Asked and answered

Surprisingly, I get this question a lot from both creationists and people on the fence. And it’s just SO easily refuted. In fact, you can do it in one panel as did Zach Weiner at SMBC.

All you need are the last four words.




  1. Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    People often forget the: “In a closed system…”

    • Kevin
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      I got into a heated argument about the definition of a “closed system”. Guy was claiming that an open system interchanged MASS and energy. And therefore, energy exchange only didn’t count.

      • Alex
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        Getting into heated arguments about thermodynamics makes sense. One wouldn’t hope to get one’s thoughts in order in an unheated argument, for this would violate the second law.

      • steve oberski
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

        I seem to recall a certain person who established an equivalence between mass and energy …

      • teacupoftheapocalypse
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        Even if it were the case that mass needs to be exchanged, the argument is still easy enough to shoot down, given that the Earth loses small amounts of gas to space, and receives a regular supply of new rocks, minerals and water ice from space.

        The need to clutch at straws overrides the need to put some thought into the argument.

    • eric
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      You can also point out that closed systems are ones in which there is no mass transfer in and out either. Then point them to this and this.

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

      It’s the scientific analogue to “a well-regulated militia”! 😉

  2. Rebecca
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Heck, the energy stored in the Earth’s lithosphere* could probably keep a few deep-sea ecosystems evolving and growing even if the Sun disappeared.

    * From formation of the planet, separation of the core from the mantle, and radioactive minerals.

    • Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      For a time, there was also some latent heat from the gravitational collapse of the primordial dust of the stellar nursery into the Earth. I think that still accounts for most of the heat of the gas giants, but that the rocky planets have long since radiated away that heat…but I’m no planetologist, so don’t quote me on that one….

      However, what’s important isn’t so much the temperature as the fact that there’s a temperature gradient. If the Sun filled the whole sky all the time, even if it were cool enough for the temperature on Earth to be the same as it is now, that would be a big problem; that we radiate away the Sun’s energy both at night and during the day in the parts of the sky not illuminated by the Sun are what allow us to take advantage of the energy from the Sun.


      • Richard C
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Don’t forget the molten interior of the Earth. That heat hasn’t radiated away yet, and may have helped create life to begin with in undersea vents.

        • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          That’s where my planetology is weak. I don’t remember if the core’s heat is latent from the initial formation, or the result of radioisotope decay. I seem to recall it being the latter…but, again, I ain’t no planetologist….


          • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

            It is both

            • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

              In the spirit of “I’d like to know more” rather than “I don’t believe you,” and in Richard’s immortal words, “How do you know that?”


          • JBlilie
            Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink


            That was part of Lord Kelvin’s famous reply to Darwin: Not enough time for evolution Charlie! The internal heat would have radiated away by now! Still hot down there! [I, being the King of Thermodynamics so state.]

            Kelvin didn’t know about radioactive decay, which keeps the insides hot.

            • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

              Ah, yes — now I remember. Thanks!


            • Mark Joseph
              Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

              Stephen Jay Gould’s essay on this whole “debate” is pretty amusing. It’s titled False Premise, Good Science, and it is essay #8 in his collection The Flamingo’s Smile.

            • George Martin
              Posted April 28, 2014 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

              Kelvin did not know that the Sun was powered by nuclear fusion. He thought the Sun was powered by gravitational collapse. Thus his estimated of the maximum lifetime of the Sun was much less than what geologists were beginning to believe the age of the Earth was.


    • Kevin
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Recent data shows here that earth is far from cooled and radioactivity accounts for about 40% of internal energy:

      “Partial radiogenic heat model for Earth revealed by geoneutrino measurements”

      DOI: 10.1038/NGEO1205

      The current total flux of heat to space is 44 TW. I believe if we could tap less than 1% it would take care of humanity’s present energy needs.

      • Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        Full link here:

        The paper is behind a paywall. The money quote from the abstract: “Taken together, our observations indicate that heat from radioactive decay contributes about half of Earth’s total heat flux. We therefore conclude that Earth’s primordial heat supply has not yet been exhausted.”

        And…if you want to do a bit of math, you’ll find that the solar flux on existing rooftops with current off-the-shelf PV efficiencies is far more than we need to power our civilization. Indeed, just the rooftops in the States alone is roughly sufficient area for the whole planet….



  3. Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I always get a kick out of that one, and asking the theist if they’ve ever noticed that really big, bright thing in the sky.

    I guess I could give those in Seattle or England a pass on this one, but what’s the excuse in the Bible Belt?


    • Philip.Elliott
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      That must be why the Discovery Institute is in Seattle!

    • Mark Joseph
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      Probable excuse: They never look up.

      In the 25 years I spent as a christian, I never once paid any attention to the sky. Now, I try to stargaze as much as possible. Ditto looking down, and studying geology. Ditto again looking around, and studying biology (currently, Zimmer’s Parasite Rex; I challenge anyone to read that and then babble on about a beneficent, all-powerful god, or about an intelligent designer who is anything other than a sadist, than which no greater can be imagined).

      There’s a reason that one of Weinberg’s books is titled Facing Up.

      • Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        That’s especially bizarre considering that the gods are supposed to be “up there”….


      • Posted April 28, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

        Yes. Parasite Rex is awesome.

  4. Petr Cherniychuk
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    why dont you try to leave ANYTHING out in the sun and then when you get back to it, see if it became anything more complex?
    BTW, where did the sun come from?

    • Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      why dont you try to leave ANYTHING out in the sun and then when you get back to it, see if it became anything more complex?

      You mean, like a plant?

      BTW, where did the sun come from?

      The life cycles of stars are very well understood. Gravity causes interstellar gasses and dust to coalesce. When enough material gathers in a spot, gravity again keeps pulling it all together towards the mutual center. The pressure and temperature resulting from all that stuff falling together is eventually sufficient to overcome the electrical forces that normally repel atoms and makes things feel solid; when that happens, atomic nuclei fuse and even more heat is generated, thus continuing the process for as long as there’s enough matter to keep the reaction going. How long that takes and what happens at that point depends on how large the initial bunch of mass that formed the star was, with various options at the end of the star’s life.

      If you sincerely want to know more, Wikipedia has a not-bad introduction to the subject:



      • Posted April 28, 2014 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

        I think the best and most entertaining way to know about evolution of stars is last week’s Cosmos, episode 8 (Sisters Of The Sun).

        Bravo Cosmos! I think this series really rocks (plus Shubin’s of course)

    • Thomas Huld
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Well, we left our pear tree out in the sun and first it got flowers and now there are leaves and small pears on it. That’s increase in complexity for you.

      Free energy is very useful (that’t free as in beer AND free as in Gibbs).

      Where the sun came from is not something to do with biological evolution. You are moving the goalposts.

      • gluonspring
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Where did the goalposts come from, eh? Gotcha!

    • Larry Gay
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      Is this a serious question? What am I missing?

      • Larry Gay
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        Apparently just a drive-by comment. Petr, if you want a serious discussion, both Ben and Thomas are willing to engage you in a serious discussion.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      I left some grass seed out in the sun a few days ago. Something more complex is coming out right now — which I’m going to have to mow in a bit.

    • Kevin
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      If you leave an egg under the sun you could get three outcomes:

      1. If it sits under a chicken, you might get a chick.
      2. If it sits in a pot of boiling water, you might get a boiled egg.
      3. If it sits in the sun in a mild climate you will eventually get a nasty smelling egg after a couple of weeks.

    • ratabago
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Can you say “peroxyacetylnitrate” in photochemical smog? It forms quite spontaneously in the presence of sunlight from Oxygen, Nitrogen dioxide, and very simple hydrocarbons.

