Entropy and Spontaneous Generation


When I wrote two weeks ago about spontaneous generation still being enthroned in science as the primordial soup (and it is), I wanted to avoid a long discussion on entropy. But since that’s the only option left open to die-hards, it became an issue.

So today I’ll explain entropy and how it ties into this discussion. Even if you’re not particularly interested in science, I think this will be of value to you. And I’ll keep it brief.

Carnot and His Perfect Machine

The study of entropy begins with a man named Nicolas Carnot (1796–1832), who worked on steam engines. Carnot wondered whether it was possible to build a perfect machine that, given an initial start, would keep going indefinitely. What he found was that it can’t be done. No matter how perfectly you might build the machine, some energy is disbursed as it runs. In other words, the machine keeps losing bits of energy to the surrounding environment. This loss of useful energy is called entropy.

In the years since Carnot, it has been discovered that entropy shows up in every process we can see, even in information theory. It’s now considered a bedrock of physics.

Now, let’s go back to Carnot’s perfect machine and explain the concept of a “closed system.”

No matter how perfectly Carnot might counter-balance everything, any machine he might make would slow down and eventually stop. He could build it and give it a push to start it, but it wouldn’t keep running without another push.

  • This machine on its own is called a closed system. In it, entropy cannot be overcome. The machine will eventually stop.

  • To overcome entropy, Carnot would have to reach in (one way or another) and give the thing a push… which would be a violation of the closed system. We could call this, including Carnot’s push from the outside, an open system.

There’s nothing more mysterious to this principle than that. (Applying it to things like atomic particles requires intricate work, but the principle’s the same.)

And note one other thing here: Just because a system isn’t fully closed doesn’t mean it will reverse entropy. Carnot’s machine wouldn’t keep moving just because it was hit by sunlight, or got cold, or if was put in a magnetic field, or if it slid sideways. Only a specific type of push would keep it going.

You Already Understand Entropy

Regardless of terminology, we already understand entropy; we’ve lived with it all our lives.

  • When we buy batteries at a store, we hope they haven’t been on the shelf too long, because if they’re old, they won’t last very long.

  • However hard you spin a top, it will eventually slow down and fall.

  • We don’t wait for a rotten piece of fruit to un-rot. The idea is preposterous, because entropy doesn’t just reverse itself.

  • We don’t wait for an old piece of equipment to become brand new again.

Entropy is the way the physical world works, and we’ve all known it since childhood. The battery has to be recharged or replaced. The watch must be wound.

So please remember that entropy is something you already know. If a discussion on entropy confuses you, the speaker is either poorly skilled or is using confusion as a tool.

Barbarians and Seekers

There are in general two types of motivations for studying science, and they define two types of students:

  • The first type I call “Seekers.” These are people who want to discover and to understand how the world works.

  • The second type is those who want science to provide them with the tools of dominance. These people, to use plain terms, are functioning as sophisticated barbarians.

In response to my initial piece on this subject, I had a very pleasant conversation with a man of the Seeker type. He disagreed with me, but he was polite and thoughtful. I wanted to use our conversations as an article by itself, but I had to give up the idea as it would have been too long.

As for the barbarians… well, these are the ones who jump into a discussion with the primary goal of winning. They weaponize terminology and love legalistic proclamations. Their goal is intellectual dominance. I suggest that you learn to recognize this type, learn not to be intimidated by them (that’s their primary weapon), and stay away from them.

Understand this, please: A mind of the first rank will speak to you with the goal of kindling understanding in you. He or she will treat you as valuable and capable and will avoid confusing or intimidating you. They won’t care about position or fame, and they would be happy for you to supersede them.

Back to the Swamp

Now we can deal with the primordial soup once more, with a bit of understanding. And again, I’ll be brief.

At the end of the line, experiment rules over theory. So, I think we should take Albert Einstein’s advice seriously, that “We should try to hold on to physical reality.” And the physical reality here is this: If a swamp could produce DNA in 500 million BC, it should produce DNA now too… and it doesn’t.

Lots of people try to get around this, and their big argument is, “But the conditions were different then.”

When you say, “Different in what way that would produce DNA?” the answer is, “We don’t know, but maybe we’ll discover it.” That’s not terribly convincing, and it sounds a lot like faith.

Furthermore, there are parts of Earth, right now, with more or less any condition that would have been available then (hot, cold, wet, dry, sulfur vents, seawater, etc.). DNA never spontaneously forms in any of them. I see this argument as a way to avoid physical reality.

Now, let me jump to the end: In order for the primordial soup to produce life, these things would have had to happen:

  • An exception to entropy would not only have had to exist, but it would have had to hold steady for an immense length of time. In my friend’s scenario that was 700 million years. Any break during that immense span would cause the DNA to break down again… and quickly.

