I recently received the following e-mail- apprently in response to a post I wrote about two years ago.** I reproduce the entirety of the message below, with any identifying elements removed:
Sent : Thursday, June 21, 2007 2:25 AM
To : firstname.lastname@example.org
Subject : Life Comes From God
I ran into your site and disregarded your warning to not linger there. I red a portion of a post from 2005 on evolution. I once wrote the following to a man who was proposing something similar to what you do about the second law of thermodynamics and evolution:
"It is common knowledge among scientists, including ones espousing evolution, that there are no known violations of the second law of thermodynamics, whether in open or closed systems. Honest scientists admit that the organized complexity of biological organisms requires two additional factors besides an open system (sun providing energy). These are: a "program" (information) to direct the growth in organized complexity and a mechanism for storing and converting the incoming energy to maintain life. Evolution has no answer or explanation for the presence of either, the development of which contravenes the second law of thermodynamics.
The formation of ice crystals from water does not answer this conundrum. Snowflakes simply represent water's movement towards equilibrium at a lower energy level. They are not an example of matter forming itself into more organized or complex systems, but are the result of the intrinsic nature of the constituent elements forming repeating structures with minimal complexity and no function.
Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine puts it this way:
'The point is that in a non-isolated [open] system there exists a possibility for formation of ordered, low-entropy structures at sufficiently low temperatures. This ordering principle is responsible for the appearance of ordered structures such as crystals as well as for the phenomena of phase transitions. Unfortunately [for evolutionists] this principle cannot explain the formation of biological structures.'"
So, this e-mail is quite clearly an attempt to change my ways- to drive me away from godlessness and an acceptance of evolution. No doubt it is thought that if I were to abandon evolution I would have no choice but to believe it god. Woo-hoo false dichotomy! In any case, these sorts of e-mails are nothing new for me as I am the subject of such attempts every now and then. Most of them are not as fun as this one, however, and so I decided I wanted to reply at length. Please consider this open letter to be that response.
Dear Mr. Correspondent,
First and foremost allow me to thank you for your e-mail and your concern for my well-being. I know that you are corresponding with me because you believe that I am living my life poorly and, as such, am in need of your guidance. It is of no consequence that my view of your choices is not dissimilar- your concern speaks well of you.
I am afraid, however, that I find your argument rather unconvincing. Specifically, your argument breaks down into three related assertions. First, that "evolution" cannot explain the origins of "information." Second, that "evolution" cannot explain how organisms harness available energy to support life. Third, and finally, that the second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution. This final point you support using a quote from Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine.
Taking your first point, it is incorrect that evolutionary theory cannot account for "information." Even if we leave aside the considerable semantic difficulties of defining "information,"- and William Dembski's ridiculous "specified complexity" notion is not helpful*** here- basic physical processes are known to produce outcomes that encode considerable volumes of information. At a higher level, there are a number of avenues through which "information" can be added to a given organism- such as the well-known phenomenon of gene duplication. In this case, an error in DNA replication double-copies a section of the genome- one copy is expressed, the other is not. The unexpressed copy, however, is now available as extra material for random mutation and selection to operate on. Regardless, "information" has been added.
Doubtless at this point you would object that what you really mean is that evolution cannot account for how DNA emerged in the first place. This is, at best, a tenuous argument as the existence of self-replicating organic molecules is well-established. DNA is simply an elaboration upon that basic theme and may have been preceded by the even simpler RNA, thus giving us an extant evolutionary precursor. While it is true that we have no direct evidence, at the moment, of how DNA evolved, considerable research is being done in this area. For example, "Temporal order of evolution of DNA replication systems inferred by comparison of cellular and viral DNA polymerases," (2006) by Eugene V. Koonin; "The role of virus in the origin of DNA genome and early cellular evolution," (2006) by Patrick Forterre and "DNA sequence evolution and phylogenetic footprinting," (2004) by E.T. Dermitzakis & A. Reymond, to name a few.
Secondly, your assertion that evolution cannot account for the harnessing of energy to support life is simply ignorant. What you describe falls under the headings of photosynthesis and digestion. Do you seriously mean to imply that we do not understand how animals derive energy from the matter they consume, or that the ability of plants to manufacture food using sunlight is a mystery? Not only are both processes well-understood, there is a considerable literature dealing with their evolution. For example, "Exploring photosynthesis evolution by comparative analysis of metabolic networks between chloroplasts and photosynthetic bacteria," (2006) by Wang et al.; "Evolution of glutamine synthetase in heterokonts: Evidence for endosymbiotic gene transfer and the early evolution of photosynthesis," (2006) by Robertson & Tartar; and "The structure of photosystem I and evolution of photosynthesis," (2005) by Nelson & Ben-Shem, all deal with the evolution of photosynthesis. For digestion we have, "Diet and the evolution of digestion and renal function in phyllostomid bats," (2001) by Schondube et al.; "The termite gut habitat: Its evolution and co-evolution," (2006) by Paul Eggleton, and "Evolution of gastrulation in the actinopterygian (ray-finned) fishes," (2005) by Cooper & Virta. In short, your examples of problems that evolution cannot answer demonstrate only that you are not familiar in the least with the state of modern biology. It goes without saying that not being a biologist is not sufficient excuse for your lack of knowledge- I am not a biologist and, nevertheless, was able to locate these and other papers in less than fifteen minutes.