      You might also like to look up cycloadditions, particularly arene-olefin cycloadditions. But they are more complex, and can make much larger molecules. There is a rich literature on photochemical synthesis in organic chemistry. It should have taken very little effort to find examples of spontaneous increase in complexity.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 4:16 am | Permalink

      Imagine a huge gas cloud in space. If it is only big enough that electromagnetism dominates, then a cold dispersed state represents high entropy. If the cloud is big enough that gravity dominates, then, because gravity is attractive, an increase in entropy accompanies the condensation of large balls of hot gas. We call them “stars”.

      By the way, disorder and complexity are poor metaphors for entropy, and only of limited use in certain circumstances. If you try to reason from them to general facts about thermodynamics, you will get things wrong.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 29, 2014 at 5:46 am | Permalink


        – “Entropy can lead to order … Left to their own devices, drifting particles find the arrangements with the highest entropy. That arrangement matches the idea that entropy is a disorder if the particles have enough space: they disperse, pointed in random directions. But crowded tightly, the particles began forming crystal structures like atoms do — even though they couldn’t make bonds. These ordered crystals had to be the high-entropy arrangements, too.”

        Cells are tight packed compartments… [ ]

        – “If you weren’t careful, you might think gravity could violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics. … As our gas cloud shrinks, its entropy goes down… so the entropy of something else must go up, or the 2nd law of thermodynamics is in deep trouble!

        So: what is it whose entropy goes up? … if you give up, click here for a hint.”

        [ ]

  5. Daoud
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    “and the sun doesn’t exist.”


  6. Joseph McClain
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    I usually hear “There’s this big law of science, I forget what it is, that basically makes evolution impossible.”
    They are utterly unfamiliar with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, have not a care that there are other rules of thermodynamics. All they know is that there is some science thing that is on their side. Except, of course, it ain’t.

    • Diane G.
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      And these are all products of the U.S. education system.

      (Though lately we have to consider the home-schoolers…so modify that “all” with a “nearly.”)

      • Joseph McClain
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        We home-schooled our kids up until high school. One of the reasons is we wanted to make sure they learned something about evolution.

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          Kudos! Sorry for making a blanket condemnation; though I believe you are definitely an outlier. (Alas.)

          • Joseph McClain
            Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

            Thanks, Diane. My wife and I presented at a home school conference once. We were amazed at the ideological spectrum. This was 15 years ago, mind you.

            • Diane G.
              Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

              Around 1990, when my firstborn was entering the school system, I was inspired by Homeschooling for Excellence* to want to attempt the same project myself. Realizing all too quickly that my personality wasn’t quite up to the task, for a while I did my best to at least further some of the insights in the book (I wrote a book review for a local parents’ newsletter, bought a copy for my son’s school library, etc.) We ended up putting our kids in a private nonsectarian school, with which I think there were probably just as many “teachable moments” (for us to correct misinformation they brought home) as there would have been in a public school (though our school did have an excellent middle school science teacher).

              I only wish all homeschooling resembled yours and the Colfaxes’.


              • Diane G.
                Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                (Interesting that WP adds the “http://” to YouTube links but not Amazon’s. Oh, well, at least it didn’t embed.)

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        I’m not arguing your main point; I’d just point out that the kids coming out of the public and private schools don’t know a whole lot about evolution, either.

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

          I’d hoped that my main point was that the public schools suck. In so many words. 😀

          (Actually, that’s not entirely true, either. My son had some wonderful teachers in a couple of public high schools. In the US it tends to be the school boards–and sometimes the administrators–that are responsible for most of the suckage. My hat’s off to all the decent teachers laboring under the ridiculous strictures they face today.)

      • Posted April 28, 2014 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

        Ater fronting a classroom for nearly 40 years, with 28 of them in a public school after picking up an advanced degree from Jerry’s alma mater, I get more than a little upset at such blanket statements. I and my colleagues fight the good fight every day, and at the very core of our curriculum is evolution, and we pound away at it regardless of pressure not to do so from parents and authorities at the local, state and national levels. It’s oh so easy to say that all public schools fall short of their obligations. Easy and a lie.

