Excerpted from Canceled Science, by Eric Hedin:
In systems which are far from thermodynamic equilibrium, differences or gradients in various thermodynamic variables may exist within the system and between the system and the environment. It has sometimes been mistakenly assumed that these gradients could generate the information found in living systems.[i] However, while thermodynamic gradients may produce complexity, they do not generate information. The foam and froth at the bottom of a waterfall, or the clouds of ash erupting out of a volcano, represent a high level of complexity due to the thermodynamic gradients driving their production, but for information to arise, specificity must be coupled with the complexity. Biological systems are information-rich because they contain a high level of specified complexity, which thermodynamic gradients, or any other natural processes, act to destroy rather than to create.
During a non-equilibrium process, statistical fluctuations become negligibly small for systems with even more than ten particles, which easily applies for any system relevant to the origin and development of life.[ii] Charles Kittel, writing on the topic of thermodynamics, considers a system composed of the number of particles in about a gram of carbon. This amount is relevant to origin-of-life scenarios since physical constraints on the need for localization of the raw ingredients leading to life mean that considering larger amounts of carbon-based ingredients wouldn’t affect the outcome of this argument. Kittel emphasizes that even small statistical fluctuations from the most probable configuration of such a system (with its particles randomly mixed) will never occur in a time frame as short as the entire history of our universe.[iii] This means that any appeal to statistical fluctuations as the source of new biological information flatly contradicts the physics of statistical mechanics. It is therefore not possible to have “an accumulation of information as the result of a series of discrete and incremental steps,” as has been postulated.[iv] Again, for systems with as many constituent atoms as biomolecules have, the information content will decrease with time, and never increase.[v]
Nonetheless, others have tried to suggest that certain natural processes can, in fact, generate new biological information. At times this opinion rests on misidentifying increasing information with decreasing thermodynamic entropy.[vi] Decreasing thermodynamic entropy can only be leveraged into information if a design template and the mechanism to employ it already exist. In this case, the desired information is not being created by the action of the low-entropy energy source; it is merely being transferred from the template to an output product. An example of such a system is a printing press—it takes energy to make it run, entropy increases during the process, and information is printed. But the important point to understand is that the whole process produces no information beyond what pre-exists in the type-set template of the printing press mechanism.
Our sun is a low-entropy source of thermal energy that the Earth receives via electromagnetic radiation. This thermal energy is useful energy in the thermodynamic sense because it can be used to do work. The same is true of energy released by gravitational potential energy being converted into kinetic energy or heat. Waterfalls and solar collectors can produce energy for useful work, but they are sterile with respect to generating information.
In fact, sources of natural energy (sunlight, fire, earthquakes, hurricanes, etc.) universally destroy complex specified information, and never create it. What will happen to a painting if left outside in the elements? What happens to a note tossed into a mulch pile? They degrade by the actions of nature, until all traces of information disappear. Or consider an unfortunate opossum killed on a country road. Will its internal, complex biochemistry increase or decrease with time due to the effects of natural forces? We all know the answer. If not eaten by scavengers, it eventually turns to a pile of dirt.
[i] Jonathan Lunine, Earth: Evolution of a Habitable World, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 151.
[ii] Hobson, Concepts in Statistical Mechanics, 143.
[iii] Charles Kittel, Thermal Physics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1969), 44–45.
[iv] Robert O’Connor, “The Design Inference: Old Wine in New Wineskins,” in God and Design: The Teleological Argument and Modern Science, ed. Neil A. Manson (Abingdon: Routledge, 2003).
[v] Hobson, Concepts in Statistical Mechanics, 153.
[vi] Brian Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 175; Franklin M. Harold, The Way of the Cell: Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 228–229.