Is Evolution Statistically Impossible?

Life, the Universe, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Is Evolution Statistically Impossible?

Copyright 2014

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is often used to support the argument that the complexity of life cannot increase over time solely due to natural processes, thus attempting to disprove biological evolution.  Similarly, statistical calculations are sometimes given which posit that the molecular machinery of life is so highly complex that it couldn’t have come together by chance during the lifetime of the universe. What is the Second Law of Thermodynamics and what does it have to do with life?  The Second Law states that the entropy of an isolated system never decreases. [1] There is a specific mathematical representation of the law, but I will focus on a discussion of how this law of nature relates to the concepts of entropy, complexity, information and order with regard to living things. I will also discuss the use of statistical models for ascertaining whether life could have arisen by chance events.


Why is This Important?

This article is about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but it is part of a larger, more important discussion.  As a Bible-believing Christian, my desire is for everyone to know the saving grace of Jesus and to devote their lives fully to Him.  Apologetics, the defense of our Christian faith in the face of godless worldviews, is an expression of that desire.  For many Christians, this includes a strong desire to prove God’s existence through logic or science.  The problem with the latter is that it immediately changes the definition of science.  Science is a methodology by which we discern truths about the natural world, not the supernatural.

This doesn’t mean that the supernatural doesn’t exist, or that miracles do not occur.  Science is simply silent about the supernatural, and it must be.  Once you enter the realm of supernatural explanations for observations about the God’s created order, the scientific method no longer applies.  Some motivated, God-fearing people with advanced scientific training and degrees participate in the  creation science and intelligent design movements, which aim to define science in a way that embraces the supernatural.  They are no less intelligent than the millions of other qualified scientists.  However, they are no longer practicing science.  They are not using the scientific method.  Rather, they have replaced it with a methodology that uses presuppositional logic.  They presuppose a truth (e.g. “The Earth is less than 10,000 years old” or “life on Earth has always appeared, at a high level, the same as it does today”), do not waver from it, find evidence that supports it, and ignore or twist evidence that does not.  This explains why the various creation science and ID organizations publish wildly varying results.

We don’t need to prove God’s handiwork by reading the first two chapters of Genesis literally, word for word, as a description of creation and then looking for evidence that supports only that literal interpretation.  If you do this and call yourself a scientist, you are not practicing science, but rather some other epistemology.  Regardless of how God accomplished His creative work, we can and should give glory to God for creation — and more importantly, for Who He Is, for the nature of our relationship to Him, and for what He does in our lives today.  That is the real message of Genesis.

In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas made the distinction between God as the first causeand God working through secondary causes.  If you are not familiar with St. Thomas Aquinas’ work, you may be greatly blessed by a study of his arguments for the existence of God. [2] They are far more elegant than what you may find coming from many creation science proponents today.  Aquinas taught that God works directly as a first cause, or prime mover, by a direct expression of His will.  In many cases, this is via miracles.  However, God sometimes works through secondary causes, agents that are part of nature.

Aquinas also wrote that God has given us two books: the book of Scripture, and the book of Nature. God reveals truth in both, but for different purposes. Centuries later, Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote, “All truth is given by revelation, either general or special, and it must be received by reason. Reason is the God-given means for discovering the truth that God discloses, whether in his world or his Word.” Special revelation is what God has provided to us in the Bible. General revelation is everything else — what God has provided to us within His created order. Through a grounded theology and the witness of the Holy Spirit present in us as believers, we can understand special revelation. Through the painstaking methodology of science, we can understand God’s creation.

The creation of the universe was a supernatural event.  The message of Genesis, in a language and style that could be understood by the ancients, is that God created everything.  Whatever you see around you — the universe — one God created it, the God of the Bible.  What about God’s creative work that unfolded after the creation of the universe, but which occurred before anyone was around to see them?  The appearance of stars, planets, the Earth, mountains, seas, and the species we see today is described in poetic form in Genesis.  But does that mean that they were literally created in six days, or that even if they were not created in six days, the major groupings of plants and animals sprang forth fully formed eons ago?  Creation scientists would have you think so, but by doing so, they are ignoring vast mountains of evidence from geology, cosmology, physics, molecular biology, developmental biology, paleontology, genetics, and genomics.  Even those who accept an “old Earth” but deny biological evolution must selectively discard results from many scientific disciplines.

