Creation/Evolution Journal

Creationist Misunderstanding, Misrepresentation, and Misuse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Creationist Misunderstanding, Misrepresentation, and Misuse of the Second Law of Thermodynamics
Reviewed by
Stanley Freske

One of the cornerstones in the crumbling foundation of creationist "science" is
the notion that evolution contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. The
classical version of this law may be stated as follows: The entropy of an
isolated system can never decrease
. (An isolated system is one that does not
exchange energy or matter with its surroundings.) Creationists originally argued
that a decrease in entropy is exactly what evolution requires, hence the
conflict with the second law. This argument was used in an article by Dr. Morris
of the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) as late as 1973. As is the usual
practice among creationists, he tried to support it with out-of-context
quotations from the writings of respected scientists.

Actually, it is not difficult to find inaccurate statements regarding entropy in
popular science literature. Ever since the time it was first defined, entropy
has been recognized as a most elusive quantity as far as understanding its
physical significance is concerned. Defining it mathematically in terms of other
quantities is no problem; however, this cannot be done to advantage in popular
debates, a situation that creationists have been quick to capitalize on. Entropy
has been defined nonmathematically as a measure of disorder, equilibrium,
uncertainty, and unavailability of energy. Actually, to consider only the
entropy content of a system is not enough; a system can gain entropy and, at the
same time, become more organized, unbalanced, and richer in information and
available energy. (A few examples will be considered later on.) What is
important is the entropy deficiency of the system. We define this as the
difference between the system's entropy capacity (the maximum amount of entropy
the system is capable of holding with its present energy content) and the amount
of entropy it is actually holding. This deficiency may also be referred to as negentropy (short for negative entropy)—a concept which, had it been generally
adopted, might have been less confusing than entropy. Negentropy, then, has been
defined as a measure of order, information, lack of equilibrium, and the
availability of energy for doing work.

- page 9 -

But most fundamentally, negentropy—or
entropy deficiency—is a measure
of the improbability of a system being in a given state. For this reason, when
we discuss such things as the improbability of a certain nucleotide sequence,
for example, we are also discussing entropy and the second law of

A final warning: the word order in popular usage is highly ambiguous and should
be scrupulously avoided in explanations of entropy for the benefit of anyone not
already familiar with scientific jargon, lest it cause a great deal of
confusion. (The mathematically inclined reader can refer to such works as Sears
in 1959 and Brillouin in 1962 for more detail.)

Open Systems

The creationist argument given in the first paragraph contains a gaping flaw,
and evolutionist debaters wasted no time in pointing it out: While the classical
version of the second law does indeed state that the entropy of an isolated
system cannot decrease, evolving systems are not isolated! One might expect that
at this point the issue would be considered settled and everyone would pack up
and go home. However, such an expectation would never be entertained by anyone
familiar with the peculiar tenacity of creationists.

Let us see how Morris responds after he has been confronted with the clear
evidence that evolving systems are open. In 1976, he said: "The second law
really applies only to open systems, since there is no such thing as a truly
isolated system." This statement suggests that he lacks the ability to
distinguish between theoretical and practical concepts—an ability which is
absolutely essential for the understanding of much of physics. It is certainly
true that the second law applies to all thermodynamical systems; it wouldn't be
much of a law otherwise. But the particular statement of the second law that
Morris has in mind—namely, that the entropy cannot decrease—applies only to
isolated systems. It is a purely theoretical statement, and in theory, any
desired system can be postulated whether or not it can exist in practice. Let me
mention another example: The concept of an ideal gas is utilized throughout
thermodynamics and is extremely useful, even though no such substance actually
exists. Just as real gases approximate an ideal gas, some better than others,
there are real thermodynamical systems that are very nearly isolated. In these
systems we do not expect the entropy to decrease. On the other hand, in a wide
open system the entropy can either increase, decrease, or remain constant. The
second law does not in any way prevent entropy decreases and the generation of
entropy deficiencies in local systems so long as there is an equal or larger
increase in entropy outside the system. This concept is easily grasped by most
college and even high school students of science but not, apparently, by
creationists, including those boasting Ph.D.s in the sciences.

