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Digging Into Granville Sewell’s Peer-Reviewed Paper Challenging Darwinian Evolution

As we reported earlier this week, University of Texas El Paso mathematics professor Granville Sewell had a peer-reviewed paper accepted for publication in the journal Applied Mathematics Letters which was pulled after an outcry from the Darwin lobby. The journal has now agreed to apologize to Sewell as well as pay $10,000 in attorney’s fees as a result of its actions.

But what was so offensive about Sewell’s article that Darwin activists wanted it spiked?  Interestingly, the article wasn’t about intelligent design, but rather tried to assess whether the second law of thermodynamics can be formulated as a valid challenge to Darwinian evolution.

As I noted in a previous article, many have argued that the second law of thermodynamics is not a valid argument against Darwinian evolution since the law holds that order can increase in an open system, and the earth and its biosphere do not comprise a closed system.  While that is correct, Granville Sewell, author of In the Beginning: And Other Essays on Intelligent Design, argues there is more to the story.  Sewell’s article written for Applied Mathematics Letters argues that the second law of thermodynamics may be a problem for Darwinian evolution after all.

Dr. Sewell is fully aware of the standard objections to the classical version of the second law argument, but his thesis is not the classic unsophisticated version of the argument. In particular, he accepts as true the observation that entropy/disorder can decrease when energy is input from outside the system. However, according to Sewell, this fact is only relevant when the kind of energy being input tends to create the type of order we’re seeking to increase.

In the case of Darwinian evolution, life is based upon information, and the claim is made that Darwinian evolution generates new functional biological information. Does the fact that the earth is an open system help Darwinians explain where information comes from? Is it likely that sunlight hitting the Earth will increase functional biological information? In the paper, Sewell argues that the basic principles underlying the second law of thermodynamics might be a bar to Darwinian evolution after all:

It is commonly argued that the spectacular increase in order which has occurred on Earth does not violate the second law of thermodynamics because the Earth is an open system, and anything can happen in an open system as long as the entropy increases outside the system compensate the entropy decreases inside the system. However, if we define “X-entropy” to be the entropy associated with any diffusing component X (for example, X might be heat), and, since entropy measures disorder, “X-order” to be the negative of X-entropy, a closer look at the equations for entropy change shows that they not only say that the X-order cannot increase in a closed system, but that they also say that in an open system the X-order cannot increase faster than it is imported through the boundary. Thus the equations for entropy change do not support the illogical “compensation” idea; instead, they illustrate the tautology that “if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable”. Thus, unless we are willing to argue that the influx of solar energy into the Earth makes the appearance of spaceships, computers and the Internet not extremely improbable, we have to conclude that the second law has in fact been violated here.

Granville Sewell, “A second look at the second law

To elaborate on his argument, Sewell quotes Isaac Asimov making the classical rejoinder that Darwinian evolution is possible on earth because the earth is not an open system:

Remove the sun, and the human brain would not have developed . . . . And in the billions of years that it took for the human brain to develop, the increase in entropy that took place in the sun was far greater; far, far greater than the decrease that is represented by the evolution required to develop the human brain.

Sewell observes that materialists claim that a reduction in entropy in a part of the universe can occur if it is compensated by an increase in another part. As he quotes Peter Urone: “It is always possible for the entropy of one part of the universe to decrease, provided the total change in entropy of the universe increases.” Sewell then argues that this “compensation” rejoinder fails:

Of course the whole idea of compensation, whether by distant or nearby events, makes no sense logically: an extremely improbable event is not rendered less improbable simply by the occurrence of “compensating” events elsewhere. According to this reasoning, the second law does not prevent scrap metal from reorganizing itself into a computer in one room, as long as two computers in the next room are rusting into scrap metal–and the door is open.

At this point one must understand that the second law is probabilistic. It predicts that given a certain set of conditions, certain forms of order will not appear. Sewell argues:

The second law of thermodynamics is all about probability; it uses probability at the microscopic level to predict macroscopic change. Carbon distributes itself more and more uniformly in an isolated solid because that is what the laws of probability predict when diffusion alone is operative. Thus the second law predicts that natural (unintelligent) causes will not do macroscopically describable things which are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view.

Sewell thus argues that there are certain forms of complexity which everyone agrees will not arise under natural, unguided conditions. It thus follows that the fact that a system is “open” does not necessarily mean that the probability of all events occurring is high enough to make such events plausible.  Sewell argues:

But after we define a sufficiently low threshold, everyone seems to agree that “natural forces will rearrange atoms into digital computers” is a macroscopically describable event that is still extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view, and thus forbidden by the second law–at least if this happens in a closed system. But it is not true that the laws of probability only apply to closed systems: if a system is open, you just have to take into account what is crossing the boundary when deciding what is extremely improbable and what is not. (Emphasis added.)

In Sewell’s view, the compensation argument fails. The fact that earth is not a closed system only helps Darwinian evolution if the type of inputs earth receives are of the kind which can increase functional biological information. Sewell’s article quotes a previous paper he authored where he explains this point:

If an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is closed, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering which makes it not extremely improbable. … But if all we see entering is radiation and meteorite fragments, it seems clear that what is entering through the boundary cannot explain the increase in order observed here.

Sewell’s conclusion laments that scientists are scorned for suggesting it is difficult to explain how the type of matter and energy received by earth can produce the complex features we observe:

And perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really is not, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves into nuclear power plants and spaceships and digital computers. But one would think that at least this would be considered an open question, and those who argue that it really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying the second law of thermodynamics, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their colleagues, but we are not.

Now I am not personally convinced that the second law of thermodynamics is the right way to challenge neo-Darwinian evolution, and I prefer Dembski’s formulation.  But I think that Sewell’s article makes interesting points that contribute to this discussion, and it certainly did not deserve to be withdrawn just because some Darwin lobbyists didn’t like its conclusion.

But now that Sewell’s paper has been withdrawn (after it passed peer-review and was accepted for publication), the article itself is evidence that those who challenge Darwinian evolution are not being allowed the academic freedom to make their arguments to the scientific community. The treatment of his paper by the journal Applied Mathematics Letters and the Darwin lobby shows that Sewell’s final concerns in the paper are 100 percent valid.