This doesn’t preclude that there is an Intelligent Designer, or that the Designer is the God of the Bible.  The distinguishing characteristic of the intelligent design movement, however, is that it asks us to retreat to “God of the gaps” arguments instead of practicing science by the scientific method and giving God the glory for whatever is revealed about His created order.


The Way, the Truth, and the Life

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

All truth is God’s truth.  So the question is, how do you discern truth about the created order?  Do we find truth by pointing out gaps in our knowledge, and then not seek out the answers?  Even the most brilliant scientific minds will sometimes do so in trying to find a way to glorify God.  Over 300 years ago, Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravity that describe the attractive force between all objects.  Newton’s laws of motion predicted the orbits of the planets around the Sun.  Because he used approximations when calculating the forces of the planets upon each other, he came to the conclusion that the orbits are unstable and would decay after thousands of years. Newton suggested that God occasionally intervened with a miracle, by sending a comet or other object with just the right direction, size, and velocity, to gravitationally nudge the planets back into their correct orbits.  Years after Newton, Pierre Laplace found better methods to solve Newton’s equations, showing that the planetary orbits are indeed stable.  When asked by Napoleon, “Monsieur Laplace, why wasn’t the Creator mentioned in your book on celestial mechanics?”, Laplace replied, “Sir, I have no need for that hypothesis.” Laplace was likely an atheist, but we know that his findings about planetary motion were true.  If he were a believer, he could have just as well said, “We don’t need to explicitly invoke God’s miraculous intervention when describing planetary motion.” [3][4]

Two hundred years prior, John Calvin wrote, “If the Lord has willed that we be helped in physics, dialectic, mathematics, and other like disciplines, by the work and ministry of the ungodly, let us use this assistance. For if we neglect God’s gift freely offered in these arts, we ought to suffer just punishment for our sloth.” [5]  Science is not about proving God or disproving God.  In fact, science is not about proofs at all.  It is simply a methodology for formulating theories that best fit the available evidence.  As a way of discerning truth about the natural world, science works.  It works because God created the universe with orderly laws.  He made us in His image, and in doing so he endowed us with minds that can search out and comprehend those laws.  Science will never have all of the answers, and in many cases, scientific theories have needed to be updated or overturned entirely.  This has happened in the past.  But the process by which that was done was the scientific method itself — in every case.

Jesus also said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

If you are reading this and you are stymied by the false dichotomy between accepting the results of legitimate science and accepting the God of the Bible, or you are holding back for any other reason, I encourage you to reach out in faith, confess your need for Jesus to transform you, and commit your life to Him.  If you study or practice science, do it rigorously, enthusiastically, and give God the glory.


What Is Life?

These days, “life” is certainly a loaded word.  For the purposes of this article, I will define life as any individual entity, or type of entity, capable of growth, sustenance, and reproduction.  I will not discuss metaphysical concepts associated with life such as the soul or spirit, or personhood with regard to human beings.  That is the domain of theology and philosophy, and ultimately, of our relationship with God.  For this discussion, I am concerned only with the concept of life as defined in biology.  In biology, a grass seed is as much “alive” as you and me.  A grass seed is an entity which, in the right environmental conditions, will process energy and nourishment to sustain itself, grow, and eventually reproduce.


Entropy, Disorder, and Hoyle’s Fallacy

What is entropy, and what does it have to do with life?  Entropy is defined as the number of possible states of a thermodynamic system. [6] That’s not too helpful to most people, so in popular writing, entropy is sometimes equated with disorder, and the claim is made that disorder always increases in a closed system.  A box of metal and plastic bits, no matter how long you shake it, will never assemble itself into a Boeing 747, at least not within any reasonable timeframe that would fit into the age of the universe.  One might say that the Second Law of Thermodynamics is consistent with this claim, and that would be correct.  In such a closed system, the chance of such an assembly event is practically zero.  There are so many possible states of disorder compared with the single state of order that the likelihood of randomly stumbling upon the one ordered state is impossibly small.  This line of reasoning is then extended to support the implausibility of the origin of life and of biological evolution, and here is where the argument breaks down.  When misapplied to biology, the argument is known as Hoyle’s Fallacy.  It is a fallacy because it fails to take into account the many varied positive feedback processes which are found in molecular biology.  It also ignores the fact that there wasn’t just one instance of the shuffling, but countless microscopic environments across the surface and oceans of the early Earth that had the raw materials necessary for life.  The domain of assembly trials is exceedingly large in both space and time.

