email - May 2015

Three Interrelated Questions

What makes life special?

Hopefully this month’s feature essay on thermodynamics will give you the background you need to understand Ryan’s concerns about life and equilibrium. We have broken his long email into sections in order to address each section separately. Here’s the first part:

I have three interrelated questions. Can you or someone else try to answer? The only problem is you have to use science. The questions are the problems that one faces when they try to explain away the specialness of life.

1. When I was in my first year of college, I was taught that a cell at equilibrium was a dead cell. The next year I was taught that all things Strive for equilibrium. The logical implication being living things should STRIVE to die. But they don't. They strive and struggle to live. Not only that but they reproduce!!!? Instead of dying like a good freak of nature, it [a living cell] consumes and forces good obedient molecules to help in this uprising against the natural laws. To summarize Question 1: Why don't chemicals in their attempt to reach equilibrium rip the cell they are host to apart.

Ryan was taught “a cell at equilibrium was a dead cell.” Yes, equilibrium is a characteristic of a dead cell. It assumes room temperature. But beyond that, dead cells decay, which is yet another level of equilibrium.

He was correctly taught that “all things strive for equilibrium”; but the word “strive” is perhaps overly anthropomorphic. It would be more correct to say that “all things tend toward equilibrium.” “Strive” implies some sort of volition (purposeful action). The statement, however, is a correct simplification of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Left alone, everything will eventually settle to the lowest energy state, where everything is at equilibrium and no work can be done.

There is some confusion about how the Second Law of Thermodynamics explains why things tend to move from “order” to “disorder.” What that really means is that heat tends to even out (tending toward equilibrium). The confusion for many people is they don’t understand that “order” means “more difference in energy levels” and “disorder” means “less difference in energy levels.” For order to increase inside a system (that is for the difference in energy levels to increase inside a system) some energy has to come from outside the system to make that happen.

But although energy from an outside source is a necessary condition, it isn’t a sufficient condition. It takes energy and something else to cause an increase in the difference in energy levels. That “something else” is conscious effort. It always takes a conscious effort to make anything tend away from equilibrium in the physical world. For example, somebody has to design a pump, and attach it to a power supply, to make water flow uphill. Walls naturally fall down. It takes energy and conscious effort to build walls up.

Here’s the problem that Ryan has discovered. Although it is true in the inanimate, physical world, things naturally tend toward equilibrium, that isn’t the case in the biological world. For example, a plant takes energy from the sun and uses it to combine water and carbon dioxide into hydrocarbons (sugars and fats) to store that energy for future use. A plant appears to violate the second law—but it doesn’t because it is an “open” system (that is, it gets energy from an external source). But where does the conscious effort come from? Plants don’t possess volition.

Here’s the important point: Only living things create order. Whether it is an apple tree making apples, or an engineer designing an irrigation system, the natural tendency toward equilibrium is upset by living things.

So, with all that background, here is the answer to Question 1: Why don't chemicals in their attempt to reach equilibrium rip the cell they are host to apart? Chemicals DO attempt to rip cells apart, and they are successful when the cell is dead. But there is something about life that works against this natural chemical tendency. Nobody really knows what that “something” is. That’s what makes life so unusual and mysterious. Life does actually strive against the natural tendency to reach equilibrium. When the living cell dies, the Second Law of Thermodynamics does drive the cell to room temperature, and then causes the energy stored in the organic compounds in the cell to be released as the organic compounds decay to less complex molecules with less stored energy.

It is a correct, scientific observation that living things do create order, and inanimate things never do. Science can recognize and measure the difference between living and dead things but can’t explain why the difference exists.

Question 2. Why do things evolve in the first place? I get the whole survival of the fittest thing, but there is a big problem. As things become more complex the easier it is for errors to occur. And the threshold for those errors to be fatal becomes larger. Or in simpler terms the more complex something is the easier it is for small errors to kill it. Not only that, but the payoff for achieving another level of complexity becomes smaller for every level achieved. An example is that the fastest lion will probably kill 2 - 3 more gazelles than the average in its lifetime.  The fastest amoeba however will probably eat several hundred more bacteria than average in its lifetime. Then there is the reproduction problem. This is related to the overall question: Why evolve? It states that if the end goal of every individual in every species is to reproduce then why is it that as you go lower towards our origins organisms reproduce MORE! To compare how good each species is at making babies goes something like this: bacteria > spiders > rats > humans. Yet each of those things is considered more evolved than the one that came before it. Bacteria in fact are so good at reproducing they can inject DNA into other cells of a different species. So to summarize Question 2: Isn't better to stay a cell?

Yes, it is better to stay a simple cell—from a purely evolutionary point of view. The fact that there are more complex organisms is proof that the theory of evolution is wrong.

Question 3. The Cancer Problem. This goes along the lines that if survival of the fittest drives evolution, then everything should attempt to reach the top of the food chain. Things at the top of the food chain can breed without threat of being eaten, yet they usually have a low birthrate. Strange. Everything should try to evolve into a dominate apex predator that reproduces often. This has only ever been observed in invasive species and cancer cells. Cancer cells are the MacDaddys of the microscopic world. They are well cancer in the macroscopic world. [??? sic] Very deadly to their host. To summarize question 3: Evolution predicts every cell should be attempting to be cancer cells, so organisms should be ripping themselves apart. And that every species is attempting to be cancer organisms, so ecosystems should be ripping themselves apart.

We didn’t quite follow all of Ryan’s logic, but we think we understand his main point. Evolution does predict that cells should be as reproductive and ruthless as cancer cells—to a point. If a parasite gets too aggressive, it kills the host, and dies with it. If the lions eat all the gazelles, the lions will starve to death. So, Ryan’s analysis is basically correct. Unchecked competition would cause ecosystems to collapse. But competition is naturally checked because it is self-limiting.

If I were to speak to a Naturalist or a Materialist my question would be, do they understand the logical implications of their worldview, and why the world doesn't follow those implications. Chemicals don't rip cells apart. Cells don't rip organisms apart. Organisms don't rip ecosystems apart. And things don't want to evolve in the first place. I have rarely seen a Creationist or anybody raise these questions, and I hope they get answered.

Chemicals (especially oxygen) do tend to rip dead cells apart. But living cells can use chemicals to build more complex chemical compounds, and more cells. That leads to questions along the lines of, “What is life, really?” That tends to lead Naturalists and Materialists down a supernatural path neither we nor they wish to travel.

Evolutionists do recognize the tension between selfishness and altruism, and go to great lengths to try to explain how unselfishness really is selfish on some grander level. But their arguments aren’t very convincing. Perhaps creationists should play the Love Card more often, but, as Ryan observed, they don’t very often.

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