A Rebuttal to Tim Wallace's Web Page Remarks

© 1999 Frank Steiger; permission granted for retransmission.

The following is a rebuttal to the statements in Tim Wallace's web site "True Origins" in which he attacks my thermodynamics web page

My comments on the thermodynamics misinformation in a second Wallace web site can be found by clicking here. For my comments on a previous Wallace web site (now defunct), click here.

Background information:

Wallace echoes the creationist propaganda that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics, which states that a thermodynamics property called entropy can never spontaneously decrease. However it is only the over all entropy of a system and its surroundings, when the surroundings are isolated from any interaction with other outside systems, that can not spontaneously decrease. As long as an entropy decrease in the system is compensated for by a larger entropy increase in the surroundings, a change is thermodynamically possible. In their arguments, creationists constantly confuse the entropy change of a system, which can spontaneously decrease, with that of a system plus its isolated surroundings, which can not spontaneously decrease. In other words, if the entropy change of the isolated surroundings is greater than the entropy decrease of the system, then the change can take place (although the rate may be extremely slow).

Thermodynamics deals in a quantitative manner with the relationship between heat and work. Because of this, its applications must necessarily be limited to man-made devices and chemical changes for which heat and work parameters can be established. Unless and until these parameters can be established for cell growth in living organisms, the thermodynamics of living things must remain mere speculation. The only actual mathematical relationship between entropy and probability is based on the probability of distribution of molecules in a hypothetical "ideal gas." Creationists state that because a flame can not "unburn," its combustion must always result in a 100% increase in entropy. That statement is false, and not supported by the laws of thermodynamics. For example, the Servel gas powered refrigerators operate with a gas flame and no moving parts to produce an entropy decrease in the interior.

There is a relationship between entropy and the probability of the distribution of molecules of an ideal gas. An increase in the probability of molecular distribution is accompanied by an increase in the entropy of the gas. The mathematics of this relationship are explained in detail in my second law web site.

Creationists believe that evolution represents an increased biological complexity, which they interpret as an increase in molecular order. Based on the above entropy-probability relationship for an ideal gas, creationists claim that evolution would require a spontaneous entropy decrease, which (they claim) would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore, according to the creationist argument, evolution is impossible.

Of course, creationists have a an obvious problem: how then to explain the development of the increased order in the formation of crystalline snowflakes from randomly moving water vapor molecules and the development of a chick from an egg?

In the case of the inorganic change (the snowflake), they admit that the laws of thermodynamics in fact do operate in a matter that permits order to arise from disorder, which would seem to contradict their assertion that order can not arise from disorder. Creationists ignore this obvious contradiction, merely pointing out that the ultimate death of the sun will result in maximum entropy and disorder.

In the case of the organic change (the chick from the egg), they postulate, with no theoretical or mathematical justification whatever, an "energy conversion mechanism" which "overcomes" the laws of classical thermodynamics. This is basically a meaningless statement.

Any chemical or physical changes involving thermodynamics, whether inorganic, organic, or biological, has to be accompanied by some kind of energy conversion mechanism. For example: The sun's energy striking a photocell is converted into electrical energy. When directed to a storage battery, the electrical energy is converted into chemical energy. But thermodynamics does not deal with these mechanisms. It deals with the changes in the over-all properties of systems resulting from the application of heat and work. This is explained on page 10 of the standard text, Thermodynamics, by Lewis and Randall, revised by Pitzer and Brewer:

If it were possible to know all the details of the internal constitution of a system, in other words, if it were possible to find the distribution, the arrangement, and the modes of motion of all the ultimate particles of which it is composed, this great body of information would serve to define what may be called the microscopic state of the system and this microscopic state would determine in all minutiae the properties of the system. We posses no such knowledge, and in thermodynamic considerations we adopt the converse method. The state of a system (macroscopic state) is determined by its properties just in so far as these properties can be investigated directly or indirectly by experiment. We may therefore regard the state of a substance as adequately described when all its properties which are of interest in a thermodynamic treatment are fixed with a definiteness commensurate with the accuracy of our experimental methods.

Thermodynamics does not deal with detailed molecular mechanisms. The creationist "energy conversion factor" is not thermodynamics, and it is vague and incapable of supplying any kind of specific information.

Wallace admits that the laws of thermodynamics are universally applicable to all systems, and even stresses the point with a quote from Thermodynamics, by Lewis and Randall:

"The second law of thermodynamics not only is a principle of wide reaching scope and application, but also is one which has never failed to satisfy the severest test of experiment. The numerous quantitative relations derived from this law have been subjected to more and more accurate experimental investigations without the detection of the slightest inaccuracy."
[G.N. Lewis and M. Randall, Thermodynamics (1961), p. 87.]

Yet at the same time, Wallace and his creationist mentors invent, with no theoretical or experimental evidence, and no standard references, a requirement that the laws of thermodynamics do not operate for biological systems without an "energy conversion factor"!

