Talk Reason PRINT

Evidence that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong?

By Joe Felsenstein

The Discovery Institute Press has published a book by Granville Sewell, a mathematician at the University of Texas at El Paso. Under the title of In The Beginning And Other Essays on Intelligent Design, it apparently consists of previous writings of Sewell, some in revised versions. I hasten to say that I do not have a copy of the book, and have not read it. However Sewell makes it clear that its basic arguments can also be found online in earlier versions of these essays. The one that interests me is his argument that evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which will be found online here, here, here, and here.

Now the statement that evolution can't have occurred because it contradicts the Second Law is one of the hoariest old creationist myths. When you hear it you know you are dealing either with someone who does not understand science, or else someone who does understand science but is actively, and dishonestly, trying to get you not to understand science. It is easily answered, and has been, many times: in a closed system entropy does increase, but the biosphere is not a closed system -- it is utterly dependent on inflows of energy, mostly from the sun, and the entropy increase from the outflow of energy from the sun far exceeds the decrease of entropy by reproduction and by evolution.

Surely the Discovery Institute wants its scientific arguments to be ones that can be taken seriously. Sewell must have come up with some new argument that is more powerful than the old creationist howler, no? Well ... no. Granville Sewell's arguments about the Second Law have already been answered, years ago and at length, by Mark Perakh (here) and by Jason Rosenhouse (here). Even in Sewell's announcement of his book at Uncommon Descent, in the comments on that post the pro-evolution commentator "nakashima" has made a fairly devastating critique.

Granville Sewell's response to the basic argument that the biosphere is not a closed system is that

... if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here.

Which leads me to a thought. My back yard has some very tough and capable weeds, with which we struggle. I know that if I take a few seeds from one of these weeds and plant them, in a few months there will be weed plants there, ones that have a great many of those same seeds on them.

That is a local decrease in entropy, an increase in order. A few seeds are replaced by many, with stems and leaves too. How did this happen? Aside from some water, carbon dioxide and minerals, mostly it happened by sunlight striking the plants and driving photosynthesis. It's not a mystery. But all we saw entering the plants was radiation!

If Granville Sewall is right, the growth of the weeds is a violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Since Granville Sewell is a trained mathematician, and his work is endorsed by the Discovery Institute Press, surely we must be hesitant to conclude that his argument is simply wrong. No, the inevitable conclusion is that Second Law of Thermodynamics must be wrong. A momentous conclusion. Someone should tell the physicists.

There can hardly be any more repeatable and easily verifiable phenomenon in nature than the growth of weeds in my back yard. Evolution happens, natural selection improves the fitness of organisms ... and weeds grow. If Granville Sewell is right, these all prove that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is wrong.

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