When someone confronts me with the Second Law of Thermodynamics disproving “microbes to man” evolution over the estimated three billion years of life on Earth, I immediately turn around and ask, isn’t it a far bigger violation of the Second Law that a baby arises from a single fertilized cell in nine months?  That is a similar increase in complexity over a much shorter period of time.  Why is it so hard to accept that a single cell could turn into an animal (over the course of many generations) in three billion years, the estimated age of life on Earth?  One might respond that it all depends on the DNA, and they would be correct.  However, the Second Law of Thermodynamics cares nothing about what is coded in the DNA.  What’s relevant is the amount of infomation, not what is actually coded in that information.  The genome of an amoeba is 100 times larger than that of man.  The larger question is, “How do genomes of species change over time and give rise to new species?”  There are many evolutionary questions to be answered about this, but the Second Law clearly doesn’t lend any support to the argument that the development of complex biological entities from simpler ones is impossible.  The truth is, the Second Law is not violated in either of these scenarios.  Fertilized cells turn into babies in nine months, and single-celled life diversified into the vast array of species on Earth, given billions of years.  If the argument were to disprove the latter, it would have to disprove the former as well.  Since that is certainly not the case, we can see that the Second Law has been misapplied in the argument.


How Can Complexity Ever Increase?

How, then, is it possible for complexity to increase in any closed system over time?  The simple answer is that complexity decreases and disorder increases on average, but not necessarily evenly across the system.  A snowflake is a simple, observable example.  A tiny drop of water falling through layers of cold air will ultimately gather more water molecules onto itself and end up as a startingly beautiful, complex crystalline shape.  The snowflake is highly ordered, whereas the water droplet was not.  However, there is actually a net loss of information.  How can this be?  Did God miraculously create the snowflake by giving it a supernatural nudge?  Job 37:6, Job 38:22, and Psalm 147:16 all indicate that God does in fact create snow.  Not only that, but the author of Job tells us there are storehouses of snow.  Now, do we stop there with our desire to know where snow comes from or how it forms?  Do we craft explanations of how snowflakes could not possibly arise naturally due to their incredible complexity?  Do we construct scenes in Biblical theme parks displaying heavenly storehouses of snow? In our desire to prove God’s existence by disallowing a natural means of the creation of snow, do we seek “creation science” answers in entropy and thermodynamics?  What does real science tell us about this aspect of God’s universe?

The answer is that it takes far less information to represent the pattern in any unique snowflake than it does to represent the position and velocity of the random jumble of water molecules in an equivalently sized drop of water.  The water molecule has lost entropy (by becoming more ordered), lost potential energy (by falling), and lost information, but it has increased in complexity.  The kinetic energy of falling was used by the snowflake to provide the molecular bumping required to grow the structure of the snowflake via natural physical processes.  The energy was shed as waste heat into the surrounding air.  And that addresses our overall question of how the growth of a snowflake, a beautifully complex structure, does not violate the Second Law.  On average, entropy of the system has increased, even though it has decreased for that particular snowflake during its short lifetime.  That’s the answer to our question of how snowflakes form.  Do we still praise God for creating snow?  Absolutely.

But a snowflake isn’t a biological system.  Can the same statement about the Second Law be applied to processes that occur in living things?  Not only has the same reasoning been applied, but it has been painstakingly been shown to be true via classical experiments.  In Life’s Ratchet, physicist Peter Hoffman describes the experiments conducted by Hermann Von Helmholtz and other scientists in the 19th century that showed that the energy received by animals in the form of calories in food was expended by the animal in the form of heat.  Helmholtz also showed that here was no vital “life force”, at least nothing that existed within the confines of the laws of nature. [7]  We certainly do have a supernatural “life force”, but in discussing this, we would leave the realm of biology and enter the domain of theology.  This life force, our soul or spirit, has nothing to do with the self-organizing processes of biological systems.  In his book, Peter Hoffman goes on to describe in painstaking detail how the molecular machinery of life works, not just in spite of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but because of it.