I am quite familiar with the Lewis and Randall text. It is very comprehensive and covers all aspects of chemical thermodynamics. Yet the text contains no statement that could be construed to give credence to the creationist claim that an energy conversion factor is necessary to "overcome" the laws of thermodynamics where biological systems are concerned! Why? Because this creationist propaganda is not only meaningless and irrelevant, but simply not true!

Although we can not determine specific numerical values for the thermodynamic properties of living things, we can develop the thermodynamic relationships that are believed to apply to all systems, including biological systems. We will start with the fundamental definition of entropy change:

The Mathematics of Thermodynamics

A word of caution: The mathematics of thermodynamics is extensive and complex. I have tried to simplify the relationships to explain some of the basic principles as clearly as possible. However, it is almost impossible to do so in just a few equations. The reader should consult Thermodynamics by Lewis and Randall, revised by Pitzer and Brewer, published by McGraw-Hill to really understand the concepts and mathematics of physical chemistry thermodynamics.

As stated in Lewis and Randall, page 80, equation 7-1, the fundamental definition of entropy increase S is heat absorbed reversibly, divided by the absolute temperature of the system:

S = q/T

Rearranging the terms:

q = TS

Where q = reversible heat absorbed and T = absolute temperature (degrees above absolute zero)

By "reversible" we mean the heat source is only infinitesimally hotter than the temperature of the system receiving the heat. However, entropy is a property of a system, and the entropy change of a system for a given amount of heat absorbed is the same, regardless of the temperature of the source. Nevertheless, since entropy can change by means other than heat absorption, the definition of entropy requires that q = reversible heat. Regardless of the manner in which an entropy change takes place, it can be calculated by postulating a reversible restoring process (to restore the system to its original condition) where the reversible heat absorbed by the surroundings, divided by the absolute temperature of the surroundings, equals the original entropy increase of the system.

For the irreversible heat flow from surroundings substantially hotter than the system, the over all entropy increase of the system and surroundings is:

Sirr = q/Tsystem - q/Tsource

In the case of thermal energy q flowing from the sun to the earth, Tsource is so much hotter than Tsystem = Tearth that q/Tsource is for all practical purposes equal to zero. Therefore the thermal energy that the earth receives from the sun is equal to TSirr = TSsystem.

Based on this relationship and the entropy-probability properties of an ideal gas, creationists have falsely claimed that solar energy alone can not be responsible for the development of the molecular structure of living things. Casual observation and common sense would indicate that this notion is preposterous. However, in addition, the basic laws of thermodynamics can show that this creationist humbug is totally false, as the following will show:

On page 161 of the Lewis and Randall text is the following fundamental equation, upon which rests just about all of the derivations of physical chemistry thermodynamics:

F = H - TS

Which can be rearranged to:

TS = H - F

Where H equals the total irreversible energy absorbed, corrected for pressure-volume work. In the case of living things, there is negligible change in volume with energy absorption, and the pressure remains essentially constant at atmospheric. Therefore H for living things is equal to the energy absorbed. For those organisms at the bottom of the food chain, H is the solar energy absorbed, and S = Sirr.

F represents the change in "free energy," which is the increase or decrease in the ability to bring about change. F represents a potential driving force; any subsequent spontaneous change is accompanied by a decrease in the free energy content F, so thatF is negative.

So the amount of TS going to increase the (unavailable) internal energy is reduced by an amount F allocated to energy available to produce change.

Therefore the internal entropy increase when energy is absorbed is not necessarily H/T, as creationists would have us believe. Some of that energy F can be utilized for creating order.

So where did this free energy content F come from initially? By the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it had to come from the ultimate source, the sun.

I stated my academic background and qualifications at the start of my web page. Mr. Wallace is silent regarding his academic background, so we can only guess. However, based on the ignorant sarcasm, I can only conclude he has no knowledge of thermodynamic relationships.

Some Specific Rebuttals to Wallace's Allegations

In the following, Wallace's statements will be shown in Italics.

Since Wallace appears to be accepting the Lewis and Randall text as an authoritative source of thermodynamic information, let us compare the information in that text with the statements in my web site. Equation (6) in my web site is substantiated by the information on page 90 of Lewis and Randall. My definition of entropy change, S, is the same as Lewis and Randall equation 7.1, page 80. In his web site, Wallace defines entropy as:

Entropy is a measure of (1) the amount of energy unavailable for work within a system or process, and/or (2) the probability of distribution or randomness [disorder] within a system. The evolutionist rationale is simply that life on earth is an "exception" because we live in an open system: "The sun provides more than enough energy to drive things." This supply of available energy, we are assured, adequately satisfies any objection to evolution on the basis of the second law. But simply adding energy to a system doesn’t automatically cause reduced entropy (i.e., increased organized complexity, or "build-up" rather than "break-down"). Raw solar energy alone does not decrease entropy—in fact, it increases entropy, speeding up the natural processes that cause break-down, disorder, and disorganization on earth (consider, for example, your car’s paint job, a wooden fence, or a decomposing animal carcass, both with and then without the addition of solar radiation).

