Evolution and Entropy

The claim is sometimes made that entropy, or the laws of thermodynamics, prohibit the possibility of evolution.

The laws of thermodynamics can be stated in a number of ways in words, and more precisely in equations, but here is one way of stating them:

  1. Energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.
  2. The net entropy of an isolated system always increases.
  3. The entropy of a system approaches a constant value as the temperature approaches absolute zero (-273.15^o C).

A more amusing but less accurate version I have seen is:

  1. You can never win, you can only break even.
  2. You can only break even at absolute zero.
  3. You can never reach absolute zero.

Returning to the first set of laws, the First Law obviously needs to be slightly modified in the light of General Relativity and Einstein’s famous equation E = mc^2 to ‘matter-energy cannot be created or destroyed’, but the bottom line remains the same.

Entropy has a technical definition, or rather a number of different technical definitions, expressed in equations, but it is often understood as the ‘disorder’ of a system. So an increase in entropy is a decrease in order, and so on. Essentially, energy tends to change from more useful forms, that can do work, to less useful forms, over time.

The claim I referenced in the first sentence – that entropy forbids evolution – relies on the notion that evolving from a single-celled organism to something like a human being (with a human brain, perhaps the most complex matter we know of) requires a considerable increase in order, and therefore a net decrease in entropy.

The answer is right there in the Second Law, though: the words ‘ in an isolated system ‘. A single-celled organism does not evolve into a human being if it is placed in a sealed chamber and isolated from incoming energy – in the forms of heat, light, food and air – from the environment.

Perhaps the people who make this claim want to regard the whole of Earth as an isolated system, and argue that the evolution of all lifeforms from simpler (less-ordered) lifeforms is prohibited by the Second Law of Thermodynamics?

But the answer to that involves stepping outside and looking up, even on a cloudy day. Earth is not an isolated system, because it receives vast amounts of energy from that big nuclear fusion generator in the sky, the Sun.

Local increases in order – decreases in entropy – are certainly not prohibited: a human brain is much more ordered than all the food that goes into making it.

In practical terms, no system in the universe (aside from, arguably, the universe itself as a whole) is closed and isolated. Even the Solar System emits solar energy to the space around it. But certainly, in considering Earth, the energy coming in from the Sun is a huge part of the overall energy picture.

(As a side note, high energy, short wavelength visible light arrives with the ability to do work, including the work of photosynthesis. It passes through various processes, and then is emitted as low energy, long wavelength infrared radiation, which radiates off into space. Unless intercepted by greenhouse gases, in which case it hangs around a bit longer, warming the globe…)

And it turns out that the nuclear fusion process of hydrogen combining to form helium that produces the Sun’s energy involves a net increase in entropy – a net decrease in order. And, given that Earth receives only a tiny fraction of the energy the Sun puts out, this increase in entropy occurring in the Sun completely dwarfs the local decrease in entropy involved in evolution. So, in the local system of our Solar System, net entropy increases, in agreement with the Second Law

No rules of thermodynamics are contravened by the processes of evolution.

Hi David
I think your analysis is correct and a sometimes poster here @stcordova would agree that the creation argument based on physics entropy is not strong. On the other hand Sanfords argument is on a different type of entropy which is information entropy and how information that exists in a linear sequence such as the English language or DNA breaks down when changed randomly. This is also agreed upon by some of the 3rd way proponents such as @Perry_Marshall. Maybe Perry can join and articulate James Shapiro’s position.

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The information entropy arguments are as foolish as the thermodynamic entropy arguments.



Because of entropy, evolution is impossible. Also, refrigerators cannot work and life cannot exist.

The crazy part is that the creationists who make this argument have working refrigerators and are themselves examples of life. They somehow fail to make the connection.

Granville Sewell, a mathematician a Discovery Institute makes a similar argument. As an applied mathematician, he should know better. He seems to think that life is only possible because created by God, and refrigerators are only possible because of intelligent design. He illustrates his arguments with the “tornado in a junkyard” metaphor. But he seems to not understand that existence of naturally occurring tornadoes already debunks his entropy argument.


Bill, you may not be aware, but there is an equivalence between physical entropy and information entropy. They are not really two different things.

