natural selection… the current candidates seem to be thermodynamics and epigenetics…

It’s a learning experience for me also. I also am challenged by many of the facts presented. However, I think ID is the more honest stance and closer tot he truth also.

Fine, but my problem with his idea is the fact that these same molecules could acquire more freedom by many ways, and while life can certainly arise during that process (as long as the total entropy of the system increases), I don’t see why it would be even slightly preferable than, lets say, just going to a more deorganized state without generating anything like life. The only way in which I can see his ideas making sense is if for some reason, the formation of efficient energy-dissipating systems that would increase the rate of entropy increase (like life or copper wires like T_aquaticus suggested) were preferable to other possible “routes”, which I don’t see why would be the case…I’m not saying that that can’t happen, just that I think it is just as likely as many other entropy-increasing outcomes, regardless of the rate, and his theory would only have any relevance to explain why life began if it somehow showed that entropy increasing in that way is somehow more likely than other ways. What in the laws of physics could possibly say that we SHOULD be more likely to become more and more efficient at dissipating energy?

I dont believe this was said before, and if it was, sorry for the repeat. There are many important biochemical reactions that go on in cells (and even in aqueous solution) that appear to produce a decrease in entropy. But in those cases, when one calculates the change in entropy for the surrounding water molecules, one finds an overall increase in entropy as a result of the reaction. We always need to remember when doing entropy calculations that one needs to include the entire system. And of course, its a mistake to simply look at a reaction and deduce that entropy had decreased because there appears to be more order. The only way to know is to make measurements and calculate the actual deltaS. The result is often surprising. The second law, is above all a mathematical law, not a vague description about disorder and organization. Those things follow from the second law, but do not define it.


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