Wallace's "definition" of entropy, (1) the amount of energy unavailable for work within a system or process, and/or (2) the probability of distribution or randomness [disorder] within a system. in fact refers to mathematical equations which contain the term S, not to a fundamental definition of entropy S itself, given in Lewis and Randall, equation 7.1, page 80. Mr. Wallace is very likely unaware of the fact that his definition (1) is expressed by my previous equation TS = H - F. The last sentence in his quote above is completely wrong. It is tantamount to saying that TS is always equal to H, and F is always equal to zero.

With respect to entropy, Wallace states:

The apparent increase in organized complexity (i.e., decrease in entropy) found in biological systems requires two additional factors besides an open system and an available energy supply. These are:
      1. a "program" (information) to direct the growth in organized complexity
      2. a mechanism for storing and converting the incoming energy.

As Wallace himself admits, the laws of thermodynamics are universal to all processes. However, he concocts, with no mathematical proof whatever, special circumstances for the thermodynamics of living things. In essence, creationists claim that there are two sets of thermodynamic laws: one for inanimate systems, the other for living things. This concept is contrary to the information in any legitimate text on thermodynamics.

Wallace quotes the following from my web site, then attempts to refute it:

...A system can go from a more probable state to a less probable state, providing S for the system is negative. In cases where the system interacts with its surroundings, S can be negative providing the over-all entropy of the system and its interacting surroundings is positive; the over-all change can be positive if the entropy increase of the surroundings is numerically greater than the entropy decrease of the system.
Don’t be alarmed. By way of explanation, " S" simply refers to change in entropy. A positive change (increase) in entropy is the general, universal tendency as described above (=less order, complexity, available energy, a more random, disorderly, and probable state). A negative change (decrease) in entropy is invariably an isolated and temporary event (=more order, complexity, available energy, a less random, disorderly, and probable state).
He [Steiger] correctly acknowledges that a less probable state may be reached by a system, only as long as it is an "open" system (i.e., able to interact with its surroundings) and there is an external increase in entropy exceeding the measure of system’s internal decrease in entropy.

Now Wallace contradicts his earlier statement that entropy can not decrease! The statement regarding a "decrease in entropy" being a temporary event is true enough, but only in comparison to the ultimate life of the solar system.

Evolutionist theory faces a problem in the second law, since the law is plainly understood to indicate (as does empirical observation) that things tend towards disorder, simplicity, randomness, and disorganization, while the theory insists that precisely the opposite has been taking place since the universe began (assuming it had a beginning).
The classic evolutionist argument used in defending the postulates of evolutionism against the second law goes along the lines that "the second law applies only to a closed system, and life as we know it exists and evolved in an open system." The basis of this claim is the fact that while the second law is inviolate in a closed system (i.e., a system in which neither energy nor matter enter nor leave the system), an apparent limited reversal in the direction required by the law can exist in an open system (i.e., a system to which new energy or matter may be added) because energy may be added to the system.

Here Wallace contradicts his previous statement (above, starting with "He[Steiger] correctly acknowledges..."). Wallace is obviously a very confused person who does not understand thermodynamics, but instead merely parrots creationist propaganda!

Wallace talks about the "facts" of thermodynamics and biological processes, but does not substantiate them in the form of mathematical equations. All other properties of thermodynamics can be expressed mathematically, so why can't Wallace express his "facts" in specific mathematical relationships? Because his "facts" are nothing more than figments of his imagination! He states that the laws of thermodynamics are universally applicable to all systems, living and non-living, but continues to insist that they have to be changed by inserting an extraneous energy conversion factor when applied to living systems!

Steiger fails to recognize the profound difference between these examples of low-energy molecular crystals and the high-energy growth process of living organisms (seeds sprouting into flowering plants and eggs developing into chicks). His equating these two very different phenomena reveals a serious misunderstanding of thermodynamics (as well as molecular biology) on his part, and he perpetuates this error in the balance of both his essays, as we shall see.

The idea that there is one kind of thermodynamics for living things and another kind of thermodynamics for non living things reveals a serious misunderstanding of thermodynamics on Wallace's part. Furthermore, it is inconsistent with the statement that the laws of thermodynamics are universally applicable to all systems, living and non-living.

Steiger’s own distortion of the facts of thermodynamics and biological process seems to indicate that it is in fact his "position" that challenges reality, for if he were right, such things as turbines, refrigeration units, industrial pumps, etc., would require no design at all, and would function satisfactorily with no energy storage or conversion devices!

