Evolution, Entropy, and Human Beings 1

I recently received, compliments of the publisher, a copy of a new book by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. This book has its origins in the avalanche of questions unleashed on Collins following the publication of his earlier book The Language of God. But this new book is not an encyclopedia of frequently asked questions – it is a readable book walking through many of the frequently asked questions and the important issues in a narrative form. It is written for the non-scientist and will make a good resource for those with questions, for discussion groups, and for church leaders.

Chapters six, seven, and eight of The Language of Science and Faith address questions related to arguments against Darwin’s theory of evolution, the fine-tuning of the universe and  finally evolution and human beings. Darwin’s On the Origin Of Species was first published over 150 years ago. (By the way some Kindle versions are free: On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection.) This book did not appear out of the blue, it built on Darwin’s experience and observation in the context of observations and theories of many others. In the years that have followed the response has been varied, the theory has been expanded, refined, and placed on firm physical, chemical, and biological foundations. The history of the development of the theory of evolution and the acceptance of evolution is discussed briefly in chapter six of The Language of Science and Faith, but of more significance for the post today are questions relating to the arguments against the theory of biological evolution and common descent.

According to Giberson and Collins arguments against evolution fall into three categories (p. 161):

  1. Scientific problems that have been fully resolved but continue to circulate because their supporters are not current with the scientific literature or do not respect that literature.
  2. Scientific problems that are not really problems but are based on enduring misunderstandings that seem resistant to clarification.
  3. Scientific problems that are recognized by the scientific community, which expects to resolve them using tools of science.

What arguments against evolution have you heard? If you find them convincing, why?

Which category would you place them in?

In the book Giberson and Collins single out three examples for discussion. These serve as illustrations, not an exhaustive rebuttal to all objections.

The need for too much time. One of the early arguments against evolution was based on the available time for evolution. Even the most optimistic estimates for the age of the earth placed it in the range of 100 million years, insufficient for the evolution of the diversity of life observed. The estimate for age was based on the assumption that the earth formed as a molten glob of matter and had been cooling since – the earth was currently too hot to be older than ca. 100 million years. The discovery of radioactivity changed the estimates dramatically. Radioactive decay provides both an energy source account for the current temperature of the earth and an internal clock to measure age. Many lines of investigation and argument now point to an age of ca. 4.5 billion years with a globe cool enough for life ca. 4 billion years ago.

This challenge to evolution reflected a genuine scientific disagreement, one that was eventually resolved. If the age of the earth had been irrefutably determined to be only 100 million years, scientists would have begun to focus on the question of the origin of species differently. But the age is sufficient for evolution. There are still questions of mechanism, evolution and the physical/chemical mechanisms of evolution are still subject of ongoing research. But these questions do not disprove the theory, only refine our understanding of the science.

Evolution violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, ∆Suniverse > 0. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the second law of thermodynamics reflects the general idea that things progress toward the state of maximum disorder. Cars rust and fall apart, they do not spontaneously assemble.  The measure of disorder is entropy, represented by the symbol “S”. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of an isolated system will increase or stay constant, and it can only stay constant under unrealizable conditions.  The change in entropy (∆S) must be positive (i.e. >0). As the only truly isolated system is the universe as a whole the law basically states that the entropy of the universe will always increase. Thus every spontaneous process reflects an increase in entropy (∆Suniverse > 0).  This does not rule out localized decreases in entropy – but any such localized decrease must be accompanied by other larger increases in entropy.

A very simple demonstration – one I enjoy doing in class (did this term in fact)- is shown in the video below.

The entropy of the water decreases, the entropy of the reaction increases, and the net result is an increase in the entropy of the universe. The spontaneous freezing of water does not violate the laws of thermodynamics because it is part of a larger processes or system. This principle underlies all of chemistry and all of biology. Spontaneous process are those processes where the total entropy increases, not just the part we are interested in or are looking at.

The second law of thermodynamics says nothing at all about the origin and evolution of life – except that the total overall process in the universe involves an increase in entropy. The sun supplies energy to the earth, thus the sun must be considered as part of the equation. The entropy of molecular systems on earth may decrease, but the burning of the fuel in the sun reflects an increase in entropy that more than counters any decrease on earth.

The argument that the evolution of life is counter to the second law of thermodynamics reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of thermodynamics.

The Origin of Life. The final question considered by Giberson and Collins is the scientific explanation for the origin of life. The bottom line is that there is none … yet. And that “yet” is the key factor. There is no dead end in research, no impossibility for the origin of life. But life is complex, we don’t know what the original terrestrial environment was, we do not know what building blocks were available, and we do not know enough of the possible chemical mechanism. This is an area of active research.

There are two important points here. First – the origin of life and the adequacy of the evolutionary explanation for the diversity of life and the origin of species are two completely separate questions. Evolution follows well established, although not completely worked out, mechanisms. There remain active questions, but they do not challenge the overall process.

Second – arguments from ignorance seldom, if ever, make constructive arguments for direct divine action. God is responsible for the features we understand as well as those we do not understand and those we may never understand. It is quite likely all one unified whole, not separable into categories of divine action and natural process.

The study of life’s origins is an exciting area of research. The jury is still out – way out – on how life first emerged. A simple response would be to give an old-fashioned god-of-the-gaps explanation: some supernatural force, namely God, must have intervened to bring life into being. We do not categorically exclude this, but would encourage our readers not to jump to this all-too-easy solution.

Although the origin of life is certainly a genuine scientific mystery – as opposed to a pseudo-scientific problem, like how evolution overcomes the second law of thermodynamics – we suggest that this is not the place for thoughtful people to wager their faith. This kind of logic would mean that God worked in some special way at this stage only to allow the evolutionary process to move through later development that did not require divine intervention. In contrast, the perspective we are advancing maintains that God’s original and elegant plan for the universe may well have included the potential for life to arise without necessarily requiring later “supernatural” engineering to jumpstart the process. In this view, God’s sustaining creative presence under-girds all of life’s history from the beginning to the present. (p. 174-175)

Fine-Tuning of the Universe. We have discussed the fine-tuning arguments at length in a number of posts (see the science and faith archive for more information), and I am not going to repeat them here. The discussion given by Giberson and Collins in chapter seven of this book is a good lay-level introduction.

In the next and final post we will conclude our discussion of The Language of Science and Faith with consideration of chapter eight Evolution and Human Beings. For today I would like to consider evolution at a more general  level.

What arguments against evolution do you find convincing? Why?

What arguments would you like to see discussed on this blog (in future posts)?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit Evolution, Entropy, and Human Beings 1 at Jesus Creed.

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