Proof from Design, or the Teleological Proof (6)

I Fought The Law

To some, this is a huge contradiction.

Scientists have been studying heat for as long as we’ve had fire, and from that effort have produced the Laws of Thermodynamics,[139] plus the concepts of entropy and systems. You can think of a system as a really sturdy container, like a pot holding a nice clay sculpture. If the container is closed, you won’t be able to touch the sculpture or tip it out; likewise, a “closed” system is completely isolated from everything else. The analogy doesn’t quite fit; since the container isn’t thermally closed, you can heat up the sculpture by heating up the container. In a proper closed system there’s nothing you can do from the outside to effect the inside, and vice-versa.

This sculpture probably doesn’t take up all of the container, though. The remainder is likely “air,” the random hodge-podge of atmospheric molecules that were floating around inside until the container was closed. This creates a clear boundary, between the air molecules and the clay molecules; we’ll call this a “low” entropy state, which means there is a lot of order present. Suppose we abuse this analogy a little, and kick the container off a cliff. The sculpture would likely shatter, becoming less organized itself. If we repeat this a few million times, you’ll wind up with fine clay dust mingling with the air itself. There’s no longer any sort of boundary or order here, which means it’s now a “high” entropy state.

There’s nothing stopping us from connecting containers, if we wish. Suppose we connect the container holding the clay sculpture with an empty one. They look very different at the start, but look really, really, really closely at the sculpture. Air molecules are constantly bashing into the surface, sometimes sticking to it, sometimes knocking off a clay molecule, and the rest of the time just ricocheting off. Those loose clay molecules might get shoved back into the sculpture by a well-placed air molecule, but more likely the constant bombardment will cause them to wander off. Those clay bits will float around randomly, and some may wind up in the new container. Gradually, the sculpture will shrink, the air will get more clay-like, and the second container’s air will also have more and more clay within it.

What if we watched this take place over a billion billion years? Our fictional container won’t stay closed off for anywhere near that long, but a proper closed system will. After an incredible amount of time, we’ll see a soup of clay and air molecules shared between the two containers. The proportion of clay-to-air should be equal for both, reaching an equilibrium.

From just that simple analogy, you should be able to derive the Laws of Thermodynamics:

0. If two systems are in equilibrium with a third system, they must be in equilibrium with each other.

1. Anything within a closed system cannot be created or destroyed, merely changed.

2. Entropy will tend to either increase or stay the same in a closed system, until every part of that system is in equilibrium with every other part.

3. If the contents of a closed system cannot be rearranged to have more order, that system is declared to have zero entropy.

The second law is notable, since it implies order will always decrease. And yet I’ve pointed out several different ways to make the world more organized. Isn’t that a conflict?

Not really, that law talks about an entire system like a universe. It says nothing about individual portions of that system, which are free to organize by swiping bits from other parts. We are just one of those parts, and part we’re stealing from is right over your head at noon; our sun is shedding vast quantities of energy, and life on Earth is gratefully using it to self-organize. Our sun won’t last forever, though, and even ordinary matter might eventually break apart into a subatomic soup-of-the-day,[140] so entropy will probably win in the end. In the meantime, we’re free to carry on organizing the place.

There’s also a carefully-placed weasel-word in the second law: “tends.” The reason why things “tend” towards high entropy is that there are many more ways to be disorganized than there are to be organized. The base of that sculpture can only be in one location while the statue is intact, but once broken into multiple pieces it could be in multiple places. Those pieces could still get nudged into their original shape by accident; there’s no rule preventing that, it’s just that there are so many other ways to shuffle the pieces that the odds of it happening are very low.

If we’re permitted an infinite amount of time to watch a closed system, however, we’ll see every possible arrangement an infinite number of times. Even if there are unbreakable rules that limit how the system’s internals can change, all valid combinations under those rules will happen.

This has interesting implications for the origins of this universe. If we slosh around a finite amount of matter and energy for an infinite amount of time, at some point all of it must converge on a single spot.[141] Could this result in a Big Bang? And could the end result of that Big Bang be another Big Bang, if we wait long enough?

Death by a Thousand Cuts

Back in our universe, there’s an explosion of variations on this proof. I’ve mentioned two examples from Ray Comfort and Michael Behe back in the introduction, but there are thousands of other examples floating out there.

