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.

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The Millennials Have Been Dumped Upon

I’ve recently seen a lot of people kicking the ‘millennials,’ the generation born between roughly 1983 and 2001. The complaints suggest they don’t want to work, they still live in their parents’ basement, they are overly sensitive, they are morbidly self-involved, and they’re zombified with iGadgets. Such commenters prattle on about the virtues of the baby boomers and the so-called “Greatest Generation,” …


I’ve recently seen a lot of people kicking the ‘millennials,’ the generation born between roughly 1983 and 2001. The complaints suggest they don’t want to work, they still live in their parents’ basement, they are overly sensitive, they are morbidly self-involved, and they’re zombified with iGadgets. Such commenters prattle on about the virtues of the baby boomers and the so-called “Greatest Generation,” but they see the millennials as falling far short.

So, let me start by saying this clearly:

The millennials have been wronged. They are living in a putrid mess that the boomers and the Greats left for them.

Casting millions of people into generational groups is silly, of course – in the end we all stand or fall as individuals – but since these groups do move together through time, there’s at least some relevance to this. And the millennials have been wronged.

Are some millennials self-involved zombies? Of course they are. So were plenty of boomers and Greats. If you want to pick a handful of examples out of millions, you can paint any picture you like.

The millennials are struggling to get ahead with thick chains around their ankles and sometimes around their wrists as well. That they are not producing great results is no surprise. And to criticize them for this is cruel, especially when it comes from the same people who helped to forge those chains.

What I Want to Tell the Millennials

I was born during the baby boom years and I’ve spent lots of time in discussions with people born before even World War I. So, beyond my reading, I have a lot of actual human experience to go by. Based upon all of that, I have three things that I’d like to tell all my young millennial friends:

#1: You are by no means inferior to the generations before you.

Great-grandpa started with nothing and finished a wealthy man. You’re stuck working at a coffee shop. Does that mean grandpa was somehow a better man than you? Hell no… you’re practically the same guy!

Great-grandma raised six kids, mended clothes, fed the neighbors during the depression, and was beloved by all. You, on the other hand, hustle your kids off to day care and pray that it isn’t the one where a maniac works… if you can even afford to have children. Does that mean grandma was a better woman than you? Again, no. You’re practically the same woman.

The truth is that you are every bit as talented and capable as your parents and grandparents. What has changed is the ambient, the conditions that surround you. Great-great-grandpa and grandma paid no income tax (federal or local), no sales tax, or a dozen other taxes. When they made money, they pretty much kept it. And it was far, far easier for them to start a business. In multiple ways, your grandparents had it easy compared to you.

#2: You are paying the price for the prosperity of the boomers and Greats.

Here I must repeat that we are all individuals, and that many boomers and Greats are fine human beings. That said, the section title is true: you are paying for their ease of life.

The boomers and Greats prospered by piling up debt. As a result, the entire modern economy is weighed down with it. For example, depending on whose numbers you prefer, total US government debt and obligations is between 70 and 220 trillion dollars, an unconscionable figure. It was the generations before you that dumped that on you. (And I’m not even counting the intentional slavery of student loans.)

Debt affects just about everything. And it is very definitely a chain around your life. And just to illustrate the immorality of this, here’s something George Washington wrote to James Madison:

No generation has a right to contract debts greater than can be paid off during the course of its own existence.

And here’s something Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Taylor:

The principle of spending money to be paid by posterity, under the name of funding, is but swindling posterity on a large scale.

Bottom line: You’ve been swindled.

#3: The status quo is choking you and won’t let go.

Your grandparents generally had what Aristotle would call a life that afforded them scope. They faced obstacles, as do we all, but they weren’t hemmed in on every side by regulators and enforcers. Your generation in the West may be the most regulated in all of human history. There are permissions required for every business activity, every profession, and almost every move you make. The control freaks have gorged themselves on the fear and obedience of the populace.

Because of this and other things, the status quo can no longer deliver prosperity… and they’re making you think it’s your fault. It isn’t. The scarcities you face are artificial – most of them would fade away if the lords of the status quo would get out of your way. (They won’t of course; they’ll watch you die before they give up power.)

I Could Go On…

But I won’t. Longer and more detailed arguments don’t really help. The facts here are fairly simple. Those who disagree don’t lack intellectual ability; they lack emotional ability. In particular, they are emotionally unable to consider that the status quo is flawed, failed, and oppositional.

On this point turn a great many things. We often see more and know more than we have strength to admit.

But it’s time to start facing this truth squarely. You don’t owe the status quo a perpetual benefit of the doubt. It’s time to hold yourself above them.

Paul Rosenberg