- page 10 -

It might now seem that all we have to do is give some examples of open: systems
in which the entropy decreases and then we can pack up and go home.
But alas, no such luck. In an attempt to counter this, creationists have
introduced a new device, which one creationist, Mr. Elmendorf, calls "The
Creative Trinity," a properly descriptive phrase with an appropriate ring that I
will therefore adopt.

The Creative Trinity

According to this creationist concept, a system can become entropy deficient
only if three conditions are satisfied (Morris, 1976). (1) Free energy must be
supplied to the system. This is actually incorrect, since a loss of energy can
also generate an entropy deficiency; however, the need for the system to be open
is universally recognized, so further discussion is unnecessary. (2) The system
must contain an energy conversion mechanism. When creationists are pressed, we
find that just about anything qualifies as having a "mechanism," including
matter itself, so the statement becomes quite meaningless. (3) The system must
contain a directing program. This is variously referred to as intelligence,
information, control system, and so forth by creationists. The idea is that this
directing program did not arise through natural processes but was created by
God. The Creative Trinity can also be interpreted as a statement to the effect
that there are different kinds of entropy which are not interchangeable.

We must take careful note of an elementary fact which is often missed in debates
on evolution and the second law: In spite of what they claim, creationists are
no longer talking about the second law. They wish to give the impression that
science, in this case thermodynamics, is on their side in their opposition to
evolution. But the fact is there is nothing in thermodynamics that contradicts
the phenomenon of an entropy deficiency being produced in a system when energy
flows through it. On the contrary, this is what thermodynamics leads us to
expect, and nothing else is needed, such as a directing program, etc. It is
interesting to note that, in his resolution of the long-standing paradox of
Maxwell's demon, Brillouin showed that, to enable the demon to distinguish
between fast and slow molecules, energy has to be supplied to the system, thus
producing an entropy increase elsewhere in just the amount required by
thermodynamics (Ehrenberg, 1967). And it doesn't matter whether the demon is an
intelligent being or a simple mechanism.

Creationists are not showing that evolution contradicts the second law of
thermodynamics; instead, they are saying that the second law, as accepted by
conventional science, is incorrect and insufficient to explain natural
phenomena. They insist that something else of their own making must be
added—namely, a divinely created directing program or a distinction between
different kinds of entropy. Let us now look at several examples to see how
creationists attempt to support their claims and to show that their notions are
wrong and unnecessary.

- page 11 -

Crystal Growth

The example of crystal growth is particularly interesting, because it has been
misunderstood and misused by evolutionist debaters as well as by creationists.
While the growing crystal is certainly an example of an open system in which
entropy is decreasing, there is an important thermodynamical difference between
it and a living system. In the crystal, the entropy is always at a maximum. In
other words, while it is true that the entropy decreases as the liquid changes
into a solid, this happens because the entropy capacity of the system decreases.
The living system, on the other hand, contains an entropy deficiency, and this
deficiency increases as the system grows or evolves. It should now be obvious
that a debater who tries to draw too close a parallel between crystals and
living systems will be in trouble.

Nevertheless, creationists have expended a great deal of effort attempting to
explain the entropy decrease inherent in crystal growth. Elmendorf claims that
there is no decrease in entropy, because liquids are more orderly than crystals
(1978). When I pointed out to him in an exchange of letters that gases turn into
liquids by a similar removal of heat, he decided that gases are the most orderly
of all. I might have asked him why we observe changes of state in nature which
proceed in the opposite direction by means of the simple addition of heat, such
as snowflakes melting, however, I did not pursue the matter any further.