In 1970, the British mathenmatician John Conway devised an imaginary universe which could be simulated on a rudimentary computer, or even with pencil and paper. Whereas the real universe created by God consists of many types of fundamental particles and is governed by numerous laws of physics, all operating in beautiful harmony, Conway’s imaginary universe has only one type of fundamental particle and only two laws. Conway called his universe the Game of Life [8]. Unfortunately, Conway is an atheist. However, we will use his work to bring glory to God who makes Conway’s game even possible. The universe in this game consists of a two dimensional grid of squares. Each square in the grid has 8 neighbors. Each square in the grid can be on or off. In Conway’s colorful terms, the squares are either alive or dead — they either contain a living cell or they don’t. However, he is simply referring to the state of the that square in the grid of being either filled with a particle, or not filled. In computer terms, it’s a single bit of information, a 1 or a 0. In the imaginary universe, as time progresses forward, each time increment will cause the squares to turn on or off. If an on square has fewer than two or more than three neighbors that are on, it will be turned off. If an off square has exactly three neighbors that are on, it will be turned on. As simulated time moves forward, the same two rules are applied to the grid of 1s and 0s, over and over again.

One would think that nothing interesting would ever arise by chance in such a universe, certainly nothing resembling life. Let’s see what can arise, in the video below.

As we can see, simple “life forms” called “gliders” do arise naturally, given an initial pattern of truly random 1s and 0s. These patterns move and generate other patterns. In 2013, a researcher created a large, completely self-replicating pattern [9]. To date, however, nobody has seen such a self-replicating pattern arise naturally. But the video above easily shows that great complexity — and indeed, information — can arise out of a random soup of primordial materials. Our universe’s elementary particles and laws of nature are far more rich and productive than the single particle and two laws which govern the Game of Life, it is much larger, and it has certainly been around for a far longer time. The Game of Life was designed by a man, but all he did was come up with the rules. The simple “life forms” arose naturally, due to the intelligence that went into the two simple rules that govern the game. The real universe was created by God, and how much more glory we should give to God for the splendor of what He has brought about using the laws of nature which He designed!


A Closed System

We must understand that the snowflake, by itself, is not a closed system.  Even if we include the air surrounding it during its entire lifetime, we still have not captured the entire closed system.  In order to include all agents in the processes that affect the snowflake, we have to include not only the entire Earth (to provide the gravity which causes the fall and resulting loss of potential energy), but the Sun which drives our weather and provided that potential energy in the first place!

Ultimately, nothing that we can think of as a closed system is really closed, except for the universe itself.  That said, for practical purposes our Earth/Moon/Sun system and the space surrounding it is similar enough to a closed system for modeling processes that concern the origin and diversification of life on Earth.  We can say this because the main requirements for these processes are a source of usable energy (the Sun) and a place for that energy to go (space).  Some of the energy will be used to drive the processes that ultimately result in life, but it will eventually be radiated away into space as waste heat.  This is a key concept.  In order for most physical or chemical processes (including those which drive molecular biology) to thrive, we need not only a source of readily available energy, but a way to efficiently radiate away the heat resulting from completed reactions.  Without this, any complexity-increasing processes on the Earth would be very short-lived because the Earth would burn up like a cinder.  Specific locales, such as the insides of living creatures, have a tremendous drop in entropy.  It’s ok.  The entropy of the system as a whole, when we include space, will always increase.  Life on Earth comes with a cost, and that cost is more disorder in the system as a whole.  Snowflakes, life, and all other self-organizing processes increase the entropy of the space surrounding them.  The Second Law is not violated.


What about DNA?

Some intelligent design proponents point to the fact that DNA encodes information in much the same way that a written book encodes information. If the genome of a typical life form can be thought of as a book, then the individual chromosomes are the chapters, genes are the paragraphs, codons are the words, and nucleotides are the letters. Their argument is that this points to an author who must have explicitly written down the code, letter by letter. However, there is a crucial distinction between DNA and any form of human writing. As Christian molecular biologist Jonathan Watts points out, DNA (and RNA) have very specific physical properties which directly affect, and are affected by, the environment around them. Human writing, on the other hand, has no inherent effect on anything around it. It only has meaning to the person reading it [10]. Even a short string of RNA, in the presence of simple enzymes and a soup of amino acids, can naturally cause the synthesis of proteins around it [11]. DNA and RNA have properties outside of their inherent information content; they have shapes which directly or indirectly affect the concentrations of proteins in the world around them. These changes will eventually come around to affect the DNA and RNA molecules themselves. This gives natural selection the ability to effect change on the system as a whole, favoring concentrations of some molecules over others. The result is a net increase in information.


