Subject: Experts on Thermodynamics Refute Creationist Claims
By Dr. Robert Holloway
Recently, Dr. Bert Thompson and Dr. Brad Harrub published an article on their web site, that serves as a good example of how creationists misrepresent the laws of thermodynamics in an effort to cast doubt on evolutionary theory. Their remarks on thermodynamics were part of a larger article that was written in response to an article that appeared in the Scientific American, which took creationists to task for frequent mistakes. As one who has had several courses in thermodynamics, it appears to me that Thompson and Harrub have made the elementary mistake of trying to discuss a highly specialized field, thermodynamics, in which they have little or no training. I decided to [send] the comments of the two creationists to authors of thermodynamics textbooks and ask them to comment. The comments of the experts in the field of thermodynamics are given below. Of those experts who responded, not one agreed with the views of Thompson Harrub that the second law is in conflict with evolution [nor, presumably, evolutionary theory--- dmr].
I will quote from their article, which can be found at this link. http://www.apologeticspress.org/docsdis/2002/dc-02-safull.htm#arg09
The following text is by creationists Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub:
"But what does all of this have to do with evolution? The fact is: the second law of thermodynamics strictly prohibits organic evolution, Mr. Rennie's disclaimers notwithstanding. Evolutionists have attempted to downplay the problems in regard to thermodynamics and evolutionary theory. But the problems do exist, and are serious. All natural processes occur in a direction such that there is an increase in entropy (disorder, randomness). And natural processes tend to go spontaneously only one way. As King noted: "This 'onewayness' appears to be a very fundamental characteristic of natural processes. The Second Law of thermodynamics epitomizes our experiences with respect to the direction taken by thermophysical processes" (1962, p. 78). In defining the second law (or any other natural process), we speak of "spontaneous" processes, because any natural process is a spontaneously occurring one. Thermodynamically speaking, all isolated systems (and the Universe is accepted as an isolated system) proceed toward a state of equilibrium. That is to say, a system changes its state toward one in which the physical properties of the system are as uniform throughout as possible under prevailing conditions (King, p. 103). If the system is exposed to its surroundings, both the system and the surroundings will approach a state of equilibrium with each other. Natural processes proceed so that entropy increases. Movement toward a state of "maximum entropy" (equilibrium) is the norm, not the exception."
The authors of textbooks on thermodynamics should be experts in the field, if anyone is, so I thought their opinions would be worth considering. I believe this is the first systematic effort to obtain the opinions of real experts on this issue, although the creationist claim has been well known for at least 25 years. The request was sent to at least eight authors, some of whom did not wish to comment. All of those who did respond are quoted here. It is important to note that all of the authors quoted below have far more experience and education in thermodynamics than Thompson and Harrub, since biologists such as Thompson and Harrub do not typically take courses in thermodynamics, much less write textbooks on the subject.
The first to respond was Dr. Robert Alberty, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the texbook "Thermodynamics of Biochemical Reactions". Dr. Alberty is also a coauthor of several best selling textbooks on Physical Chemistry, books which include chapters on thermodynamics. His physical chemistry textbooks have been used by thousands of students throughout the world. In addition, he has published many research papers on thermodynamics. Here are his remarks:
I will comment on just a couple of the sentences in the material you sent me:
(1) "All natural processes occur in a direction such that there is an increase in entropy (disorder, randomness)."
Alberty: This statement applies only to an isolated system; specifically one of constant internal energy and volume. Living systems do not operate in isolated systems. Usually they operate at constant temperature and pressure, and so the Gibbs energy G is minimized.
(2) "Thermodynamically speaking, all isolated systems (and the Universe is accepted as an isolated system) proceed toward a state of equilibrium."
Alberty: I do not agree that the universe is an isolated system in the thermodynamic sense.
(3) "This 'onewayness' appears to be a very fundamental characteristic of natural processes."
Alberty: Thermodynamics teaches us that no chemical reaction goes to completion, and so the reverse reactions do have to be taken into account. At equilibrium the rates of reverse reactions are equal to the rates of foward reactions. Most of the reactions in our metabolism do not go at all unless there is an enzyme present to catalyze the reaction.
A lot more negative things could be said about the material you sent.
The second expert on thermodynamics to respond to my request for comments was Dr. Donald Haynie, author of the textbook "Biological Thermodynamics". Here are my questions and his responses.
Dear Dr. Haynie,
I understand that you are the author of the book, "Biological Thermodynamics". Possibly you are aware of the common claim, by critics of evolution, that the 2nd law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution.
Haynie: Yes, I am the author of Biological Thermodynamics. And yes, I am aware that some people think that the Second law of thermodynamics is inconsistent with biological evolution as commonly understood. Let me add that this matter seems a complex one, even when the persons debating it can be clear about the definitions of their terms, and that my sense is that most persons who engage in debate on this subject are not very clear at all about definitions of terms.