It is more interesting to examine the claim by both Elmendorf and Morris that
crystals grow because of the divinely created directing program built into
matter. Elmendorf simply tells us that "the molecules are pre-programmed," while
Morris, with somewhat greater sophistication, explains that crystals are able to
form only because of "the electrochemical properties of the molecules in the
crystal" (1976). This quotation from Morris may sound perfectly reasonable (or
should I say conventional?), but only because it is out of context. He
subsequently informs us that these properties "could never arise by chance" or
"within the constraints imposed by the second law," and finally concludes that
they must be the work of "an omniscient programmer."

Two points should be noted here. First, Morris confuses the origin of matter and
its properties with the process of evolution. This undoubtedly is done
intentionally, since it is a common obscuring tactic among creationist debaters.
Second, the divine programs built into matter are claimed to be capable of
bringing about such entropy-reducing processes as crystal growth, development of
a seed or egg into a mature organism, growth of populations, evolution of
complex technologies, and so forth, but not capable of bringing about biological
or even comparatively simple astronomical evolution. Creationists have nothing
but contempt and ridicule for theistic evolutionists, an attitude made possible
only by this severe inconsistency in their own belief system.

- page 12 -

Convective Systems

In their attempts to prove their version of the second law, creationists often
use the example of a pile of bricks lying in the sun. This is supposed to
represent an open system that, although it is receiving an abundance of
high-grade energy, is not exhibiting any reduction in entropy. Creationists
gloatingly draw our attention to the fact that such bricks have never been
observed to organize themselves spontaneously into a building. What they
apparently fail to understand is that under the given conditions, an entropy
deficiency is in fact generated in the pile. After several hours of exposure to
the sun, the temperature will be higher at the top than at the bottom. If we
were to measure the temperatures throughout the pile, it would be a fairly
simple matter to calculate the entropy deficiency. Useful energy could actually
be extracted from the pile by means of a thermocouple, for example. Creationists
should tell us where in this mundane pile of bricks we find the divine directing
program and conversion mechanism, supposedly necessary for an entropy deficiency
to be generated in the system.

Incidentally, this pile of bricks, absorbing heat at the top only, is an example
of a system that becomes entropy deficient even though the entropy in the pile
actually increases. This seeming paradox results from the fact that, as heat is
added, the entropy capacity of the pile increases faster than the amount of
entropy contained in it. If we began again with a uniform temperature throughout
the pile and then allowed heat to be removed from the top, as when cooling at
night, the entropy would in fact decrease in addition to an entropy deficiency
again being generated. We may also note that in this case the cause is a loss of
energy. When discussing crystal growth, we saw that a loss of energy produced a
decrease in entropy, but not a deficiency. Almost any combination is possible
and we have to be extremely careful in making general statements concerning

Other, more impressive convective systems, in which large entropy deficiencies
develop spontaneously as a result of the simple influx of solar energy, are
meteorological systems such as hurricanes, tornados, and lightning storms. And
consider the water cycle: Heat from the sun evaporates water from the ocean; the
vapor is carried over the land by winds, which are also generated by solar heat,
and is forced up by mountains, where it precipitates; the water eventually forms
rivers with waterfalls and finally flows back into the ocean to close the cycle.
The waterfalls, of course, constitute a well-known source of available energy.
Where, creationists, are the directing programs in these highly organized,
entropy deficient systems?

- page 13 -

Mutations and the Genetic Code

The growth of a seed or egg into a mature organism constitutes an observable
process involving a large and spontaneous increase in the entropy deficiency of
a localized system. Creationists naturally claim that the genetic code making
this possible is just the directing program included in their Creative Trinity.
It is certainly true that the genetic program determines just what the egg will
grow into. But it is not true that this program is what enables the system to
develop an entropy deficiency. In the course of a year, the earth receives 1.6 x
1021 watt-hours of energy from the sun and reradiates almost the same amount
into space. But, because the incoming radiation originates on a high-temperature
source (the sun) and the outgoing radiation on a low-temperature one (the
earth), the whole process results in an outflow of entropy or inflow of negentropy. This negentropy flux can be calculated to be 3.2 x 1022 joule/ °K
per year (Tribus and Mclrvine, 1971). A significant portion of this negentropy
is used in biological processes directed by genetic programs, but a considerably
larger portion is used to generate entropy deficient meteorological systems
without the benefit of directing programs. Thus, the genetic program only
insures that a small portion of the negentropy is used to develop a particular
of entropy deficient system. The only legitimate question left is whether
the first bit of replicating genetic material could have come about naturally
without violating the second law.

