Creationist drivel – Thermodynamics

Having a little time, I thought I’d pass a few comments on remnant’s next supposed scientific disproof of evolution, although it’s a bit tricky, because remnant’s source doesn’t actually offer any.

First Law of Thermodynamics (1847). Heinrich von Helmholtz stated the law of conservation of energy: The sum total of all matter will always remain the same. This law refutes several aspects of evolutionary theory. *Isaac Asimov calls it “the most fundamental generalization about the universe that scientists have ever been able to make” (*Isaac Asimov, “In the Game of Energy and Thermodynamics You Can’t Even Break Even,” Journal of Smithsonian Institute, June 1970, p. 6).

“Evolution Handbook”

Obviously Asimov himself didn’t sympathise with the view that the law refuted “several aspects of evolutionary theory” because he was himself a non-believer and a committed supporter of evolutionary theory.

It looks like we’re not going to be told what the “several aspects of evolutionary theory” that have been refuted actually are. Pity.

So I’ll have to take a guess. Initially I thought that he was meaning spontaneous generation, which he incorrectly identified as a cornerstone of evolutionary theory. But he goes on later to discuss Pasteur’s experiment, and I’ll make some comments on spontaneous generation at that point.

The other potential “aspect of evolutionary theory” that the unidentified writer is referring to is the cosmological theory of the Big Bang. Obviously, this isn’t evolution, which deals with changes of species over time. Nor is it abiogenesis, which is the study of the initial origins of life from inorganic and organic matter. Therefore the writer has made a category error here, unless he can demonstrate which aspects of evolutionary theory, exactly, are refuted by the first law of thermodynamics. I know of none, but he doesn’t even seem to be writing about evolutionary theory in the first place.

I confess that I’d not heard of Hermann (not Heinrich, very sloppy) von Helmholtz. Wikipedia credits the first law to one Rudolf Clausius. Whoever, the first law, and von Helmholtz’s equivalent, the law of conservation of energy, are fundamental to the understanding of both physical and chemical theories.

The first law, which can also be understood a strict mathematical sense, states that:

In all cases in which work is produced by the agency of heat, a quantity of heat is consumed which is proportional to the work done; and conversely, by the expenditure of an equal quantity of work an equal quantity of heat is produced.


In a thermodynamic process, the increment in the internal energy of a system is equal to the difference between the increment of heat accumulated by the system and the increment of work done by it.

In other words, when heat is added to a system only two things can happen. There can be a change in the internal energy of a system or the system can be caused to do work, and this can happen (and mostly does happen) in combination. Therefore the energy is neither lost nor gained, but can be transformed. This includes mass, which is a highly-concentrated form of energy. Mass can be lost or gained, but only at the cost or to the benefit of other forms of energy.

One stipulation is that the system referred to must be isolated. For conservation, the energy supplied to the system must come from within the system. The Earth, then, is not an isolated system, as energy is being constantly supplied from the Sun. The solar system is a better model, though not perfect. The Earth is constantly gaining energy, therefore, which is balanced by energy loss from the Sun.

The first law deals with what happens to thermal energy. But the implications are clear enough. Energy is neither created nor destroyed but it can be transformed from one type to another. Formally, this is known as the law of conservation of energy. It also states that the total amount of energy in the universe must therefore be constant. This law is a fundamental of quantum theory, and also of special relativity, where the equation E=mc² is a restatement. Much modern theoretical physics is underpins this understanding (see Lawrence Krauss, from the previous post in this blog). Krauss, indeed, and Victor Stenger, show theoretically that the sum total of energy, when positive and negative energy are both included, comes to zero.

But this doesn’t mean, obviously enough, that nothing can ever happen. Energy is being transformed all the time. For example, it has been known for many years that the mass of helium atoms is not proportional to the mass of equivalent atoms. Energy is lost from helium atoms when they are created from nuclear fusion, although that energy is not destroyed, nor is any new energy created.

