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The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Answers to Critics


This article deals with three common questions about creationist thermodynamic arguments, and rebuts some common evolutionary counter-arguments:

  1. Open systems
  2. Crystals
  3. The 2nd Law and the Fall

Question 1: Open Systems

‘Someone recently asked me about the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, stating that they thought it was irrelevant to creation/evolution because the earth is not an isolated system since the sun is constantly pumping in more energy.

‘This does seem to be a valid point—do creationists still use this argument? Am I missing something here?’

Answer 1:

The Second Law can be stated in many different ways, e.g.:

  • that the entropy of the universe tends towards a maximum (in simple terms, entropy is a measure of disorder)
  • usable energy is running out
  • information tends to get scrambled
  • order tends towards disorder
  • a random jumble won’t organize itself

It also depends on the type of system:

  • An isolated system exchanges neither matter nor energy with its surroundings. The total entropy of an isolated system never decreases. The universe is an isolated system, so is running down— see If God created the universe, then who Created God? for what this implies.
  • A closed system exchanges energy but not matter with its surroundings. In this case, the 2nd Law is stated such that the total entropy of the system and surroundings never decreases.
  • An open system exchanges both matter and energy with its surroundings. Certainly, many evolutionists claim that the 2nd Law doesn’t apply to open systems. But this is false. Dr John Ross of Harvard University states:
  • … there are no known violations of the second law of thermodynamics. Ordinarily the second law is stated for isolated systems, but the second law applies equally well to open systems. …  There is somehow associated with the field of far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics the notion that the second law of thermodynamics fails for such systems. It is important to make sure that this error does not perpetuate itself.1

Open systems still have a tendency to disorder. There are special cases where local order can increase at the expense of greater disorder elsewhere. One case is crystallization, covered in Question 2 below. The other case is programmed machinery, that directs energy into maintaining and increasing complexity, at the expense of increased disorder elsewhere. Living things have such energy-converting machinery to make the complex structures of life.

The open systems argument does not help evolution. Raw energy cannot generate the specified complex information in living things. Undirected energy just speeds up destruction. Just standing out in the sun won’t make you more complex—the human body lacks the mechanisms to harness raw solar energy. If you stood in the sun too long, you would get skin cancer, because the sun’s undirected energy will cause mutations. (Mutations are copying errors in the genes that nearly always lose information). Similarly, undirected energy flow through an alleged primordial soup will break down the complex molecules of life faster than they are formed.

It’s like trying to run a car by pouring petrol on it and setting it alight. No, a car will run only if the energy in petrol is harnessed via the pistons, crankshaft, etc. A bull in a china shop is also raw energy. But if the bull were harnessed to a generator, and the electricity directed a pottery-producing machine, then its energy could be used to make things.

To make proteins, a cell uses the information coded in the DNA and a very complex decoding machine. In the lab, chemists must use sophisticated machinery to make the building blocks combine in the right way. Raw energy would result in wrong combinations and even destruction of the building blocks.

I suggest that thermodynamic arguments are excellent when done properly, and the ‘open systems’ canard is anticipated. Otherwise I suggest concentrating on information content. The information in even the simplest organism would take about a thousand pages to write out. Human beings have 500 times as much information as this. It is a flight of fantasy to think that undirected processes could generate this huge amount of information, just as it would be to think that a cat walking on a keyboard could write a book.

For more information on mutation, variation and information, see our Question and Answer pages on these topics, or Refuting Evolution.

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Question 2: What about crystals?

To quote one anti-creationist, Boyce Rensberger:

If the Second Law truly prohibited local emergence of increased order, there would be no ice cubes. The greater orderliness of water molecules in ice crystals than in the liquid state is purchased with the expenditure of energy at the generator that made the electricity to run the freezer. And that makes it legal under the Second Law.2

Answer 2:

Rensberger is ignorant of the creationist responses to this argument. An energy source is not enough to produce the specified complexity of life. The energy must be directed in some way. The ice cubes of his example would not form if the electrical energy was just wired into liquid water! Instead, we would get lots of heat, and the water breaking up into simpler components, hydrogen and oxygen.

The ice example is thermodynamically irrelevant to the origin of life. When ice freezes, it releases heat energy into the environment. This causes an entropy increase in the surroundings. If the temperature is low enough, this entropy increase is greater than the loss of entropy in forming the crystal. But the formation of proteins and nucleic acids from amino acids and nucleotides not only lowers their entropy, but it removes heat energy (and entropy) from their surroundings. Thus ordinary amino acids and nucleotides will not spontaneously form proteins and nucleic acids at any temperature.