Another example may show why. The website “Uncommon Descent” is dedicated to promoting the concept of “intelligent design,” that the vast diversity of life and all physical processes were explicitly designed by an “intelligence;” though never outright stated, the only possible such “intelligence” must be a god. A week or so before biologist and intelligent design critic P.Z. Myers was scheduled to give a talk in Scotland, one of their contributors developed a list of eleven questions to ask him. Here’s one:

If, as is often claimed by Darwinists, the pharyngeal pouches and ridges are indeed accurately thought of as vestigial gill slits (thus demonstrating our shared ancestry with fish), then why is it that the ‘gill-slit’ region in humans does not contain even partly developing slits or gills, and has no respiratory function? In fish, these structures are, quite literally, slits that form openings to allow water in and out of the internal gills that remove oxygen from the water. In human embryos, however, the pharyngeal pouches do not appear to be ‘old structures’ which have been reworked into ‘new structures’ (they do not develop into homologous structures such as lungs). Instead, the developmental fate of these locations includes a wide variety of structures which become part of the face, bones associated with the ear, facial expression muscles, the thymus, thyroid, and parathyroid glands (e.g. Manley and Capecchi, 1998).

(“10 + 1 Questions For Professor Myers,” posted May 30th, 2011 by Jonathan MacLatchie; retrieved June 15th, 2011)

Notice that we’ve come a long way from the simple description of evolution I began with. MacLatchie’s question is not attacking evolution directly, but instead attacking a specific prediction of evolution as it applies to biology. As that branch of science has explored and understood more and more of the natural world, more of these oddities have been found. More recent ones tend to be less well understood, since by definition they haven’t been studied for as long.

You could easily turn this into a factory for proofs. Just take a poorly-understood finding of science, claim that its mysteriousness is due to divine intervention, and voilà! In a twist of irony, science is constantly producing mysteries which can easily be exploited to argue against science, on the grounds that it “got it wrong” or “can’t answer the question.”

This particular example is rather clever, since the majority of its logic is implied. By showing this one prediction to be wrong, MacLatchie hopes to demonstrate that the entire theory of evolution is unworkable. And by showing that evolution is unworkable, he hopes to prove there must have been an intelligent designer.

That should have set off alarms in your head. If you cannot explain how the eye adapts to varying levels of light, that does not mean that my “demons and curtains” theory must be true. Likewise, if evolution cannot explain X, we cannot immediately conclude that X must have been shaped by an intelligence. To actually prove that, the person making the claim must provide evidence that it really was shaped by an intelligence; here, MacLatchie provides none.

Even if evolution could not explain something, that does not mean all of evolution must go. When Einstein published his paper on General Relativity, Newtonian Gravity wasn’t tossed in the waste bin. Instead, we found an explanation for why some of its predictions didn’t pan out; Newtonian Gravity was only an approximation of what’s really happening behind the scenes, and thus the calculations gave the correct answer under most, but not all, situations. So long as you’re careful, you can still use Newtonian Gravity to predict the paths of the planets and asteroids to a high degree of accuracy.

The same is true of evolution. I’ve only presented a few examples of it here, since a complete catalogue would have hundreds of thousands of entries. Scores of books have provided even more examples, some of which are visible on your own body.[142] Any proposed replacement to evolution must give the same predictions as evolution, except in a few rare circumstances. Intelligent design does not do so, as my earlier example pointed out.

Still, even if the implied assumptions are bogus, we at least can agree the naked question has a point, right?

Sadly, no. As I pointed out in the introduction, biological evolution does not require one body part to always have the same function. The bacterial flagellum transitioned from injecting toxins to propulsion, so we shouldn’t be surprised if some other organ was able to pull oxygen from the environment, gradually making the gills redundant. The gas bladders of fish were my first guess, but a quick search shows I was only half right; bladders and lungs evolved from pockets in the throat, used by our ancestors to suck in oxygen from the atmosphere if they couldn’t draw in enough from the water.[143]

The gills weren’t immune to this effect, either. Since they were no longer useful, any mutations that altered their function wouldn’t harm the organism and thus would be passed on. Their spot on our genome was freed for other uses, and after a few hundred million years most of it has been claimed. This matches what we saw with vitamin C.