Abiogenesis and Evolution

I will pause here to make a distinction between the origin of life and of biological evolution.  The theory of evolution is silent on the origin of the first living cell or self-reproducing molecule.  Indeed, it has nothing to say even about the definition of life, other than that it requires self-sustaining, replicating bodies.  The theory presumes that one or several types of self-replicating organisms existed early in our planet’s history, but it makes no claim as to how they got there.  Evolution only describes how that very first life form (or forms) diversified into the vast array of species we see today.  The theory of how the very first living cells arose is a different theory altogether, known as abiogenesis, and in scientific parlance, it’s barely a theory at all.  It’s a hypothesis with some evidence that I will discuss below, but as of yet, scientists don’t have a unified, clear model for abiogenesis.  In this article, I will keep a clear distinction between abiogenesis and evolution.

In claiming that the Second Law allows for no possibility of abiogenesis, the argument is made that the aggregation and assembly of the specific molecules required in order to create a single cell, complete with all of the molecular machinery needed to sustain and reproduce itself, is so unlikely to occur by the chance motion of individual atoms that it could never have happened in the history of the universe.  Mathematical models are then constructed to support this argument.  Similarly, in claiming that the Second Law disproves evolution, the argument is made that because disorder always increases, it’s impossible for a more complex organism to arise from a less complex organism.  To be pedantic, I have to say that I’ve seen creationist literature often makes both of these arguments interchangeably to falsify evolution, when in reality the first argument is not about evolution at all.

Let’s examine each of these claims, in turn.


Can Cellular Structures Arise out of Molecules?

Has nature shown the ability to organize any cellular structures at all?  One of the most common structures in a living cell is a membrane.  Membranes are found around the nucleus, around many of the bodies within the cell, and a fairly complex membrane separates the cell body itself from the outside world.  How can a membrane form?

As it turns out, simple membranes arise quite easily out of naturally occurring organic molecules.  Due to the electrostatic charges on the ends of lipid molecules, these molecules tend to line up in sheets and spherical globules called vesicles or liposomes.  No supernatural assembly is required.  They arise naturally. (Strictly speaking, liposomes usually refer to artificially created vesicles.) [12][13]

Dr. Sidney Fox has taken this a step further and showed how proteins have self-arranged into cell-line structures even without the benefit of DNA or RNA. [14][15]


Phospholipids aqueous solution structures


Somewhat more complex structures, almost resembling living cells, also form spontaneously.  Protobionts and coacervates arise when a vesicle happens to encase other, more complex molecules such as strings of amino acids or nucleic acids, all of which are naturally occurring.  Protobionts have been shown to be metabolically active and even reproduce, although inaccurately.

Italian chemists have taken this a few steps further and produced a mixture of proteins, nucleic acids, and other raw materials which, if they happened to combine inside a cell membrane, could assemble to form much of the machinery of life.  But would such an assembly ever occur by chance?

A news article describes their discovery: “Computer calculations reveal that even by chance, five liposomes in 1,000 could not have trapped all 83 molecules of the assembly. Their calculated probability for even one such liposome to form is essentially zero. The fact that any such liposomes formed and that GFP was produced means something quite unique is happening.” [16] Do we attribute these scientists’ successful lab experiments to a divine miracle of God, and do so every time such a collection of molecules assembles itself into something that was deemed mathematically impossible?  No.  This happens under God’s providence, but it’s clear that He is allowing natural processes to make this occur.  The fact that computer simulations predicted a probability of essentially zero for such assembly to occur, and yet it did occur, shows the folly of making calculations based on random chance events, not taking into account the many positive-feedback processes which can accelerate molecular assembly.  The reality is that we don’t know all of the processes in question, but it doesn’t require us to ascribe them to miracles of God.  It’s a classic “God of the gaps” argument.