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Hi Dan
I agree that in the case of Bozeman’s equations and Shannon information that there is mathematical equivalence. This however is not Germaine to Sanfords arguments.

Sanford has a model with assumptions derived from empirical observations.

Wrong again Bill. Words in a language are a predefined set of symbols conveying a predefined meaning. When you randomly change letters in a word you break the agreed upon set of symbols and therefore the meaning. DNA does not consist of predefined symbols or predefined meanings. It’s merely chemical molecules which follow the laws of chemistry and physics to produce other chemical molecules. DNA is therefore free to mutate with no damage to any predefined information, just the formation of new patterns with occasional new functionality. Contrary to ID-Creationist woo information is not a conserved quantity.

Here’s an interesting article that I came across a while ago that provides a rigorous mathematical treatment of the question as to whether or not the theory of evolution contradicts the Second Law of Thermodynamics:

It treats the sun and the rest of the universe as two heat reservoirs, and it calculates the net change in entropy of the two, to ask the question, what would contradict the Second Law of Thermodynamics? This is the conclusion:

Comparing with the entropy increase of the two heat reservoirs, we see that this is a factor of (1.6 \times 10^{24} \text{J/K})/(1.2 \times 10^{22} \text{J/K}) = ~140 larger. Remember, though, that the number for the heat reservoirs was for one year. Each year, more entropy is generated. The second law will only be violated if all the oceans freeze over in about 140 years or less.

Now, the mass of all the living organisms on earth, known as the biomass, is considerably less than the mass of the oceans (by a very generous estimate, about 10^{16} kilograms. If we perform a similar calculation using the earth’s biomass, instead of the mass of the oceans, we find that the second law of thermodynamics will only be violated if the entire biomass is somehow converted from a highly disorganized state (say, a gas at 10,000 K) to a highly organized state (say, absolute zero) in about a month or less.

Evolutionary processes take place over millions of years; clearly they cannot cause a violation of the second law.


Who is Germaine?

But it has many more assumptions that contradict many more empirical observations, such as the simple fact that influenza H1N1 exists.


Plus the fact non-human large mammals like whales, elephants, horses, giraffes, etc. have been on the planet for millions of years without going extinct from GE. The empirical evidence clearly shows Sanford’s GE model is simply wrong.

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You may want to check out this video that relates Entropy to OoL rather than biological evolution. Brian Miller who is being interviewed is an ID guy. I listened last night. It was very interesting. I set it to the start of that question. Maybe for the next 10 minutes.

He also used this analogy, but in the opposite direction you’re alluding to - that naturally occurring tornadoes don’t create. I tried to find the exact spot, but I couldn’t quickly. Let me know if you’re interested, and I’ll find it later.

Which observations did he derive his assumptions from?

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The title already indicates that it is nonsense.

Sorry, I’m not going to watch a 1+ hour long video just to see where they go wrong.


I am not sure what you are asking? He built a model based on the available evidence for the mutation rates of various types of mutations either beneficial, deleterious, neutral and nearly neutral. Maybe @stcordova can expand on this.

He also ignore a few million pieces of evidence which directly refuted his YEC “Genetic Entropy” model. Not very scientific or very intellectually honest, don’t you agree Bill?


I’m asking what that available evidence was. I ask because I’m not aware of any evidence bearing on Sanford’s central assumption, and also because in the one case I’ve checked, he cited the available evidence and then ignored it in setting his model parameters.


No, Sanford ignores the vast majority of evidence. One glaring example is the fact that the influenza H1N1 subtype is not extinct.

Then why did you ever write that … … … oh nevermind! :wink:

The people who make this claim started out as a single cell, a single fertilized ovum. From that single cell they developed into the human being they are now. If going from a single cell to a human being can happen in 9 months without violating the laws of thermodynamics, why do they think thermodynamics prevents the same process from happening over billions of years?

As @nwrickert mentions, refrigerators seem to flummox creationist ideas about entropy. How can a system at equilibrium suddenly have a hot and cold (i.e. less hot) spot?


Tornadoes can’t form without a local decrease in entropy. The very existence of tornadoes demonstrates that entropy can “run backwards” on Earth. The oceans being constantly warmer at the equator compared to the poles is another example of entropy “running backwards”.