Friday, September 6, 2013

Steven Novella on evolution the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Steven Novella has a post on Granville Sewell, a scientist and mathematician who has for years pointed out that, on the basis of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, evolution by natural selection is an inadequate explanation for the extraordinary specified complexity of living things. Sewell is highly qualified in this debate: he is a professor of mathematics at the University of Texas and has a background in mechanical engineering.

Sewell has a new paper in the journal Bio-Complexity. This is Sewall's abstract:
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. To claim that what has happened on Earth does not violate the fundamental natural principle behind the second law, one must instead make a more direct and difficult argument.
Please read Sewall's whole paper. It's a superb precis of the argument that, based on considerations of entropy, life calls for an explanation other than undirected natural selection.

Novella begins his critique of Sewall's argument with the usual Darwinist ad-homineum:
Creationists will just not let go of an argument, no matter how many times it is pointed out to them that their argument is unsound. They simply find new twists of logic and distortions of science to resurrect their precious argument, clinging to it more tightly than Golem held onto his ring.
Novella is having none of these entropy arguments:
Such statements may be persuasive to the masses, but not to scientists and intellectuals... every scientist familiar with this creationist argument knows why it is fatally flawed. The earth is not a closed system, it receives energy from the sun. The total entropy of the earth-sun system is spontaneously increasing, and the local decrease in entropy of the earth’s biosphere therefore does not violate the second law.
Novella's effort to enlighten the benighted masses falls short.

This is why.

these [arguments entail] the same assumption—viz.
that all one needs is sufficient energy flow into a
[non-isolated] system and this will be the means of
increasing the probability of life developing in com-
plexity and new machinery evolving. But as stated
earlier this begs the question of how a local system
can possibly reduce the entropy without existing
machinery to do this.

Sewall is right. Merely asserting that "the sun did it" is not adequate to explain a local reduction in entropy. If it were, one could explain the existence of anything-- a building, a computer, a jet plane-- just by asserting "the sun did it", without invoking any other mechanism.

So the question that Novella fails to address is this: how can evolution be a sufficient mechanism to explain the dramatic reduction in entropy in living things?

Bizarrely, Novella asserts:
Life can use energy to decrease entropy – that one simple statement obliterates Sewell’s entire paper.
Which obviously begs the question. We are trying to explain how it is that life can reduce entropy. Novella's assertion that life can use energy to reduce entropy merely assumes the thing-- life-- that we are trying to explain.

Let's look at the question about entropy and life with a bit more rigor.

The remarkable decrease in entropy associated with living things is in need of explanation. Entropy can locally decrease in a system, but we are right to ask for an explanation.

Darwinists offer evolution as the explanation. But evolution is a vague term-- certainly Darwinists don't mean that the fact that populations of organisms change with time is an explanation for life.

The Darwinist explanation for complex low-entropy life is natural selection. Natural selection is differential reproductive success.

How could differential reproductive success explain a reduction in entropy?

First, it should be noted that differential reproductive success doesn't create low entropy. It only preserves low entropy organisms that, as it happens, are more reproductively successful than their neighbors.

So how can low entropy states in living things arise in the first place, in order to be available for preservation by natural selection?

There would seem to be two ways. The first is law-like: matter can aggregate in low-entropy ways in accordance with natural laws. Gravity draws clumps of interstellar rock into planets and solar systems. Quantum mechanics orders atoms and crystals.

But natural selection acting on random variation is surely not like this. Natural selection isn't law-like at all. Adaptations are dependent on the ecological niches in which critters happen to find themselves, not on laws. There is no "law" of natural selection that ascribes reproductive success to wings or gills. If you're living in trees, wings may help. If you're living in the ocean, wings get in the way. If you live in air, gills won't do much for you. Gills are a big help if you live in water.

Natural selection depends entirely on natural history, which is the adaptation of organisms to environments in which they happen to find themselves-- one damn thing after another. Natural history is not law-like.

Natural selection-- adaptation to an ecological niche-- does not reduce entropy in living things like the laws of quantum mechanics reduce entropy in crystals.

The second way that natural selection could reduce entropy is if it were intentional, in the philosophical sense that it could be like a mental construct imposed on nature. If natural selection could plan organisms, like an architect, it could locally reduce entropy.

But of course natural selection is a blind watchmaker, and plans nothing. That was Darwin's radical claim-- that he had discovered a mechanism by which complex life could evolve without intelligence.

Only two mechanisms are known to be capable of reducing entropy locally: physical laws and mindfulness. Natural selection is neither law-like nor mindful.

As Sewall points out, a critical scientific look at Darwinist theory fails to support Darwinist claims. The earth and sun together is a closed thermodynamic system, more or less. Entropy can decrease locally in a closed system, of course, as long as total entropy increases. But local decrease in entropy requires a mechanism sufficient to explain it.  Natural selection can't explain local low entropy: it is neither law-like nor mindful.

Teleology and intelligent design, on the other hand, are law-like and mindful.

1 comment:

  1. The origin of life can be explained through the study of thermodynamics of universe evolution!
    Origin of life and its evolution are the result of action of laws of hierarchical thermodynamics.
    Thermodynamics investigates systems which can be characterized by state functions. The separation of biological systems into individual hierarchies of structures allows us to study the processes in them independently of the processes that take place in other hierarchical structures.

    Life as a phenomenon is a set of cyclic metabolic processes in ontogeny, phylogeny and evolution. From the perspective of the dynamics of evolutionary transformations of structure of living things life is characterized by the changing of the thermodynamic stability of supramolecular hierarchical structures. In other words, cyclic metabolic processes constantly are enriched by the addition of more stable supramolecular hierarchical structures that are adapting to the changing environment. The thermodynamic design defines adaptation of living objects.

    Criterion of evolution
    The approval about the reduction of the entropy of living systems as a result of biological evolution is incorrect. The criterion of evolution of living system is the change (during evolution) of the specific free energy (Gibbs function, G) of this living system formation. The evolution of living system takes place against the background of flows of energy (e.g., light, energy of physical fields) from the environment. It increases its specific free energy (primarily chemical free energy). At the same time, the specific free energy of this living system is decreased as a result of spontaneous chemical and supramolecular processes in this system. The increase of supramolecular stability of living system during evolution and aging is characterized by the value of decrease of specific supramolecular Gibbs energy of the formation of its structure. It is the main criteria of evolution and aging of living systems.
    Thus, the total change in the specific free energy of a living system is composed of two parts: 1. The change of free energy due to the inflow of external energy (G1> 0) and 2. The change of free energy due to spontaneous transformations in the system (G2 < 0) . The evolving system constantly adapts to a changing environment. The principle of substance stability contributes to this adaptation.
    Thermodynamics of evolution obeys the generalized equation of Gibbs (that is the generalized equation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics)*. Biological evolution and the processes of origin of life are well described by the hierarchical thermodynamics, established on the firm foundation of theory of JW Gibbs. Our theory created without the notion on dissipative structures of I. Prigogine and negentropy of L. Boltzmann and E. Schrodinger.

    Works of the author:
    *) The generalized equation of Gibbs (See: )