The American Scientific Affiliation is a respected Christian organization. Their journal “Perspectives on Science and the Christian Faith” has always had interesting articles, but the September 2014 issue has some exceptional ones. In “Logical Pitfalls and Communication Gaps: Frequent Lines of Argument that Dead-End the Origins Conversation,” Stephen Contakes points out the fallacy of this reasoning by comparing it to other natural processes that can be (incorrectly) statistically modeled [17]. For example, Contakes takes us through the calculation of the number of possible of folding states in a protein and the rate at which those states can be tried, a calculation which seems reasonable as stated, except it results in an answer that a large protein could not possibly find its optimal folded state within the lifetime of the universe. However, proteins typically fold in under a second. The error is in the incorrect statistical model.

A very simple demonstration can be performed using objects at a macro scale. In the following video, we see self-assembly of a moderately complex structure occur very quickly by applying random motion to charged particles within a constrained environment. This is similar to what happens with biological molecules whose motion is constrained within a cell wall or within the membrane of a cell’s nucleus or other organelle.

The main accelerator that Hoyle Fallacy arguments fail to take into account in their statistical models is the fact that within a membrane, the speed of reactions is greatly accelerated because the requisite molecules bump into each other far more often than they would in an open solution.  Due to the constraint imposed by the cell membrane, every free-floating molecule within a membrane will encounter almost every other molecule in a matter of seconds, even though there are millions of molecules within the typical cell. [18] Other accelerators also come into play.  Enzymes, molecular catalysts, can speed up certain reactions a trillion-fold.  For example, the phosphoglucomutase enzyme can convert a hundred sugar molecules per second.  Without the enzyme present in the solution, it would take on average three hundred years for a single reaction to take place by chance! [19]

Here, we aren’t even talking about abiogenesis or evolution.  The self-assembly described in the linked article is actually far simpler than the reactions occurring within the molecular machinery of every single cell in every living plant and animal on Earth.  We’re talking about molecular processes which are going on all the time, thousands of times per second, within the billions of cells in our bodies and in the bodies of all living things on Earth.  Ascribing each such molecular reaction to a divine miracle, saying that such a reaction could not be possible within the confines of the laws of physics and chemistry, is not only a flawed view of reality, it takes attention away from the real miracles described in the Bible.  Why would God create laws of nature that were incapable of supporting the everyday processes of cellular metabolism?  If we can accept that, we can accept the self-assembly of biological structures and understand that this activity is consistent with a universe designed by God to make this happen.


Do Statistical Arguments Disprove Abiogenesis?

The next question, then, is whether abiogenesis is plausible as an explanation of the origin of life on Earth.  The question is not regarding the “why” — we already know that, for it is described in Genesis.  But was abiogenesis the “how” of the creation of the very first plants and animals by God?  There is a large leap to be made between observing the self-assembly of vesicles and membranes containing life-supporting chemicals in a test tube, to the actual creation of a completely self-sustaining organism, much less one that can faithfully reproduce itself “after its kind” even once.  And that is where we stand with abiogenesis.  We don’t have enough understanding to determine what is possible given the vast amounts of time and micro-environments filled with various concentrations of chemicals over the early Earth.  And we’re still discovering more positive-feedback processes that can drive self-assembly.  For these reasons, the statistical arguments against abiogenesis simply do not make sense at present.  We’ve already seen that existing probabilistic calculations for molecular self-assembly have failed to predict the positive outcome in experiments because the acceleration factors were not understood, even though they clearly exist.  Yet we don’t seek supernatural explanations for them.


What About Evolution?

We’ve examined the Second Law of Thermodynamics with regard to the transition from molecules to the first living cells — abiogenesis.  What about evolution?  If we presume the existence of the first simple living cells, whether they arrived via supernatural fiat or via abiogenesis, can the Second Law be used to show that such simple cells could not give rise to the current diversity of species seen on Earth?

Biological evolution is comprised of two distinct processes working together: variation and selection.  Variation describes the mechanisms by which the progeny of a life form are different from the progenitor.  That is to say, the children aren’t exact duplicates of the parents.  This is true of even single celled organisms.  With more complex life, particularly when sexual reproduction is involved, the scenarios are more complex.  But suffice it to say that in all cases, there will be naturally arising variations in the progeny.  More specifically, the variations arise in the genes that define how the cells will thrive and diversify within a growing organism.  These variations arise from point mutations, gene duplications, deletions, chromosomal inversions, frameshift mutations, repeat expansions, horizontal gene transfer, endogenous retroviruses, translocations, and other genetic changes. [20][21]

Selection describes which of the progeny of an organism will have a more likely chance of surviving to reproduce.  Note that both variation and selection can occur from either artificial (man-made) or natural causes.  For this discussion, we are focusing on natural variation and natural selection.