Finally, we come to your mistaken claim that the second law of thermodynamics prohibits evolution. I will not produce an argument contradicting you here- both because it is obviously untrue for the simple reason that your interpretation would prevent all life as we know it and because others have already done a far more competent job than I could. I would, however, like to take issue with your use of Dr. Prigogine's words. The quote comes from: I. Prigogine, G. Nicolis and A. Babloyants, Physics Today 25(11):23 (1972). The one-sentence summary beginning the article reads:
The functional order maintained within living systems seems to defy the Second Law; nonequilibrium thermodynamics describes how such systems come to terms with entropy.
So, in other words, the article appears to be explaining how entropy is consistent with biological systems and evolution, rather than at odds with it. Curious, given the apparent content of the quote. Apparent, however, is the crucial word. Let's look at the entire quote:
Unfortunately this principle cannot explain the formation of biological structures. The probability that at ordinary temperatures a macroscopic number of molecules is assembled to give rise to the highly ordered structures and to the coordinated functions characterizing living organisms is vanishingly small. The idea of spontaneous genesis of life in its present form is therefore highly improbable, even on the scale of the billions of years during which prebiotic evolution occurred.
The conclusion to be drawn from this analysis is that the apparent contradiction between biological order and the laws of physics--in particular the second law of thermodynamics--cannot be resolved as long as we try to understand living systems by the methods of the familiar equilibrium statistical mechanics and equally familar thermodynamics.
And further along in the paper:
What is the thermodynamic meaning of prebiological evolution? Darwin's principle of "survival of the fittest" through natural selection can only apply once pre biological evolution has led to the formation of some primitive living beings. A new evolutionary principle, proposed recently by Manfred Eigen, would replace Darwin's idea in the context of prebiotic evolution. It amounts to optimizing a quantity measuring the faithfulness, or quality, of the macromolecules in reproducing themselves via template action. We here propose an alternative description of prebiological evolution. The main idea is the possibility that a prebiological system may evolve through a whole succession of transitions leading to a hierarchy of more and more complex and organized states. Such transitions can only arise in nonlinear systems that are maintained far from equilibrium; that is, beyond a certain critical threshold the steady-state regime becomes unstable and the system evolves to a new configuration. As a result, if the system is to be able to evolve through successive instabilities, a mechanism must be developed whereby each new transition favors further evolution by increasing the nonlinearity and the distance from equilibrium. One obvious mechanism is that each transition enables the system to increase the entropy production.
In other words, biological evolution is fully consistent with entropy so long as we understand that biological systems do not represent equilibrium systems. Specifically, living organisms can achieve temporary local decreases in entropy at the expense of a greater increase in global entropy. This is precisely what I argued in my earlier post and, in fact, is almost exactly contrary to your intended point. I am afraid, Mr. Correspondent, that the paper you are quoting is supportive of evolution rather than a challenge. I wish, of course, that I could take credit for debunking your little bit of quote mining but it is all the work of Mr. Chris Ho-Stuart over at talk.origins. In fact, Dr. Prigogine confirmed**** that Ho-Stuart's interpretation is entirely correct, casting rather a bit of doubt on your efforts to use his work to denigrate evolutionary theory.
In your e-mail to me, Mr. Correspondent, you referred to what "honest scientists" admit. I am forced to wonder if you have sufficient honesty not only to admit that you attempted to twist another man's words to your own purposes, but to cease doing so in the future. Somehow, I rather doubt it. Moreover, I strongly suspect that this sort of behavior accomplishes little except to embarrass your co-religionists. If you wish to continue attempting to convert me then, by all means, proceed but cease the lies and deception. I have little patience for it and it reflects rather poorly on you and your faith.
Drek the Uninteresting
UPDATE: My correspondent, Paul Cohen, continues our discussion!
* I debated for some time the ethics of posting something that was, originally, private correspondence. I ultimately decided to go ahead for two reasons. First, I removed all identifying comments so that the privacy of my correspondent is protected. Second, the bulk of the message was, apparently, taken from an existing public posting. As such, I am not exposing something private to public scrutiny- it was already there. All that said, if I have offended my correspondent, I do apologize.
** It's good to know that my work has a long shelf-life I guess. To be honest, however, my correspondent didn't identify which post he is reacting to, so this is just my best guess.
*** I rather doubt that it is helpful anywhere, actually, given how solidly it has been thrashed in the scientific and mathematical literatures. See, for example, "Unintelligent Design" by Mark Perakh for a start.
**** As a side note, I rather expect that his 1977 book "Self-Organization in Non-Equilibrium Systems: From Dissipative Structures to Order Through Fluctuations," has rather a lot to say about entropy and evolution, and none of it will prove to be problematic for evolutionary theory.