Evolution and the second law of thermodynamics

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When I wrote my first piece about Roger Penrose‘s Cycles of Time – one of the links offered to me was to a Christian fundamentalist blogger who claimed that the second law of thermodynamics showed evolution could not have taken place:

E. Evolution contradicts the Second law of Thermodynamics

In the Theory of Evolution it is proposed that “simple life” evolved into more complex life forms by Spontaneous Generation. Both Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the Spontaneous Generation model both directly contravene the Law of Biogenesis.

The Second Law Of Thermodynamics

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that the disorder in a system increases, rather than decreases. 

The problem for this argument’s advocates is that Penrose demolishes it in brilliant style. I won’t quote from him directly, but I will try to summarise his argument.

Penrose begins by actually restating the fundamentalist argument in a much wider sense – it is life itself that on a naive view would appear to violate the second law – after all our bodies do not melt away (so long as we live), but remain highly ordered and as we grow (eg our hair or nails) appear to create order out of disorder.

The key to this is the Sun. The first thing a secondary school science student is taught is that the Sun supplies the Earth with energy but, in fact, this is not true in the sense that the Sun does not provide a net increase in energy on Earth – if it did then our planet would continually heat up until it reached an equilibrium. The Earth re-radiates the Sun’s energy back into space at a equal rate to which it is recieved.

What the Sun is, though, is much hotter than surrounding space and so it sends the Earth a number of high energy (yellow light) photons. When the Earth re-radiates the Sun’s energy it does so at a lower temperature than the Sun – essentially at infra-red frequencies – so many more photons are radiated back into space than are received. More photons means a greater phase space and hence it means a higher entropy. So the Sun continually supplies the Earth with low entropy energy which processes on the Earth – including life – convert into high entropy energy.

For instance when we eat food we convert that low entropy food source (eg an egg) into high entropy heat energy. The food source itself ultimately derived its energy from the low entropy energy source that is the Sun, and so on.

Of course, all the time, the Sun’s own entropy is increasing, but we don’t need to worry about the consequences of that for a few billion more years.

It’s a brilliant, beautiful, argument though it is also one that is seldom, if ever, taught in schools.