We may first note that all the information stored in a fertilized mammalian
egg-cell is equivalent to only about 4 x 10-12 joule/ °K of negentropy. Ordinary
everyday processes that we observe all around us spontaneously develop entropy
deficiencies that easily amount to billions of times this amount. Thus, it is
not the generation of the entropy deficiency that constitutes the problem,
although this is what creationists imply when they say that a natural origin of
the genetic code would violate the second law.

Experiments of the type first performed by Stanley Miller have shown that the
basic building blocks of life—amino acids and nucleotides—are generated
spontaneously in a reducing atmosphere, consisting of compounds of carbon,
hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, when energy in the form of electrical discharges
or high-energy radiation is supplied. We are unable to choose at this time the
particular mechanism whereby these units assembled themselves into proteins and
DNA (or RNA) respectively; there are several possibilities. A more important
question is the probability of the spontaneous formation of such a chain with
sufficient autocatalytic properties so that, once formed, it would promote its
own duplication. Once this hurdle has been overcome, evolution can be expected
to proceed through the combination of mutations and natural selection, as
discussed later. For years creationists have been indulging in calculations
intended to prove that the formation of the original functional chain is
statistically impossible. Let us examine one such attempt by Dr. Gish, also of
ICR (1978).

Gish begins by assuming that a functional chain would need to consist of 100
amino acids of the 20 different kinds found in living organisms. He then states
that there are 10130 different varieties of such a sequence, which is correct.

- page 14 -

then assumes arbitrarily and, he thinks, generously that 1011 of these
variations might be functional. Stated more directly, he has assumed, entirely
without justification, that only 1 out of 10119 combinations is useful. But, to
show what an extremely generous man he is, Gish then assumes that 1021 varieties
are formed every second during a period of 5 billion years. He is still
perfectly safe, of course; with his assumption of 1 in 10119, the useful chain
would never form. Gish doesn't mention whether anyone has systematically
examined the properties of any significant number of such sequences. But even if
thousands had been investigated, this would be nowhere near 10119, and it would
be just as reasonable to assume that 1 in a trillion (1012), 1 in a billion
(109), or even 1 in a million (106) has the desired characteristics. Actually,
the evidence we have points in this direction. For example, examination of hemoglobins of different species shows that only 7 out of a total of 140 sites
always have the same amino acid (Perutz, 1968). The probability of these 7 sites
being correctly occupied, assuming again 20 different amino acids, is 1 in a
little over a billion (1.3 x 109).

Now, if we go by what little evidence we have and make the far more reasonable
assumption that 1 in 109 is functional, and assume further that only one
sequence forms each second (anywhere on earth), a functional one could be
expected to form in about 32 years! On the time scales we are dealing with, even
32 million years is nothing, so we too can be generous and assume that only 1
out of 1015 randomly generated 100-member sequences is sufficiently
autocatalytic. Let us see Gish or anyone else prove this impossible!

Perhaps the greatest unanswered question in biological evolution concerns the
manner in which proteins and DNA (or RNA) became associated with each other.
Creationists maintain that because we don't now know how this happened
naturally, it could only have happened through divine design, and it is useless
to investigate it further. We are fortunate that such attitudes have not
prevailed universally at all times or science would never have evolved out of
the Dark Ages.

We may speculate on whether evolution could at one time have proceeded through
mutations and natural selection involving chains of amino acids only, but in the
present discussion we will leave aside these early developments, of which enough
is not yet known. Let us look, instead, at the evolution of the genetic program
from that of primitive organisms even simpler than (and different from) modern
viruses, to that of complex ones such as mammals. Although we recognize the
enormous amount of variation possible in the normal genetic mixing associated
with sexual reproduction, the only way in which something entirely new can be
introduced is through mutations, including such phenomena as gene duplication.
Creationists contend that, because of the second law, only detrimental mutations
are possible. An examination of the mechanism involved will show that this
contention is absurd.

