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.
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