Cosmology and Entropy:

Astronomical Evolution and The Second Law of Thermodynamics

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.

      What is the purpose of this page?
      One goal of this website is to avoid "strawman" mis-representations of opposing positions.  My web-page about Entropy and Evolution implies that young-earth creationists frequently make one particular claim that is scientifically foolish, and recently (in June 2007) I discovered that this claim is not as frequent as I had previously thought, and (as I explain later in this page) "except for the claims by Henry Morris, I have not been able to find any ‘thermo in astronomy" claims in the websites of prominent young-earth creation organizations."  Therefore, I wrote this page.   It contains three sections:  A Silly Idea, Why Things Happen, and The Decline of a Silly Idea.

      A Silly Idea (claiming that thermodynamics prevents all evolutionary development)

      After a Big Bang, would a natural development of complex physical structures — stars and galaxies, planets and solar systems — violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics?
      Henry Morris claims (in 1973) that because "evolution and entropy are opposing and mutually exclusive concepts,... evolution must be impossible" and (in 1976) that "the most devastating and conclusive argument against evolution is the entropy principle,... also known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics... which describes a situation of universally deteriorating order."  Later, his son (John Morris, 1992) carries on the legacy: "the universal Second Law of Thermodynamics shows that things become more disordered through time, not more complex, as evolution insists."
      But what do Henry and John mean when they claim that thermodynamics makes "evolution" impossible?

      The views of young-earth creationists are described by Del Ratzsch, in The Battle of Beginnings (1996, pages 91-92):
      "Creationists nearly unanimously claim that this Second Law [described in the previous paragraph] poses a nasty problem for evolution.  Unfortunately, exactly what creationists have in mind here is widely misunderstood.  Creationists are at least partly at fault for that confusion.  One reason is that as noted earlier (chapter six), most popular creationists use the term evolution ambiguously — sometimes to refer to the cosmic evolutionary worldview (or model) and sometimes to refer to the Darwinian biological theory.  Although a coherent position can be extracted from some of the major creationists (such as Morris, Gish, Wysong and Kofahl), this ambiguity has rendered some parts of their writing monumentally unclear.  One has to read extremely carefully in order to see which evolution is being referred to, and some critics of creationism either have simply not noticed the ambiguity or perhaps have misjudged which meaning specific creationists have had in mind in specific passages.  And critics are not the only people who have sometimes been bamboozled.  Other creationists who take their cues from those above have also sometimes missed some of the key distinctions and have advanced exactly the original misconstrued arguments that critics have wrongly attributed to major creationists.
      In a word or two, we have a four-alarm mess here.  But let's see if we can clear up at least some of it.
      First, when claiming that the Second Law flatly precludes evolution, major creationists almost invariably have in mind evolution in the overall cosmic, "evolution model" sense.*  The clues to that meaning are the almost invariable use (especially in Morris's writings) of phrases like philosophy of evolution or cosmic or universal or on a cosmic scale.  The universe as a whole system is taken to be a closed system (classically), and according to the creationist definition of evolution model, that model is unavoidably committed to an internally generated overall increase in cosmic order, since on that view reality is supposed to be self-developed and self-governing.  What Morris and others mean to be claiming is that any such view according to which the entire cosmos is itself in a process of increasing overall order is in violation of the Second Law."
  {* Here, an endnote cites 42 references in 24 books.}

      Henry Morris was explicit about the range of his claims in 1976 (in the middle of his reign, for several decades, as the most prominent young-earth creationist) when he claimed that all types of evolution — as indicated in the [square brackets] below — are impossible because evolution "requires some universal principle which increases order, causing random particles eventually to organize themselves into complex chemicals, non-living systems to become living cells [chemical evolution], and populations of worms to evolve into human societies [biological evolution]" and he asks, "What is the information code that tells primeval random particles how to organize themselves into stars and planets [astronomical evolution], and what is the conversion mechanism that transforms amoebas into men [biological evolution]?" {quoted from Entropy and Open Systems with bold-emphasis added}

      Why do things happen?

      Responding to these claims, my Introduction to Entropy and Evolution: The Second Law of Thermodynamics in Science and in Young-Earth Creationism explains "why things happen" during astronomical evolution: 

      A wide variety of common reactions occur when an attractive force pulls particles closer together, which constrains them (producing a small decrease of entropy) but increases their kinetic energy and temperature (producing a larger increase of entropy), so total entropy increases even though "disorder" seems to decrease. ...
      We'll look at five examples — from among the many reactions that have occurred during the history of astronomical evolution — involving two particles (electrons, protons) and three forces (electrical, gravitational, nuclear). ...
      In each reaction the particles become more constrained when they are organized into a form that is more ordered, organized, and complex.  The overall result (in a sequence from A through C) is to convert electrons & protons into planets in solar systems, due to the simple operation of attractive forces.
      two kinds of intuition:  An everyday intuition (based on the incorrect idea that "entropy is disorder") will reach wrong conclusions because in each reaction the apparent disorder decreases, so (based on psychological intuition about disorder) entropy should decrease, but in reality the entropy increases.  By contrast, thermodynamic intuition (based on a correct understanding of entropy) leads to the correct conclusion, that entropy increases in each reaction.
      why reactions occur:  At normal temperatures, most reactions are "driven forward" by the formation of stronger attractive-force interactions between particles, which is manifested as a temperature increase, not by a decrease of constraints. ...
      why chemical reactions occur:  In the common experiences of everyday life, most reactions are chemical, not astronomical.  These chemical reactions occur because stronger bonds ("stronger attractive-force interactions between particles") are formed due to the reaction.