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

          Well, I hope you saw my comment just above.

          FWIW, one of the contributors to a freethought/humanist list-serv I’m on is a public school teacher over by the Detroit area; he’s posted more than once about strictures imposed on him and his colleagues due to religion-related demands.

          Also FWIW, my conclusion after my kids’ experiences with both public and private schools was that there were wonderful teachers and not-so-wonderful teachers in each. To the extent that private schools sometimes have better outcomes, it’s obviously due in part to the self-selection involved vis-à-vis those parents who can afford it; but also in no small part that most of the private school kids have at least one parent who’s paying attention, something that can’t necessarily be counted on in the public schools.

          I have a lot of liberal guilt about not just choosing but being able to choose in the first place private schools…

  7. Harrison
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    My understanding of creationists’ misunderstanding is that they don’t claim that you need energy to generate complexity. They claim that it’s simply impossible and that things can only wear down, not build up.

    Of course they think that “entropy” literally means “disorder.”

    Entropy, like the word “theory,” has its everyday denotation, but in the sciences both terms are much more precise.

    • Sastra
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Yes, they’re no more dealing with a genuine understanding of ‘energy’ than the New Agers are.

      Lying way down beneath the entropy argument I discern the belief that like comes only from like. There are no cranes; there are only skyhooks … and as soon as the Skyhook leaves something made in its own image the damn thing starts to break down.

      • Doug
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        I often hear creationists summarize the Second Law as “Water doesn’t flow uphill.” Of course, it does if you pump it.

        • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

          Indeed, the hydrological cycle is exactly an instance of water flowing uphill. The Sun shines on the oceans, causing some of the water at the surface to evaporate and rise with air currents (also powered by the Sun) to form clouds; those clouds are as far uphill as water gets on Earth. Eventually, the water condenses into rain or other forms of precipitation, some of which falls on the highest peaks on the planet. Once the condensation starts, gravity is generally the predominate force until the water makes its way back to the oceans…but some of it certainly gets interrupted at various stages to again vaporize, form clouds, and so on.

          So, unless the IDiots want to claim that rain doesn’t exist or that it violates the Second Law, they’re…ah…up the creek on this one, too.


          • Max
            Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

            Creationists don’t believe in clouds though. Those things you see in the sky are chem trails. Spray some vinegar at them and everything will be fine.

            “Evaporation? Right, like you can magically change the properties of water and make it float up to the sky. If evaporation were true, why do we still have oceans? What will you evilutionists think of next?”

        • Kevin
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          You need only capillary flow as well. Ask creation-idiots how they think trees grow??

        • Prof.Pedant
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          I wonder how they think rain happens.

          • gluonspring
            Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

            Or rivers. Is there an infinite pool of water at the tops of mountains that has been draining since the Earth was formed?

        • DW
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          Here in the American West there is an old saying: Water flows uphill towards money. In California, we use something like 20% of our electricity to make that happen. So yes, water does flow up hill, and the 2nd Law makes us pay a pretty penny for it too.

      • Kevin
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        Every time a creationist uses the “you can’t get order from disorder” argument, I say, “of course you can, snowflake”.

        Pretty much shuts them up.

        • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

          I like to ask them who stacks the gumballs so nice and neat in all those perfect rows in the gumball machine.


          • Mark Joseph
            Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

            I like both of these, and plan to steal them without payment or even feeling any shame!

            • Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

              Methinks you’ve already paid….


    • Scott_In_OH
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      They claim that it’s simply impossible and that things can only wear down, not build up.

      I suppose, then, that they never clean their kitchens. Maybe they move to new homes every time theirs gets too dirty to use?

      (See Richard C below at 11 for the more generalized treatment.)