Holloway: If you have not heard of this claim, I will quote a microbiologist, Dr. Bert Thompson, to show you a typical example of the claim. His approach is a bit more sophisticated than most, but is still wrong in my judgment. I wonder if you would be willing to comment on this frequent creationist claim? I am contacting as many authors of thermodynamics textbooks as possible, in order to create a web page countering this frequent claim. If you would like to comment, please do so in a form that is suitable for quotation on the Internet. Especially notice the comment by Bert Thompson that "The second law of thermodynamics strictly prohibits organic evolution".
Haynie: I do not agree with the statement as shown here, but I will add that it does not help that the terms involved have not been defined (at any point in your email). It seems that a lot of unnecessary confusion has arisen in this subject from differences in word usage. This often only increases the difficulties for persons who may have a deep emotional involvement in the subject. Let me also add that my observations would suggest that a visibly deep emotional involvement in the subject is by no means an absolute indication of whether a person does or does not take this subject seriously or think it important.
Holloway: Below the quote, I will give the web site where I found the quote. You may need to use Internet Explorer to access the site, as I cannot get to it with Netscape. There are many other sites on the Internet that use the same argument. The web site quoted below was written in rebuttal to a Scientific American article that took creationists to task for using the 2nd law as an argument against evolution.
Typical Creationist Argument about 2nd Law
The comments below are by Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub, of Apologetics Press
Thompson and Harrub: "But what does all of this have to do with evolution? The fact is: the second law of thermodynamics strictly prohibits organic evolution, Mr. Rennie's disclaimers notwithstanding. Evolutionists have attempted to downplay the problems in regard to thermodynamics and evolutionary theory. But the problems do exist, and are serious. All natural processes occur in a direction such that there is an increase in entropy (disorder, randomness). And natural processes tend to go spontaneously only one way. As King noted: "This 'onewayness' appears to be a very fundamental characteristic of natural processes. The Second Law of thermodynamics epitomizes our experiences with respect to the direction taken by thermophysical processes" (1962, p. 78). In defining the second law (or any other natural process), we speak of "spontaneous" processes, because any natural process is a spontaneously occurring one. Thermodynamically speaking, all isolated systems (and the Universe is accepted as an isolated system) proceed toward a state of equilibrium. That is to say, a system changes its state toward one in which the physical properties of the system are as uniform throughout as possible under prevailing conditions (King, p. 103). If the system is exposed to its surroundings, both the system and the surroundings will approach a state of equilibrium with each other. Natural processes proceed so that entropy increases. Movement toward a state of "maximum entropy" (equilibrium) is the norm, not the exception."
Haynie: There are three contentious statements here, it seems to me: (1) "The fact is: the second law of thermodynamics strictly prohibits organic evolution, Mr. Rennie's disclaimers notwithstanding," (2)"Evolutionists have attempted to downplay the problems in regard to thermodynamics and evolutionary theory. But the problems do exist, and are serious," and (3)"Thermodynamically speaking, all isolated systems (and the Universe is accepted as an isolated system) proceed toward a state of equilibrium."
Let me speak to the last point first. It is by no means certain that the universe is an isolated system. For as far as I am aware, no one really knows what the universe is, much less whether it is an isolated system (in the sense that these terms are ordinarily defined). However, I believe Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub are correct in saying that the universe, whatever it might be, is (often) accepted as an isolated system, so that it can be treated in a specific way using standard mathematical tools.
The first point is problematic for reasons discussed above. Assuming that the Second law of thermodynamics really does describe, more or less correctly, the nature of the universe that actually exists, which is what I think, it seems to me a non sequitur to say that the Second law "prohibits organic evolution." That is, in my opinion the scientific arguments adduced by Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub are for the most part factually correct, but their conclusion is not entailed by those arguments. Theirs is a very common error in reasoning; the peer-reviewed scientific literature, by the way, is full of additional examples illustrating it.
As to the second point it may well be true, but I cannot say for sure. For how many "evolutionists" have a good grasp of the Second law? Many do not, I suspect, and some of these might therefore be inclined to avoid the subject in a debate or to parrot the view of an assumed scientific authority. Do "problems" exist, however, with regard to the science? None that I am aware of, at least with regard to points of a fundamental nature. It would appear that Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub do not have a good awareness of what their "opponents" actually think about the Second law.
What can we conclude? Bert Thompson and Brad Harrub are not very skilled in argumentation. Their conclusion is not entailed by their premises, as far as I can tell. If they are correct (and it will be obvious that I do not mean to suggest that they are correct, necessarily or otherwise), they are correct by intuition and not by demonstration.