Of the two, only variation has a truly random component — the determination of where mutations arise in a genome.  Selection, by itself, is fairly deterministic.  All other factors being equal, the genes that detract from the survivability of organisms in the gene pool will eventually be weeded out of the population.  The Price equation [22] describes how fast this occurs, depending on factors such as the number of progeny and the quantified benefit ascribed to a particular gene variant.

Most creation science or intelligent design proponents have no problem with variation and selection within a species, or even within higher groupings, or taxa, such as family and genus.  They are referring to microevolution, and they refer to the end result as “kinds”.  Their discomfort arises when variation and selection is described as being able to produce entirely new higher orders of life.  We call this speciation or macroevolution.

In biology, there is no distinction whatsoever between microevolution and macroevolution.  Macroevolution occurs simply because one gene pool of organisms diverges into multiple gene pools over time.  This can occur due to one group of organisms traveling away from the main pool, or having a mutation that causes them to favor a different food source or other resources.  Over time, the two sets of organisms will stop breeding amongst each other, and they will continue to diverge until they are separate species.  We observe speciation today.  One species can absolutely diverge into two species.  Once this has occurred, the emergence of higher order taxa are simply a question of time.  Scientific disciplines outside of biology have shown us not only that there has been plenty of time for this to occur, but that there is agreement between what we see in genetics, embryology, and fossil evidence that this is in fact what has happened.

So the first question we can ask with regard to the Second Law and evolution can be rephrased as, “Does the Second Law of Thermodynamics permit the random variations and the selection required in order for any biological evolution to occur at all?  The answer is unequivocally yes.  We do observe both processes resulting in microevolution.  Mutations are a natural result of the energetic bumping of molecules and elementary particles described by the Second Law.  Although mutations are random and might be associated with disorder, the increase in variation that occurs as a result of propagated mutations are in fact a localized decrease in entropy, especially if this results in a larger number of living organisms.  But the much larger factor with regard to thermodynamics is the number of life forms, not the specific mutations that may or may not have occurred in each life form.  It requires more information to specify the additional possible states in the system for each additional living organism that is added to the system.  For the same reasons identified in the discussion of abiogenesis, this does not violate the Second Law.  Each living organism is a localized reduction in entropy.  Living things use energy and generate waste heat (eventually radiating out to space), thereby increasing the disorder in their surroundings.

However, we know that this increasing number of organisms cannot continue unabated, because selection will always counter it.  If each living thing results in a localized decrease in entropy, then selection is an increase in entropy if it results in fewer living organisms.  This is also consistent with the Second Law.

The remaining question, then, is “Does the Second Law of Thermodynamics permit enough variation to accumulate over time, using the balance of variation and natural selection, to explain the diversity of life that we see today?  In particular, does it permit the diversification into distinct body forms we see in high-order taxa that are larger than the “kinds” described by creation science proponents?  The answer can be gleaned from our example comparing a microbe evolving into an animal over billions of years with a single cell turning into a baby in nine months.  With regard to the Second Law, it doesn’t matter at all whether the DNA in all of the living organisms across the planet is the same or of it is radically different.  The difference in information content, with regard to thermodynamics and entropy, is negligible.  So if a single pair of animals gave rise to a billion progeny which were identical to their parents, or that single microbe gave rise to a billion life forms that had radically different DNA, but their genomes were approximately the same size, the actual information content (for the purpose of applying the Second Law) is nearly the same.  As long as the living organisms continue to do what all living things do, which is to use energy and expend waste heat into the system at large, the Second Law is not violated.  This is as true at the macroscopic scale of a complex ecosystem as it is at the level of a single microbe.


Complexity Before Life

Even before the Earth was formed, amazing complexity arose in the early universe through processes that were absolutely essential to the creation of the very atoms required for life and for an Earth capable of hosting life.  Shortly after the Big Bang, the tumultuous event in which time and space were themselves created, the plasma of the early universe settled into the first quarks and other subatomic particles.  By means of the strong and weak nuclear forces, these particles coalesced into the first hydrogen and helium atoms, and possibly a little bit of lithium.  The creation of these atoms was the very first instance of an increase in complexity.  An atom, after all, is far more complex than a sea of quarks and energy.  Yet we know that there is nothing in the Second Law that would preclude this.

