Evolution and the Second Law

By Sean Carroll | May 7, 2009 5:45 pm

Since no one is blogging around here, and I’m still working on my book, I will cheat and just post an excerpt from the manuscript. Not an especially original one, either; in this section I steal shamelessly from the nice paper that Ted Bunn wrote last year about evolution and entropy (inspired by an previous paper by Daniel Styer).

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Without even addressing the question of how “life” should be defined, we can ask what sounds like a subsequent question: does life make thermodynamic sense? The answer, before you get too excited, is “yes.” But the opposite has been claimed – not by any respectable scientists, but by creationists looking to discredit Darwinian natural selection as the correct explanation for the evolution of life on Earth. One of their arguments relies on a misunderstanding of the Second Law, which they read as “entropy always increases,” and then interpret as a universal tendency toward decay and disorder in all natural processes. Whatever life is, it’s pretty clear that life is complicated and orderly – how, then, can it be reconciled with the natural tendency toward disorder?

There is, of course, no contradiction whatsoever. The creationist argument would equally well imply that refrigerators are impossible, so it’s clearly not correct. The Second Law doesn’t say that entropy always increases. It says that entropy always increases (or stays constant) in a closed system, one that doesn’t interact noticeably with the external world. But it’s pretty obvious that life is not like that; living organisms interact very strongly with the external world. They are the quintessential examples of open systems. And that is pretty much that; we can wash our hands of the issue and get on with our lives.

But there’s a more sophisticated version of the argument, which you could imagine being true – although it still isn’t – and it’s illuminating (and fun) to see exactly how it fails. The more sophisticated argument is quantitative: sure, living beings are open systems, so in principle they can decrease entropy somewhere as long as it increases somewhere else. How do you know that the increase in entropy in the outside world is really enough to account for the low entropy of living beings?

As we mentioned way back in Chapter Two, the Earth and its biosphere are systems that are very far away from thermal equilibrium. In equilibrium, the temperature is the same everywhere, whereas when we look up we see a very hot Sun in an otherwise very cold sky. There is plenty of room for entropy to increase, and that’s exactly what’s happening. But it’s instructive to run the numbers.

The energy budget of the Earth, considered as a single system, is pretty simple. We get energy from the Sun, via radiation; we lose the same amount of energy to empty space, also via radiation. (Not exactly the same; processes such as nuclear decays also heat up the Earth and leak energy into space, and the rate at which energy is radiated is not strictly constant. Still, it’s an excellent approximation.) But while the amount is the same, there is a big difference in the quality of the energy we get and the energy we give back. Remember back in the pre-Boltzmann days, entropy was understood as a measurement of the uselessness of a certain amount of energy; low-entropy forms of energy could be put to useful work, such as powering an engine or grinding flour, while high-entropy forms of energy just sat there.

Sun-Earth-entropy

The energy we get from the Sun is of a low-entropy, useful form, while the energy we radiate back out into space has a much higher entropy. The temperature of the Sun is about twenty times the average temperature of the Earth. The temperature of radiation is just the average energy of the photons of which it is made, so the Earth needs to radiate twenty low-energy (long-wavelength, infrared) photons for every one high-energy (short-wavelength, visible) photon it receives. It turns out, after a bit of math, that twenty times as many photons directly translates into twenty times the entropy. The Earth emits the same amount of energy as it receives, but with twenty times higher entropy.

The hard part is figuring out just what we mean when we say that the life forms here on Earth are “low-entropy.” How exactly do we do the coarse-graining? It is possible to come up with reasonable answers to that question, but it’s complicated. Fortunately, there is a dramatic shortcut we can take. Consider the entire biomass of the Earth – all of the molecules that are found in living organisms of any type. We can easily calculate the maximum entropy that collection of molecules could have, if it were in thermal equilibrium; plugging in the numbers (the biomass is 1015 kilograms, the temperature of the Earth is 255 Kelvin), we find that its maximum entropy is 1044. And we can compare that to the absolute minimum entropy it could have – if it were in an exactly unique state, the entropy would be precisely zero.

So the largest conceivable change in entropy that would be required to take a completely disordered collection of molecules the size of our biomass and turn them into absolutely any configuration at all – including the actual ecosystem we currently have – is 1044. If the evolution of life is consistent with the Second Law, it must be the case that the Earth has generated more entropy over the course of life’s evolution by converting high-energy photons into low-energy ones than it has decreased entropy by creating life. The number 1044 is certainly an overly generous estimate – we don’t have to generate nearly that much entropy, but if we can generate that much, the Second Law is in good shape.

How long does it take to generate that much entropy by converting useful solar energy into useless radiated heat? The answer, once again plugging in the temperature of the Sun and so forth, is: about one year. Every year, if we were really efficient, we could take an undifferentiated mass as large as the entire biosphere and arrange it in a configuration with as small an entropy as we can imagine. In reality, life has evolved over billions of years, and the total entropy of the “Sun + Earth (including life) + escaping radiation” system has increased by quite a bit. So the Second Law is perfectly consistent with life as we know it; not that you were ever in doubt.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Time
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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