Finally, if you should decide to refer to any of my comments in this email, I must request that you do so in full, including the context, so as to avoid any misunderstanding of my meaning. I should also say that the views expressed here are my own, and that although I am using a Louisiana Tech University computer to write this email, I do not mean to suggest that my views represent those of the University in any way whatsoever.
Dr. Ken Dill provided the following comments on the claims of Thompson and Harrub. Dr. Dill is the coauthor of the book; "Molecular Driving Forces, Statistical Thermodynamics in Chemistry and Biology". He has also has more than 160 peer reviewed papers to his credit. He is Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the University of California at San Francisco. His comments are as follows:
In their item (9), Thompson and Harrub (T&H) state that "the second law of thermodynamics strictly prohibits organic evolution". I disagree. The Second Law does not prohibit evolution. The Second Law has very little bearing at all on evolution. The premises behind item (9) of T&H are that: (1) according to the Second Law, closed systems tend toward increased entropy, (2) living systems are more "ordered" than nonliving systems, and (3) entropy is a measure of "disorder". Therefore, according to T&H: (4) living systems must have lower entropy than nonliving systems. T&H conclude that biological evolution toward increasing complexity would violate the Second Law.
But there's a simple way to disprove their conclusion (4). You can measure the entropy using a standard device called a calorimeter. You will find no difference in the entropy of a living organism and a lump of coal or a rock of the right size. A small rock has less entropy than a cow and a big rock has more entropy than a cow. Entropy does not distinguish living from nonliving systems.
Here's why. There are two kinds of entropy. One is very different from the other. They don't even have the same physical units. One kind of entropy has units of energy/temperature and has to do with the Second Law. We will call this the "thermal" entropy. The thermal entropy describes the type of "ordering" and "disordering" that occur when the temperature or pressure are changed. The other kind of entropy, a mathematical measure of the flatness of probability distribution functions, has nothing to do with the Second Law, so it is not relevant for the present argument.
The Second Law has little to do with the chemical origins of life. The reason is that the sort of order and disorder that is described by the thermal entropy is not related to the sort of "complexity" that distinguishes living from nonliving systems. Why not? The term "complexity" refers to a distinction that would undoubtedly rank humans higher than earthworms, and earthworms higher than rocks. But, as noted above, the thermal entropy has no ability to make this distinction. In short, heating or pressurizing a rock cannot convert it to an earthworm. And heating or cooling an earthworm does not convert it into a human being. If temperature did interconvert these species, then the thermal entropy would predict the relative amounts of earthworm and human at a given temperature. But, of course, it does not.
Thompson and Harrub also draw attention to the distinction between closed systems and open systems. While closed systems tend toward states of maximum entropy, open systems tend toward states that are at the minimum of a quantity called the "free energy". Is this distinction important? No. You can't distinguish a rock from an earthworm on the basis of its free energy either. In short, the Second Law only tells us about how materials respond to temperature and pressure. Survival of the Fittest is the law that describes how systems evolve complexity. The Second Law gives no basis for understanding the Survival of the Fittest law. You can neither derive nor disprove chemical evolution from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. They are unrelated concepts.
End of comments by textbook authors
O.K. Dear Reader, so you say you didn't understand all the technical stuff in the explanation above. Then you might understand an approach that is not so technical and throws in a little humor to boot. It is too bad that Drs. Thompson and Harrub didn't read this account of Thermodynamics for Two [http://www.rice.edu/armadillo/Sciacademy/riggins/thermo.htm] before taking themselves so seriously.
Many creationists believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old and they have a difficult time dealing with the vast amount of evidence to the contrary. Therefore even the slightest and most feeble evidence supporting a young age is seized upon with relish. Bert Thompson is typical of the young earth creationists in accepting such things as footprints that vaguely resemble human footprints but are found in rock layers that are believed by conventional science to be millions of years old. The capacity to be credulous and accept unlikely claims seems to be typical of the young earth creationists. The following link discusses the way in which Bert Thompson and Apologetics Press discuss Carboniferous Footprints [http://www.ntanet.net/footprints.htm]
Creationists often claim that the Carbon-14 dating method is inaccurate. for a discussion of their mistaken claims, see our page on radiocarbon dating. [http://www.ntanet.net/radiocarbon.htm]
Thompson on Tour - For an account of one of Dr. Thompson's seminars, you may want to read God and Those Daffy Scientists [http://www-personal.si.umich.edu/~wmwines/WASP/essays/thompson.html]
The speaking schedule of Thompson and Harrub is given at the following site. Those with an interest in this issue may find it interesting to attend and voice objections to any inaccurate information that they may present. The schedule is at this link. [http://www.apologeticspress.org/schedule.htm]
If you wish to write to the author of this page, send your email to: holloway3 @ a-ol-.com [remove hyphens and spaces]
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