This last statement is just plain silly, and has nothing to do with the laws of thermodynamics! Quoting from Lewis and Randall, p. 10:

The state of a system (macroscopic state) is determined by its properties just in so far as these properties can be investigated directly or indirectly by experiment. We may therefore regard the state of a substance as adequately described when all its properties which are of interest in a thermodynamic treatment are fixed with a definiteness commensurate with the accuracy of our experimental methods.


The properties of a substance describe its present state and do not give a record of its previous history. It is an obvious but highly important corollary of this definition that when a system is considered in two different states, the difference in volume or in any other property between the two states depends solely upon those states themselves, and not upon the manner in which the system may pass from one state to the other.

In other words, thermodynamics deals only with the changes from one specified state to another specified state. Mr. Wallace's idea that somehow it is necessary to know the mechanics of how the initial state came into being is an ignorant delusion.

Now we come to some of Steiger’s best material. Still emphasizing the possibility of reversibility, he tells us:
If we unplug a refrigerator, heat will flow to the interior from the surroundings; the entropy increase inside the refrigerator will be greater than the entropy decrease in the surroundings, and the net entropy change is positive. If we plug it in, this spontaneous "irreversible" change is reversed. Due to the input of electrical energy to the compressor, the heat transferred to the surroundings from the condenser coils is greater than the heat extracted from the refrigerator, and the entropy increase of the surroundings is greater than the entropy decrease of the interior, in spite of the fact that the surroundings are at a higher temperature. Here again, the net entropy change is positive, as would be expected for any spontaneous process.
While serving as an excellent model of thermodynamics in action, Steiger’s refrigerator does still more in that it demonstrates the need for an energy conversion mechanism before a deliberate, sustained decrease in entropy is possible. Furthermore, the starting and stopping of the machine’s compressor can hardly be described as "spontaneous" events—they are the planned, willful, and deliberate actions of intelligent agents, executed with a view to accomplishing specific end results.

Mr. Wallace is once again displaying his ignorance of the nature of thermodynamics: Thermodynamics deals only with the changes required in going from a specified initial condition to a specified final condition. The specified initial condition can be, and usually is, the result of deliberate actions of intelligent agents. Mr. Wallace should read my description more carefully. I described the thermodynamical relationships of the conditions of (1) an operating refrigerator, and (2) a non-operating refrigerator.

As if this splendid refrigerator weren’t enough, Steiger also shares the following model (popular among evolutionists) with his readers:
If a water wheel is connected by shafts, belts, pulleys, etc. to a pump, the pump can raise water from the downstream side of the water wheel to an elevation even higher than that of the upstream reservoir. Some of the water would spontaneously raise itself to an elevation even higher than original, but the rest of it would end up below the water wheel on the downstream side.
While it is not possible for all of the water to raise itself to an elevation higher than its initial elevation, it is possible for some of the water to spontaneously raise itself to an elevation higher than initial.
Once again we are looking at a carefully designed and implemented mechanism for creating and sustaining an apparent decrease in entropy. One is compelled to wonder why Mr. Steiger must rely only on man-made mechanisms to illustrate his claim that "spontaneous entropy decreases can, and do, occur all the time"—ostensibly requiring neither design, plan nor storage or conversion of energy!

All of the above quotes from my web site are pure classical textbook thermodynamics. Wallace's statement is not only irrelevant, but also ignorant in the extreme.

First we are told that no energy conversion mechanism need be accounted for. Then it is inferred (again) that the changes in (and relationships between) heat and work within biological processes are somehow outside the realm of thermodynamics. Next comes a concession that, okay, it is "reasonable to assume" that such conversion mechanisms "actually exist" (whew!), yet we are now firmly assured that the changes in (and relationships between) heat and work within biological processes are surely "outside the scope of thermodynamics"—and to disagree with Steiger here is to "distort and pervert the true nature of thermodynamics"!
What’s wrong with this picture? Since when do the changes in (and relationships between) heat and work within biological processes (e.g., photosynthesis and metabolism) fall "outside the scope" of thermodynamics? Under what branch of scientific analysis are these thermodynamic relationships to be understood if not that of thermodynamics? By what natural laws are they governed, if not those of thermodynamics?

I stated that the determination of the thermodynamics of biological changes is outside the scope of thermodynamics. If I am wrong, then perhaps Mr. Wallace would be kind enough to show me how to calculate the free energy change accompanying the division of an E. coli cell or the growth of 3 mm. of fingernail. Of course, energy conversion mechanisms do exist, but their determination is outside the scope of thermodynamics.

The creationist "energy conversion mechanism" argument is outside the scope of thermodynamics. This is not to say that such mechanisms do not exist, but only to state that thermodynamics does not deal with such matters! Of course, creationists will continue to misrepresent this fact, just as it is a foregone conclusion that Mr. Wallace will continue to do likewise.