These hydrogen and helium atoms would have stayed like that if it weren’t for a third force — gravity.  Gravity is what caused these atoms, in turn, to coalesce into stars and galaxies.  Here again, we have a massive increase in order and complexity, arising with no requirement for miraculous intervention by the hand of God, but rather governed by the laws of nature created by God.  In Genesis Chapter 1, God said “let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens,” but there is nothing in the text that should force us to think that God accomplished this in a way that requires ignoring the very laws of physics and chemistry that He created.  This is not to say that God never does so!  After all, the miracles of Moses and Jesus were clearly supernatural — outside of anything that could occur within nature.

All elements in the periodic table that are heavier than lithium were formed inside stars due to gravity.  The force of gravity powers the nuclear fusion that generates new elements and releases waste heat into space.  During the normal lifetime of the star, fusion creates elements such as carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron.  Elements heavier than iron can only be created during the extreme pressures generated during the death of a moderately large star — a supernova. [23]  In fact, all of the naturally occurring elements heavier than lithium were created inside stars either during their lifetime or during their violent deaths.  Life as we know it could not exist without these elements.  Because of this, we recognize that most of the elements within the Earth were generated inside another star or stars, and it couldn’t have been the Sun, because the Sun is still here.  The remnants of supernova explosions long past created the raw materials for our own solar system.  The Sun, the Earth and its inhabitants are recycled star stuff.

Did the development of stars and galaxies, planets and life from a universe of plasma and elementary particles violate the Second Law?  Certainly not, because the localized increase in order which permitted the structure of stars and galaxies was balanced by disorder in the vast reaches of space between the galaxies.  Gravity was responsible only for the localized decrease in entropy associated with the appearance of individual stars, but even as the stars formed, they immediately started radiating heat back into space, increasing entropy in their regions of space.  The entropy of the universe as a whole is still increasing, regardless of what beautifully complex objects may arise therein.

We can understand how the Second Law does not preclude the origin and diversification of life via natural mechanisms, but rather supports it.  It supports the very elements and worlds that arose over billions of years, the stars and planets that we see in our sky, and all the wonders we can behold below them.  The laws of nature which God designed and brought into existence are far more complex and rich than the two simple rules which govern the world of the Game of Life which we described earlier. Knowing this, we can glorify God all the more for the incredible beauty woven into the very laws of nature that He created at the beginning of time that allowed this to occur.

God, the Creator of the universe, ordained those laws of nature to eventually produce us so that we may come to know Him and give Him the glory.





[3] Haarsma, Loren. “Does Science Exclude God?”  Perspectives on an Evolving Creation. 2003, William B. Erdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. pp.88-94.

[4] “On Matters of Faith and Science”, from

[5] Alexander McKelway. “Importance of Calvin Studies for Church and College.” John Calvin & the Church. 1990, Westminster/John Knox Press. Louisville, Kentucky. p.135


[7] Peter M. Hoffman.  Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos. 2012, Basic Books. New York. pp.36-41



[10] Watts, Jonathan K. “Biological Information, Molecular Structure, and the Origins Debate”. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Volume 63, Number 4, December 2011. pp. 231-239.



[13] Bruce Alberts, et al.  Molecular Biology of the Cell.  Fourth Edition, 2002, Garland Science.  New York. pp.584-587




[17] Stephen M. Contakes. “Logical Pitfalls and Communication Gaps: Frequent Lines of Argument That Dead-End the Origins Conversation”. Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith. Volume 66, Number 3, September 2014. pp. 174-178.

[18] David S. Goodsell.  The Machinery of Life.  2009, Springer-Verlag.  New York. Kindle Edition, location 189 of 2318.

[19] Peter M. Hoffman.  Life’s Ratchet: How Molecular Machines Extract Order from Chaos. pp.149-150.


[21] William S. Klug, Michael R. Cummings.  Essentials of Genetics. 1993, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. pp.6-7, 344, 452



Unless otherwise noted, all Bible verses are from the English Standard Version, Copyright 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.