A Study in Religious Dishonesty — Parts 3 & 4:

How Creationists Misunderstand Physics and Argue Illogically

In two previous articles (this one and this one) some basic evolutionary principles were explained, and also some of the ways in which creationism distorts and attacks a caricature of evolution were exposed. This article discusses two more issues that creationists often use in their argumentation against evolution, understanding them insufficiently, and spreading their misinformation. The two issues are: the role of the second law of thermodynamics in evolution (it supposedly prevents evolution unless some “higher authority” works against it, bypassing this law of physics), and the question of why life cannot be created in the lab (at present).


Part 3: “The 2nd law of thermodynamics prevents the evolution of life”

There is a law in physics, called the “second law of thermodynamics”, which concerns “closed physical systems” (a term that will be explained immediately), and roughly says the following:

If left to its own devices, a closed physical system will “wind down”, its structures will be destroyed, all “useful” activity will cease, and the system will arrive at a so-called “state of thermodynamic equilibrium”. 

But what is a “closed physical system”? Imagine something like a spaceship isolated in space, away from all planets, stars, and galaxies, in which no energy arrives from outside. Anything is allowed to happen in the spaceship. You can be an astronaut in it, and busy yourself building things and doing various projects, but no supplies can arrive from the rest of the universe to you, nor can you send anything outside of your spaceship, which is thus a “closed system”.

Well, what do you think will happen to you if you’re left in your spaceship indefinitely, without supplies arriving from outside, without being able to do even something like letting the solar energy of a star come into your lab, using it to charge your batteries, and do useful work, and build things? Everybody knows that, under such conditions, the hapless astronaut is destined to die. But the second law of thermodynamics predicts something even stronger. Even if you’ve had time to build robots that work by recycling their energy, they will at some time stop functioning, because there cannot be anything like “perfect recycling” of energy in your spaceship; some of it will inevitably and inescapably be lost as thermal energy (heat). Given sufficient time, not only will your robots stop functioning, but they will also break apart and turn into dust (after billions of years, if needed). Eventually, everything in your closed system will turn into amorphous matter, mere particles floating in space, with no discernible structures around anymore (even if several universe-lives are needed for that to happen). That all comes as a consequence of the second law.

Parenthesis: there has been the idea, among some scientists, that the second law of thermodynamics does not predict all the above; that it concerns only thermodynamics, not the conversion of order into disorder (i.e., the destruction of structures). I have argued extensively against this wrong idea in this article, in which I explain that both the “thermodynamic death” and the “order-to-disorder” notion are two facets of the same underlying principle (actually a proven mathematical theorem). However, that article requires some elementary background in physics and preferably also in mathematics.

All right, so how do creationists appeal to the second law of thermodynamics in their attempt to argue against evolution?

Creationists say that evolution implies the appearance of ever more complex biological structures as time goes by, and that the second law of thermodynamics predicts the destruction of structures (as discussed above, in the example of the spaceship). Therefore, complex biological organisms cannot have appeared all by themselves, unless some Higher Authority has “pushed” things toward certain directions intelligently, and so we arrived at the present situation on our planet by intelligent design, not by evolutionary — therefore physical — principles alone.

Except that... er... they omit one “tiny” — yet crucial — detail:

The second law of thermodynamics applies only in closed systems!

The spaceship in our earlier example is supposed to be a closed system. Planet Earth, however, is anything but closed as a system! The Earth receives energy from the Sun in copious quantities. That energy, in the form of sunlight, is captured by the chloroplasts of plants and used in plant growth. (One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what happens to plants stored in absolute darkness.) Plants, in turn, are the food of herbivorous animals, which thus reuse the solar energy in its new form. Finally, the herbivores are food for carnivores, and thus the solar energy reaches that part of the Earth’s biomass as well. As for the remote past (some 4 billion years ago), when there were no plants with chloroplasts around, solar energy was responsible for moving winds and waters on our planet, thus putting into motion the molecules that formed the “primordial soup”, out of the compounds of which life emerged, as I discuss in this article.

Does our planet resemble at all the isolated spaceship described earlier? Does Earth look like a closed system? Not in the wildest dreams of the most imaginative creationist! So, why should biological structures “wind down” and be destructed as required by the second law? Why couldn’t they build up and increase in complexity, thanks to the influx of solar energy? The Earth is an open system, and the 2nd law of thermodynamics simply does not apply to open systems.

This creationist argument makes absolutely no sense. It is a result of either their poor grasp of physics, or of their willful effort to misinform and impress those who have an insufficient background to follow their arguments.

Part 4: If life arose through evolution, why can’t scientists create life in the laboratory?

This is the most illogical “argument” among the ones brought forth by creationists to argue against evolution. I include it here only because this set of pages started as answers to four questions posed in a video by Multimedia Apologetics (see their web-page here: www.multimediaapologetics.com), and I promised in my first page of this series that I will answer all four questions.

The argument is illogical because it doesn’t refute evolution. What logical sense does it make to claim that if evolution occurred then scientists must be in a position to replicate the evolutionary process in the lab? And that if scientists cannot do that at present, then evolution cannot have occurred?

This idea can only be the result of total ignorance of what it took for life to evolve. Four billion years ago Earth was not a test tube in a lab, but a planet. Do creationists understand the difference in size between a test tube and a planet? How many chemical experiments can be made in the micro-environment of a test tube, and how many in the zillions of environmets of an entire planet?

That’s an enormous difference in the size of space. But there is also an enormous difference in the length of time involved. A scientist can make experiments for a few years only, and of course working not all the time, but only for some hours each day (and definitely not every day of every year). The zillions of early “labs” on our planet, however, were working full-time, non-stop, for millions of years! If chemical reactions that eventually led to life started around 4 billion years ago, and the earliest fossilized bacteria have an age of 3.5 billion years, then we are talking about hundreds of millions of years of chemical experimentation. Does anyone understand the difference between a human lifetime and hundreds of millions of years?

In addition to the non-appreciation of the enormous difference in scale of space and time between science labs and planets, there is another problem: scientists today do not claim that they know the exact sequence of chemical reactions that led to the emergence of life. But how does our present (1st decade of the 3rd millennium) ignorance of the exact chemical reactions prevent evolution from having happened, and continuing to happen? We know the general evolutionary principles, not the specifics of the early appearance of life. The reader can learn a few of the general evolutionary principles by reading the two previous pages in this series (this one and this one), and also the general principles on the origins of life in this page of mine; but scientists are not arrogant enough to claim that they know the particular details on the origins of life. However, our present ignorance of the specifics of the origin of life cannot be an argument against evolution. That’s the illogicality of this creationist “argument”.


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Created: March 29, 2008

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