    • eric
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 5:22 am | Permalink

      Yes but even at that extremely superficial level, they are still shown to be wrong with trivial ease. Leave a shallow pool of saltwater out in the sun and the water will be evaporated off to leave pure salt. That’s an increase in order in the vernacular sense; you started with a mixture and you separated out the components by type.

  8. noncarborundum
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    One of the geniuses over at Uncommon Descent used to claim that he violated the 2nd Law every time he typed on his computer keyboard.

  9. Posted April 28, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Actually, Zach is showing his own ignorance of the 2nd law. An energy source will not help with a (supposed) violation of the 2nd law: what you need is an energy SINK – a place to dump excess energy at a lower temperature. Fortunately, we have that, too: a whole universe into which we can radiate excess heat. See

    • Alex
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Good point! We crucially need the dS=-Q_out/T_low to really lose Entropy, merely receiving dS=Q_in/T_high isn’t doing the job.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      Nice to have, thanks!

      Of course, the estimate for “life” lumps growth with evolution, and the entropy change of the latter (which the creationist is really out after) is minute in comparison.

      A gedanken experiment can demonstrate that, I believe:

      Suppose there is a gene with 2 alleles that start out in 50/50 % equilibrium. Suppose further that over a generation the half of the population that carries one dies from selection (improbable by chance) so that the other is fixated. Unless I am mistaken the genome acquires one bit of information, for example if the allele difference was a single nucleotide polymorphism. Landauer showed that one bit of changed (eventually erased) information generates an entropy change of – kln2 or ~ – 10^-23 J/K. ['s_principle ]

      Of course, there are 100s of millions of species with thousands of genes evolving on mostly daily generational basis. But the sum isn’t much anyway: “If each of these organisms were evolving at the rate assumed in Eq. 2, the change of entropy of the biosphere each second would be – 302 J/K.” [ ] Even less compared to the allowed – 3*10^14 J/K*s bound you gave.

      Since we are kicking around entropy of life, Russell et al claim that the submarine alkaline hydrothermal emergence of life theory they have worked out builds on entropy change, since cells are disequilibrium systems.

      The best (or at least shortest) account of thermodynamics of disequilibrium systems I’ve found is Branscomb & Russell “Turnstiles and bifurcators: The disequilibrium converting engines that put metabolism on the road” (Biochimica et Biophysica Acta 2013):

      “therefore it is only irreversible processes taking place within the system that affects the entropy of the universe [because the “entropy carried by the flow of material and/or energy across the boundary … has no effect on the entropy of the universe since it is just due to moving energy/material from one place to another”]”.

      If we want to go really speculative along Russell et al path, we have England’s physics theory of life. His theory “indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy.” [ ]

      Thermodynamic game over, creationists.

  10. Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Schrodinger pointed out that the very existence of life (irrespective of evolution) apparently contradicts the law. In fact, a fridge (or a refrigerator if you prefer) also violates the 2nd law. But such terms are irrelevant as the law applies to a closed system. Neither earth nor my kitchen are that.

    On a universal scale, however, the law applies and will, in the end, undo all the works of natural selection (and if humanity), when we approach the heat death of the universe when all matter is evenly spread out and nothing happens and it carries on happening forever.

    • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I’m really curious about what sort of theory of cosmogenesis is going to win out (and I don’t think we’ve got all that much longer). We now can be very certain of Inflation…and there’s the possibility that, even within a region of spacetime that’s gone to heat death after a Big Bang inflationary cycle…that there could be another Inflationary event after umpteen brazilian years, due to whatever it was that caused our own Big Bang. Like the ripples on an infinite pond so far from where the original bubble surfaced that the water looks flat, and another bubble forming in the lost echoes of the original.

      …not that I’ll be around to witness anything like that….


      • Mark Joseph
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        I’ve just got to ask: How long is a “brazilian” year?

        • Diane G.
          Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

          Old Dubya joke…

  11. Richard C
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    What I don’t get is if you interpret the 2nd Law as rendering complexity (and therefore evolution) impossible, then *every single thing in the world* is also physically impossible. Plants, animals, reproduction, the weather, everything.