      The Decline of a Silly Idea

      Recently, in June 2007, I've concluded that most current creationists do not claim that thermodynamics makes astronomical evolution impossible.  This conclusion — about the apparent decline of one silly idea (although many others remain in young-earth science) — is based on two kinds of evidence:

      Except for the claims by Henry Morris, I have not been able to find any "thermo in astronomy" claims in the websites of prominent young-earth creation organizations, such as the Institute for Creation Research (founded by Henry Morris, now led by John Morris) and Answers in Genesis.
      Although I've found nothing in ICR or AIG, the website of has Thermodynamics vs Evolutionism (200x) in which Timothy Wallace says: "The entire universe is generally considered by evolutionists to be a closed system, so the second law dictates that within the universe, entropy as a whole is increasing.  In other words, things are tending to breaking down, becoming less organized, less complex, more random on a universal scale." ... "Evolutionist theory faces a problem in the second law, since the law is plainly understood to indicate (as does empirical observation) that things tend towards disorder, simplicity, randomness, and disorganization, while the [evolutionary] theory insists that precisely the opposite has been taking place since the universe began (assuming it had a beginning).  Beginning with the ‘Big Bang’ and the self-formation and expansion of space and matter, the evolutionist scenario declares that every structure, system, and relationship — down to every atom, molecule, and beyond — is the result of a loosely-defined, spontaneous self-assembly process of increasing organization and complexity, and a direct contradiction (i.e., theorized violation) of the second law." (bold-emphasis added by me)  /  But in the rest of his page, Wallace applies his principle — which claims MUCH more than the Second Law claims — only to chemical evolution and biological evolution, not astronomical evolution.
      In young-earth websites, vague definitions of the Second Law (such as the one by Wallace above) do occur, and they say what Ratzsch describes: "any such view, according to which the entire cosmos is itself in a process of increasing overall order, is in violation of the Second Law."  Most readers, especially non-scientists, will think the overall order is increased by the formation of stars and galaxies, planets and solar systems, so (according to the Second Law) this will not naturally occur.  If this is true, why are claims about "thermo and astronomical evolution" so rare?
      Here are several possible explanations:  1) Maybe these claims exist but I just haven't found them.  2) Maybe creationists are focused on claims for the evolution of life and humans, so they aren't very interested in astronomical evolution;  if they were asked whether a Big Bang will lead to solar systems, they would say no, but they don't think much about this question.  3) Maybe the major creation scientists, including Wallace, understand why astronomical evolution would not violate the Second Law, so they make no claims about it;  and perhaps peer review within the young-earth community (by ICR, AIG,...) eliminates, or at least minimizes, these foolish claims.

      In his excellent page about The Current State of Creationist Astronomy, Danny Faulkner explicitly denies one manifestation of the silly idea.
      "Some creationists believe that the formation of a star violates the second law of thermodynamics [Mulfinger, "A Critique of Stellar Evolution" in Creation Research Society Quarterly, 1970], but this is not true.  If one starts with a sphere of gas of larger radius and contracts the sphere to a smaller radius, then the simple application of gas equations does seem to suggest a decrease in entropy.  It is also obvious that in the lab gases do not spontaneously contract, which seems to be a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics.  At least two differences exist between the laboratory situation and a contracting protostar.  One is that the protostar possesses considerable internal energy in the form of gravitational potential energy that the lab gas does not.  The other difference is that the protostar sheds considerable energy by radiation.  As the protostar contracts, the gravitational potential energy is liberated.  By the virial theorem, half the released energy heats the gas, while the other half is radiated.  Recall that the definition of entropy change is dS = dQ/T, where dQ is the heat flow and T is the temperature.  Since the heat loss is negative, the entropy change of the protostar would be negative, as it is for any radiating object.  /  In fact, Mulfinger's entropy calculation can be generalized to any self-gravitating spherical gas (cloud, protostar or star) with the result (in molar units),  DS = 3/2 R ln(r2/r1), where R is the ideal gas constant, r1 is the radius of the object at some time and r2 is the size at some later time. Since the cloud or star is contracting, r2 < r1, so that DS is negative.  Mulfinger applied this sort of equation to demonstrate that since this entropy change is negative, the second law of thermodynamics prohibited the contraction of a gas cloud to form a star.  What he ignored was the fact that energy is radiated from the protostar (thus DS is negative), but that the absorption of that energy elsewhere produces an even larger positive increase in entropy, so that the total entropy change is positive.  {bold-emphasis added}  This is an application of the principle I use to explain why things happen.
      In another article (CRSQ-2001, the abstract is available) Faulkner asks, "Does the Collapse of a Gas Cloud to Form a Star Violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics?", and he answers NO.  "Thus it appears that the theoretical contraction of a gas cloud to form a star does not violate the second law of thermodynamics.  It is recommended that creationists do not use this argument to critique the theory of stellar evolution.  However, there remains a long-standing problem with how the alleged initial contraction of a gas cloud can commence.  This is a valid criticism of star formation."  {comment: As far as I know, the initial contraction isn't considered a problem in astronomy theory, but I'll check on it and will write something about it here.}

Unfortunately, I've seen lots of vague generalizations (as in Wallace) and very few specific clarifications (as by Faulkner), so readers who are less scientifically sophisticated are likely to misunderstand, and then THEY will make foolish claims about silly ideas.  Responsible young-earth scientists can help "shift the balance" toward increased scientific responsibility" in their readers, by clearly explaining why some claims should not be made.  The main "entropy and evolution" page concludes with suggestions for fixing a four-alarm mess.

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Here are other related pages:

Entropy and Evolution (astronomical, chemical, and biological)

Astronomy/Cosmology Overviews (in the homepage for Age-Science)

Astronomical Evolution (in a page focused on astronomy & cosmology)

This page, written by Craig Rusbult, is

Copyright © 2007 by Craig Rusbult, all rights reserved