As with physics, so with chemistry and biology. Energy is transformed and released in all chemical and biological processes – biological processes being physical or chemical processes within biological entities. The science of chemistry is a study of the fundamental building blocks of matter, but also to a great extent the study of the interactions between those building blocks, and therefore the study of the energy relationships of chemical processes.

And it’s a fact that some chemical reactions are more likely than others because of thermodynamics. As Nick Lane says, in his book Life Ascending:

[Thermodynamics is] more engaging if it is seen for what it is: the science of “desire”. The existence of atoms and molecules is dominated by “attractions”, “repulsions”, “wants” and “discharges”, to the point that that it becomes virtually impossible to write about chemistry without giving in to some randy anthropomorphism. Molecules “want” to lose or gain electrons; attract opposite charges; repulse similar charges; or cohabit with molecules of similar character. A chemical reaction happens spontaneously if all the molecular partners desire to participate; or they can be pressed to react unwillingly through greater force. And of course some molecules really want to react but find it hard to overcome their innate shyness…My point is that thermodynamics makes the world go round. If two molecules don’t want to react together then they won’t be easily persuaded; if they want to react they will, even if it takes some time to overcome their shyness. Our lives are driven by wants of this kind. The molecules in food want very much to react with oxygen but luckily they don’t react spontaneously (they’re a touch shy), or we’d all go up in flames. But the flame of life, the slow-burning combustion that sustains us all, is a reaction of exactly this type: hydrogen stripped from food reacts with oxygen to release all the energy we need to live. At bottom. all life is sustained by a “main reaction” of a similar type; a chemical reaction that wants to happen, and releases energy that can be used to power all the side-reactions that make up metabolism. All this energy, all our lives, boils down to the juxtaposition of two molecules totally out of equilibrium with each other, hydrogen and oxygen; two opposing bodies that conjoin in a blissful molecular union, with a copious discharge of energy, leaving nothing but a small, hot puddle of water.

It is thermodynamics, Lane tells us, that killed off the “primordial soup” idea, as the theoretical soup was composed of molecules that didn’t want anything to do with each other. A much better bet, as a scenario for the origin of replicators and therefore life, would be an area where thermodynamic processes are active, and Lane suggests that deep-sea thermal vents are by their nature much more likely to give us an answer.

The first law of thermodynamics and the law of conservation of energy are (wilfully?) much misunderstood by many, and especially creationists. Although the total energy of a system remains unchanged, this does not preclude change itself, and in many cases the components within a system itself encourage it. Lane argues strongly that abiogenesis is dependent on, not antithetical to, thermodynamics and would not have happened without it. The creationists, such as the writer of the “Evolution Handbook” have emphasised the lack of creation and destruction while ignoring transformation. Without thermodynamics there would be no change and without change there could be no evolution – far from being a barrier to evolution, all of thermodynamics, including the first law, are essential for it.

So we can see that the writer fails to understand what evolution is by citing the law of conservation of energy as an argument against it, but in doing so, also appears to fail to understand the law as well.


One response to “Creationist drivel – Thermodynamics

  • Route_70

    On the forum, and on the post here cited, I mentioned that the Laws of Thermodynamics aren’t actually “laws.” By this I mean that all (or nearly, practically all) of science begins with presumptions, statements that are presumed to be true. I do believe that most self-respecting scientists will tell you that ultimately, we can never be 100% sure about anything.

    Unlike math, which has the luxury of beginning with assumptions, which are either previously proved statements or are statements that are taken as starting points that don’t need proof (axioms, in other words), science must begin with, as I’ve already said, statements that are presumed to be true. The Laws of Thermodynamics are presumed to hold true.

    The part of the Second Law that creationists overlook is the part that infers that everything “left to itself” tends in the direction of from the compex to the simple. When left to itself anything and everything decays; however, when acted upon by an outside source, anything can go in the opposite direction. There are several theories as to what the outside source was for evolution — UV rays from the sun being probably the most popular theory at the moment. It has been demonstrated in hundreds of laboratory experiments that when acted upon by an outside source of energy (UV light; electric spark; etc.) complex molecules can be constructed from simple ones in a test tube.

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