Rensberger also fails to distinguish between order and complexity. Crystals are ordered; life is complex. To illustrate: a periodic (repeating) signal, e.g. ABABABABABAB, is an example of order. However, it carries little information: only ‘AB’, and ‘print 6 times’.

A crystal is analogous to that sequence; it is a regular, repeating network of atoms. Like that sequence, a crystal contains little information: the co-ordinates of a few atoms (i.e. those which make up the unit cell), and instructions ‘more of the same’ x times. If a crystal is broken, smaller but otherwise identical crystals result. Conversely, breaking proteins, DNA or living structures results in destruction, because the information in them is greater than in their parts.

A crystal forms because this regular arrangement, determined by directional forces in the atoms, has the lowest energy. Thus the maximum amount of heat is released into the surroundings, so the overall entropy is increased.

Random signals, e.g. WEKJHDF BK LKGJUES KIYFV NBUY, are not ordered, but complex. But a random signal contains no useful information. A non-random aperiodic (non-repeating) signal—specified complexity—e.g. ‘I love you’, may carry useful information. However, it would be useless unless the receiver of the information understood the English language convention. The amorous thoughts have no relationship to that letter sequence apart from the agreed language convention. The language convention is imposed onto the letter sequence.

Proteins and DNA are also non-random aperiodic sequences. The sequences are not caused by the properties of the constituent amino acids and nucleotides themselves. This is a huge contrast to crystal structures, which are caused by the properties of their constituents. The sequences of DNA and proteins must be imposed from outside by some intelligent process. Proteins are coded in DNA, and the DNA code comes from pre-existing codes, not by random processes.

Many scientific experiments show that when their building blocks are simply mixed and chemically combined, a random sequence results. To make a protein, scientists need to add one unit at a time, and each unit requires a number of chemical steps to ensure that the wrong type of reaction doesn’t occur. The same goes for preparing a DNA strand in a correct sequence. See Q&A: Origin of Life.

The evolutionary origin-of-life expert Leslie Orgel confirmed that there are three distinct concepts: order, randomness and specified complexity:

Living things are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals such as granite fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; mixtures of random polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. [L. Orgel, The Origins of Life, John Wiley, NY, 1973, p. 189]

Even the simplest known self-reproducing life form (Mycoplasma) has 482 genes, and it must parasitize more complex organisms to obtain the building blocks it cannot manufacture itself. The simplest organism that could exist in theory would need at least 256 genes, and it’s doubtful whether it could survive.3 See How Simple Can Life Be?

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Question 3: Did the 2nd Law begin at the Fall?

Answer 3:

No, I would not say that entropy/Second Law of Thermodynamics began at the Fall. The Second Law is responsible for a number of good things which involve increases in entropy, so are ‘decay’ processes in the thermodynamic sense but maybe not what most people would imagine are decay:

  • solar heating of the earth (heat transfer from a hot object to a cold one is the classical case of the Second Law in action),
  • walking (requires the highly entropic phenomenon of friction, otherwise Adam and Eve would have slipped as they walked with God in Eden!),
  • breathing (based on air moving from high pressure to low pressure, producing a more disordered equalized concentration of molecules),
  • digestion (breaking down large complex food molecules into their simple building blocks),
  • baking a cake (mixing the ingredients produces a lot of disorder), etc.

What is contrary to Scripture is death of nephesh animals before sin, and suffering (or ‘groaning in travail’ (Rom. 8:20–22)). It is more likely that God withdrew some of His sustaining power at the Fall. He still sustains the universe (Col. 1:17) otherwise it would cease to exist. But most of the time He doesn’t sustain it in the way that He prevented the Israelites’ shoes and clothes from wearing out during the 40 years in the wilderness (Dt. 29:5). But this special case may have been the rule rather than the exception before the Fall. Return to top

References and notes

  1. John Ross, Chemical and Engineering News, 7 July 1980, p. 40; cited in Duane Gish, Creation Scientists Answer their Critics Institute for Creation Research, 1993. Return to text.
  2. Boyce Rensberger, ‘How Science Responds When Creationists Criticize Evolution’, Washington Post, 8 Jan 1997. See Response. Return to text.
  3. For a good discussion on thermodynamics; open, closed and isolated systems, order vs. complexity; and other difficulties for evolutionary origin of life scenarios, see Charles B. Thaxton, Walter L. Bradley and Roger L. Olsen, The Mystery of Life’s Origin, 1984, Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Lewis & Stanley, Dallas, TX (relevant chapters are online). See also detailed response to an evolutionist. Return to text.

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