  • All the right pieces would have had to be in place at the right times. And for DNA, that’s a lot of complex material that just happens to be sitting around. (And how did it get so complex?) The four critical amino acids (complex molecules all) would not only have to be present, but in the right configurations. These are all left-handed molecules, and even one right-hander could kill the whole deal.

  • Environmental conditions don’t reverse entropy. Hotter conditions on the early Earth (which seems to be the assumption) might be contra-effective for forming DNA, as heat tends to disperse things rather than congeal them.

  • All the cellular membranes, cytoplasm, vacuoles, plasmids, and so on that are required for this new string of DNA to endure and reproduce itself would have had to be present also. And even for a very primitive organism that’s a whole lot of stuff, all of which would have had to form contrary to entropy as well.

I could go on, but there’s no point. The odds against this are beyond astronomical.

Still, arguments can go on. One is the very faith-like, “But even astronomical odds are not zero!” Another is a verdict-like proclamation (very emphatic) that entropy exists only inside things like sealed boxes. Following that argument, however, batteries on an open shelf (or with their covers removed) wouldn’t lose their charge. And since a sea of neutrinos pours through every box (as do magnetic, electrical, gravitational, and Higgs fields), nothing could be deemed a closed system.

Beyond all these words, however, physical reality remains paramount, and DNA still doesn’t form spontaneously.

So my opinion stands: The primordial soup must go.

* * * * *

A book that generates comments like these, from actual readers, might be worth your time:

  • I just finished reading The Breaking Dawn and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking, amazing books I have ever read… It will be hard to read another book now that I’ve read this book… I want everyone to read it.

  • Such a tour de force, so many ideas. And I am amazed at the courage to write such a book, that challenges so many people’s conceptions.

  • There were so many points where it was hard to read, I was so choked up.

  • Holy moly! I was familiar with most of the themes presented in A Lodging of Wayfaring Men, but I am still trying to wrap my head around the concepts you presented at the end of this one.

Get it at Amazon ($18.95) or on Kindle: ($5.99)


* * * * *

Paul Rosenberg

14 thoughts on “Entropy and Spontaneous Generation”

  1. “…astronomical odds (against)…”
    Granted but the number of stars is likewise astronomical and there seem to be even more planets than stars. The opportunities are astronomical as well. It is impossible to know which is larger; the numerator or the denominator.
    Never say “Never.”

  2. I accidentally posted this on the older article; re-posting here for visibility: “I know it is a big question (perhaps the ultimate question), but I would
    be interested in your opinion on the origins of life. If spontaneous
    generation violates the law of entropy, is something along the lines of
    Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” a more scientifically sound theory? Or are
    you inclined toward some other explanation? Thank you.”

  3. Lets start with this: “And note one other thing here: Just because a system isn’t fully closed doesn’t mean it will reverse entropy. ” Actually, that is exactly what it means.
    Speaking of defining things, let me define stupid. A person is stupid on a subject if they are unwilling or unable to learn new stuff. As I will show below, you are definitely STUPID ON SCIENCE.
    Really, how difficult would it have been to do a search on these pairs of pairs of words
    “open systems” “reverse entropy” which gives
    life “reverse entropy” abiogenesis
    this one uses pictures, so maybe you will be able to understand it, but giving your willful refusal to learn new stuff, I doubt it:
    I loved this quote: ” If a swamp could produce DNA in 500 million BC, it should produce DNA now too… and it doesn’t.”
    I only see two things wrong with this — well three actually.
    1. How do you know that swamps do not do this?
    2. Maybe the swamps that exist now are different from the swamps that existed back then.
    3. Is there such a a swamp with no living organisms in it? Perhaps the current environments start to produce DNA, but those products are consumed by living organisms.
    As to spontaneous DNA (once again you are wrong, The time frame is 3 to 4 BILLION years, not 500M.
    http://www.colorado.edu/today/2015/04/06/new-study-hints-spontaneous-appearance-primordial-dna one of 3M articles on a search for spontaneous DNA
    If you can find someone with the patience to attempt to teach a dog basic math, who also has a degree in basic science, you may wish to have a conversatioin with him

    1. I linked to an article above that clarifies one thing about thermodynamics, but Doug, you are correct. The processes of life (and organisms) aren’t closed. Many people try to oversimplify the application of the 2nd law in this way.
      A somewhat decent starting point is with a Nobel prize winning scientist: https://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/prigogine.html and his book “The End of Certainty.”