- page 15 -

Four nucleotides constitute the characters in the genetic code, and, for
convenience, they are designated A, C, G, and T in the case of DNA. They are read
groups of three called codons, each of which codes for an amino acid. A simple
type of mutation is one in which one nucleotide is replaced by a different one,
and, as a result, a different amino acid is coded for. (Because of a redundancy
in the code, this does not always happen.) Since the genetic program has already
been brought to near perfection through natural selection, a mutation is usually
detrimental to the organism. It therefore tends to be weeded out of a population
or, if it gives rise to a recessive gene, is limited in its spread. But there
is, of course, no natural law which prevents an occasional mutation from
benefiting the organism, especially if the latter exists in a changing
environment. Such a mutation would tend to become more common and spread
throughout the population. (An example is the acquisition of drug resistance on
the part of asexually reproducing organisms, where variability due to genetic
mixing does not play a part.) The important point here is that, as far as the
second law is concerned, it makes no difference which nucleotide substitution
occurs. The entropy content of the
genetic message does not depend on whether the substitution turns out to be
beneficial or detrimental to the organism.

We might profit from an examination of the fallacy that an accumulation of
beneficial mutations would contradict the second law. It undoubtedly derives
from the fact that, if such an accumulation were the result of a totally random
process, it would indeed be contrary to the predictions of the second law.
However, if each beneficial mutation is favored over an indifferent one, which
in turn is favored over a detrimental one, then the process is by no means
random, and we cannot invoke the second law to predict its outcome. The
selective process just described is, of course, what we commonly refer to as
natural selection.

In order for the complexity of the code to increase, a simple nucleotide
substitution is not enough; instead, nucleotides need to be added to the
existing sequence, perhaps through the process of gene duplication. Such an
addition does constitute a minute negentropy increase, but, as we have seen,
this does not at all violate the second law, since there will be a corresponding
entropy increase elsewhere. In other respects, the addition is like the simple
substitution discussed earlier; in particular, the entropy change in the genetic
material is in no way dependent on whether the organism is helped or harmed, and
the few beneficial mutations will be favored and accumulate, here adding


In their first and crudest attempt at creating the illusion of a contradiction
between evolution and the second law of thermodynamics, creationists simply
ignored the fact that evolving systems are not isolated. Their next endeavor
consisted of altering the second law by maintaining that it precludes entropy
decreases in all systems, not just isolated ones.

- page 16 -

Although they still
make either or both of these claims in debates, they apparently realized at some
point, presumably after having been confronted with examples proving them wrong,
that a new device was needed. So, they invented the "Creative Trinity." This
actually replaces the second law, but they still refer to it as the second law
of thermodynamics in order to maintain the air of scientific respectability.

There is a virtually unlimited number of examples of natural systems in which
entropy deficiencies develop spontaneously, provided only that energy is allowed
to flow across their boundaries, thus disproving the creationist requirement for
a divine directing program or different kinds of entropy. We are awaiting
coherent responses from creationists dealing with these examples.

This leaves only the task of examining the validity of the claim by creationists
that genetic programs could not have developed naturally and must therefore have
been intelligently created. A simple calculation of the probability of formation
of a sufficiently autocatalytic chain of amino acids and an elementary
examination of the process of evolution through mutations and natural selection
from simple organisms to complex ones show that, whatever difficulties occur in
the natural origin of life, they do not involve any violations of the second law
of thermodynamics.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
If you support evolution education, support NCSE.

National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, EIN 11-2656357. NCSE is supported by individuals, foundations, and scientific societies. Review our annual audited financial statements and IRS 990 forms at GuideStar.

© Copyright 2020 National Center for Science Education. Privacy Policy and Disclaimer | Disclosures Required by State Law