    Including any creationists using this argument. So I guess by their own logic I can safely ignore them as undesirable figments of my own imagination. By their own admission, they don’t exist.

    Ahhhhhh. Life is good again.

    • Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

      If only making IDiocy vanish was that easy….


    • Diane G.
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      That’s what magic is for, duh.

    • Posted April 28, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

      A useful retort is to point out that they were once a single cell, and now they are a complex organism consisting of trillions of cells. So if evolution is a claim for violation of the 2nd law, then so is development. Your point about weather is also a good one.

  12. JBlilie
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    My favorite riposte to this is a famous one; but I don’t remember who originally coined it. But I think Dawkins has publicly used it:

    “You did it [became more complex] yourself! In just nine months.” All it requires is the input of energy. All the energy (or to a first order estimate, all of it) for that development coming from the local source: The sun.

    And then gently explain the 2nd Law Applies to closed systems. The earth and its life is an open system, receiving all that lovely energy from the sun.

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      People also don’t understand that entropy, on the whole increases (energy becomes less structured and less useful/useable, petering off into random molecular motion) but locally can decrease simply with the input of energy to counteract its increase. Like cleaning your room.

      My takeaway from the laws of Thermodynamics (and I remember painful study of them at university) is this: Minimum energy rules. Things tend to the minimum energy state. The winning strategy is almost always the one that uses the least energy (thinking of nature here).

      • thh1859
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        But… Scene: a glass shatters in a zero gravity environment, e.g., a space ship. The pieces of glass will then come together under mutual gravitational attraction; an action where entropy (in it’s order/disorder guise) decreases. If this experiment is repeated indefinitely it is even conceivable that the glass will return to its original shape; an example of order from disorder without a corresponding decrease in energy.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted April 29, 2014 at 7:18 am | Permalink

          Good catch.

          See my comment above on “could violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics”, a physics riddle courtesy of John Baez.

          But in this particular case the statistical physics definition of entropy et cetera comes into play (“repeated indefinitely”). So I don’t really think we need Baez calculations to see that there is no problem here.

          • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
            Posted April 29, 2014 at 7:19 am | Permalink

            See my comment above on “could …” – see my comment above on if gravity “could …”.

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted April 28, 2014 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

        As a teacher of thermodynamics to freshman chemistry students, let me modify your takeaway message: entropy is about distributing energy in the most probable way. This generally means that as time goes on, energy tends to spread out.

        As someone here has said, the universe is a cold place and when our energy can leak out into the universe (by radiating infrared photons), minimum energy will rule. But fortunately, Earth is a way station for photons from the Sun which arrive here in packets that are, on average, twenty times bigger than the photons Earth radiates back into space. So there is a net entropy increase of R×ln20 for each mole of photons the Sun sends our way.

        There is not a single photophysical or biochemical process – including all those involved in the process of evolution – when viewed in it’s entirety for which ∆S(universe) is not greater than zero.

        • Larry Gay
          Posted April 29, 2014 at 2:43 am | Permalink

          It sounds to me as though the teaching of thermodynamics has improved over the years. I remember spending a lot of time on heat engines and Carnot cycles. It was only when we finally got to Boltzmann and energy distributions that I began to have an intuitive appreciation of entropy.

      • eric
        Posted April 29, 2014 at 5:29 am | Permalink

        I’m just SWAGing here, but IMO you are not locally decreasing entropy when you have a child, unless by “locally” you mean “the womb and nothing outside of it.” In order to grow that child, you take in lots of highly structured food, very inefficiently extract nutrients from it, and then produce waste from the rest. I expect that overall, your body is very much like a refrigerator emitting excess heat – the process is a net entropy gain.