    2. The last word can be yours, though I must say you confirm a lot of what I said beautifully.

      1. Understand this, please: A mind of the first
        rank will speak to you with the goal of kindling understanding in you.
        He or she will treat you as valuable and capable and will avoid
        confusing or intimidating you. They won’t care about position or fame,
        and they would be happy for you to supersede them.
        There is an
        exception to that: If a person states that The earth is flat, or the
        sun and moon both revolve around the earth (This is obvious and you can
        see it with your own eyes) then no one will ever kindle understanding in
        them. They are locked into their point of view, and all evidence to
        the contrary is ignored / brushed aside. Such people, like you, are on
        the same level as Terrence Howard who is convinced that one times one
        equals two. And you can find many people on the inernet who live in
        their own world of ignorance and irrationality. Flat earthers, and
        geocentric believers are just two. Like you, and almost all true
        believers, they are incapable of understanding new concepts, or
        anything that disagrees with their world view.
        Regarding the measurable world; (NOtice that I do NOT use the word real), there are three kinds of people. The vast majority, to the extent that they pay attention to it besides daily living, just go along with the vast majority of scientists who have spent their lives doing science. The next group, by size, are scientists. Then there are the loonies like you who think that they have some divine truth despite never having taken let alone passed upper division math and physics courses.
        A man of the first rank will not bother with such persons, because his time is way to valuable, and people like you — well there ideas have no value. I am here, only to possibly prevent a few earnest but possible gullible people from being sucked into your true believing echo chamber of stupid. See my definition above.
        By the way … in law, a lack of response (last word is yours) is considered agreement.. My guess is that your ignorance of law is of the same magnitude as your ignorance of science.
        I do not want to dominate you intellectually. That would be like dominating my dog. Pointless. And I know that I can not confuse you, because you have TRUTH. People like you can not be confused. That would require more intellectual horsepower than you have. Do you really think that people who think that the earth is flat are, in any way, confused? In my brief visits to their sites, I have seen no evidence of that.

  4. You seem to be claiming that the earth is a closed system, which of course, it isn’t. We’re bombarded every moment of every day with energy from the sun, which, as long as it lasts, allows the earth to reverse entropy on scales large and small.
    A few examples of reverse entropy made possible by the sun’s radiation:
    . Varying temperatures at any given location on earth. It’s theoretically possible to turn such temperature variations into usable energy (lifting objects, etc.).
    . The replenishment of molecular oxygen in the atmosphere, though it’s constantly being consumed by animal respiration.
    . The distillation and condensation of water vapor, providing a never-ending supply of fresh water to much of the earth.
    (It’s true, of course, that the sun is in the process of burning out, but for the life of the earth and, apparently, for many billions of years to come, it will provide usable energy to the world).
    As a man of scientific nature, I’m not certain that life spontaneously arose on earth, but I think it’s been demonstrated pretty conclusively that such a process is chemically plausible. FWIW, I have a degree in chemistry from Berkeley.
    I’ll be glad when you feel your ax on this subject has been ground sufficiently, Paul. Ultimately, disputes of this sort make about as much sense as arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, IMHO. We have real, pressing issues to address in the world today; is this origin subject more important?

    1. You can have the last word, JdL, but two question are conspicuously unanswered in your remarks:
      1. Why is there no evidence of spontaneous DNA formation? (People have been looking for it for a long time.)
      2. If Earth is an open system, and if entropy doesn’t apply to it, then why do old batteries lose their charge?

      1. Paul,
        1. What kind of evidence would you expect to remain after billions of years? It would need to be frozen some place, as the “Spanish flu” virus was for several decades in a man buried in permafrost. Even then, I’m not sure an organic molecule would last so long: ancient fossils are generally composed of more durable materials.
        2. Batteries run down when used, or eventually, just sitting around. But when there’s a source of focused energy, such as electricity made (perhaps) from a solar cell, that energy can be used to charge them back up. Energy overcomes entropy, when used properly.
        When it comes to the origin of life, I think the search for hard evidence either way will prove elusive. We’ll be left with more refined versions of what we have now: speculation based on experiments that demonstrate (or fail to) that a particular mechanism is plausible.
        I’m ok with accepting that there may be questions we can’t answer with certainty, at least in the foreseeable future. I’d prefer to know, but “You can’t always get what you want.”

    1. OK, according to their use of the terms, the earth is a “closed” system, because it exchanges energy, but not mass, with the rest of the universe. The energy exchange, of course, is all that is needed for all kinds of reverse entropy events to take place on earth.

  5. “So my opinion stands: The primordial soup must go.” Agreed, but just don’t drink it to get rid of it. It sounds like it would taste terrible.
    The search for the origin of life is important, because otherwise religionists who say God is life cannot be dismissed, nor the possibility that God is put to rest. So as long as there isn’t a “scientific” answer to whence comes life, deism will remain a thorn in atheism’s side, so the search may go on eternally–if eternity is a reality.

  6. Fascinating, Paul, thanks.
    Please count me as a “seeker”. To that end I submit the two most interesting pieces on this that I’ve seen in the last 10 years (on pro and one con ID).
    The first is from a biologist outlining how the complex chemical defense mechanism of bombardier beetles, often used in ID arguments, could have come about in plausible “microevolutions”.
    The second is a computer animation of the DNA replication process. Mind-blowing.

Comments are closed.