It’s rather amazing, isn’t it? That question seemed so convincing at first, since it cited biological literature and used the proper terminology. Once we examined it in detail, though, the entire thing fell apart. The unstated assumptions needed to make it a true proof were laughable, and we never needed a degree in biology to take care of the rest.

Evolution is such a simple concept that its opponents cannot attack it directly. Instead, they either craft a complicated, impressive-looking counter-example along the lines of MacLatchie, or invent their own version of evolution that is easier to attack.

The theory of evolution is an explanation for the existence of life on Earth through random, natural processes. More formally known as the General Theory of Evolution, it was defined by the evolutionist Gerald A. Kerkut as the theory that all the living forms in the world have arisen from a single source which itself came from an inorganic form. It is the idea that particles increased in complexity to form the building blocks of life, then the first cell formed, which ultimately gave rise to people, all without any need for an intelligent Designer.

(“Theory of Evolution,” CreationWiki, ; retrieved June 17th, 2011)

How many errors can you spot in those three sentences? I can manage nine.

  1. Evolution explains how life changes, not how it exists or started.
  2. Evolution’s process is not random, though randomness is helpful when creating the variation needed for evolution to take place.
  3. The term “General Theory of Evolution” was invented by Gerald A. Kerkut, and only shows up in his work or references to his work. I cannot find another biologist using it.
  4. Kerkut was a zoologist. “Evolutionist” is a title invented by creationists to mock biologists, and is not used or recognized by any scientific body.
  5. Evolution works equally well with multiple original self-replicators. The existence of a single original replicator for all life is just an observation, not an important part of the theory.
  6. Kerkut actually defined two theories of evolution. The “Special Theory of Evolution” is an exact match for what I’ve described, while the “General Theory of Evolution” adds the need for a single source of all life. The latter is not evolution, as I’ve pointed out, yet CreationWiki declares it to be the commonly accepted definition of evolution.
  7. Particles do not increase in complexity, save for an extremely rare collision with a cosmic ray or within a particle accelerator. Molecules can easily form long complex chains, however, which is probably what they meant.
  8. Evolution is not necessary to create the building blocks of life. Amino acids form naturally via random interactions and deterministic processes, and have been found all through our solar system.[144]
  9. Evolution does not necessarily lead to more complex organisms. Parasites will actually simplify their genome, since they no longer have to worry about hunting for food or protection.[145]

CreationWiki’s version of evolution is much easier to poke holes in than the real one. It relies on a lot more assumptions, most of which are badly flawed. Once those assumptions have been sliced to ribbons, evolution is declared the loser, which somehow make the god of your choice the winner.

It all amounts to a dog-and-pony show. Evolution is a powerful force, which does not need a deity to tune the gears. It simply works, and works simply, which makes it a potent alternative to design-by-deity. Ockham’s Razor doesn’t need to be sharp to cut this proof to ribbons.

[139]  A “law,” in scientific terms, is just a theory which can use measurements to predict the value of other measurements, via math. There’s otherwise no difference; laws are not absolutes, despite what the name implies.

[140]  Some of our theories predict protons will eventually decay, and since they’re a fundamental building block of matter, they’ll take down the visible universe in the process. If it’s any comfort, no one has seen proton decay in the lab; it either takes a ridiculously long time to happen, or these theories should head for the dustbin.

[141]  “Must” is the right word. You’ll shuffle a deck of cards into order about one time in every in 8.065817 • 1067 shuffles, which is a much smaller number than infinity. Given enough time, you’re guaranteed to wind up with an ordered deck through random shuffling. The same logic applies to the matter in the universe.

[142]  Off the top of my head, I can point to “goose bumps” and skin colour; my disabled third eyelid, opposable thumbs, and even my sex organs. If I were a trained biologist and could include the non-visible, I could fill an entire chapter with examples like the vocal cord nerve, or my back.

[143]  Farmer, Colleen, “Did lungs and the intracardiac shunt evolve to oxygenate the heart in vertebrates.” Paleobiology 23(3) 1997.

[144] “Origin of amino acids in the early solar system,” J. F. Kerridge, Advances in Space Research Volume 15, Issue 3, March 1995.

[145] For a specific example, see “Being Pathogenic, Plastic, and Sexual while Living with a Nearly Minimal Bacterial Genome,” by Pascal Sirand-Pugnet et al, PLoS Genetics, May 2007.