    • Posted April 28, 2014 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Dawkins was quoting the originator of the comment, who was the evolutionary biology J.B.S. Haldane. From the internet I found:
      “Woman Skeptic: Professor Haldane, even given the billions of years that you say were available for evolution, I simply cannot believe it is possible to go from a single cell to a complicated human body with its trillions of cells organized into bones and muscle and nerves, a heart that pumps without ceasing for decades, miles and miles of blood vessels and kidney tubules, and a brain capable of thinking and feeling.

      Haldane: But Madam, you did it yourself! And it only took nine months.”

  13. Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    What’s ironic is that the 2nd law of thermodynamics disproves the existence of souls, angels, demons, and other disembodied minds.

    • JBlilie
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      Yes, it does. Nice isn’t it?

    • moarscienceplz
      Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

      Nah, they all run on special God Batteries. Heaven is littered with infinite piles of dead God Batteries.

      • Posted April 28, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        Which actually highlights a nice little bit of cognitive dissonance theists have going on: they’re perfectly content to invoke magic for their own explanations, but they must also realize at another level that magic is not an acceptable explanation. Otherwise why would they be so adamant about the natural implications of natural phenomena (even if they have those implications all wrong)?

  14. Posted April 28, 2014 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    I always say that is SLoT prevent evolution, then it also prevents growth, division of cells into bodies, consumption of food.

    Oh, it also prevents growth of crystals and the manufacture of anything that has not been present in the universe since the first moment of the Big bang.

  15. thh1859
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Proposition: Everything God creates is perfect.
    a) God created the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
    b) God created Life.
    c) a) and b) are incompatible.
    Conclusion: The proposition is false.

  16. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Sadly, one of the worst of all science-religion accomodationists, Teilhard de Chardin, thought that therefore evolution proved God/spirituality using this same argument.

  17. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    If you would like to see a gussied up 2nd Law argument (really just warmed over Fred Hoyle), read this and weep.

  18. Jim Thomerson
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Water flows downhill according to the laws of physics. Salmon use the laws of physics to swim upstream and spawn. I usually cite this to point out that purposfulness is a defining characteristic of living things. This in response to the claim that not believing in God removes all purpose from life.

  19. ScottB
    Posted April 28, 2014 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I just recently finished Sean Carroll’s course called “Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time” and he explains in some detail that entropy is not the same as complexity. In fact, complexity tends to be low at the extremes of entropy and high in the middle which is where we happen to find ourselves now in the universe.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted April 29, 2014 at 7:32 am | Permalink

      Well, entropy is not always the same as “disorder” (see e.g. my first comment on the thread), and order is not always the same as “complexity”.

      The latter case is because there are as many measures for complexity as you will. (I think there are infinite families that differs in an order parameter.) In fact, the Kolmogorov complexity of the genome seen as a string of character gets lowered the longer part of the genome you fixate for a given genome length (say, by more genes or by more “complex” = longer genes), it is maximized for a random string.

      What Sean says is perfectly true for reasonable complexity measures that try to capture organism complexity. (Say, number of traits.)

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    What are creqationists thinking? The universe started out as 75 % hydrogen and 25 % helium (and a lot of dark matter) in loosely aggregated clouds.

    [Solely due to inflation and its spontaneous quantum fluctuations, which originated structure formation.]

    Then we get stars, chemical evolution and eventually stars with planets. It isn’t as if biological evolution is alone in growing complexity over time!

  21. Posted April 29, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink a reponse to Douglas WIlson on the 2nd law and evolution, and a response to his response.

    Would love your opinion Jerry.

  22. Richard C
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    And the biggest irony is that even if evolution (or any other phenomena for which there’s solid empirical evidence) *did* violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, evolution would have no problem with that.

    Thermodynamics would simply stop being a law.

    …at least until physicists rewrite them as Einstein did to the Laws of Motion when light was found to disobey them.

    Thankfully for the world’s physicists, the Earth is not in fact encased in an impenetrable wall of thermal insulation and Thermodynamics do not have to be rewritten.

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