Monday, June 21

First Annual Cliche Festival — Part Deux


Upon skimming this column, your first thought might well be – as I hope for your sake it is – Why is Cowles writing about this? Didn’t everyone long ago receive the tweet debunking those bullet points? Would to the Great Old Ones – Ia! Cthulhu nafl’fhtagn! – that such were the case. But time and again, I see the following arguments being reiterated, rising just when we thought they were safely dead to shamble across the intellectual landscape of American culture like zombie refugees from The Walking Dead or Z Nation who did not receive a proper “double-tap” on the amygdala. So, like Rick Grimes or Michonne from the former, or like Roberta Warren or Addison “Addy” Carver from the latter, I guess I’ll have heave a deep sigh and have another shot at it … as it were. Ah! If only I had a nickel for every time I heard:


o The 2nd law of thermodynamics contradicts evolution

 There are several different ways of paraphrasing the second law of thermodynamics. Perhaps the most immediately accessible paraphrase for the non-scientist – I have a degree in physics, but am not a specialist in thermodynamics – is the following:

In a closed system, the entropy of the system always tends toward equilibrium.

This is plain English, but terse. What it means is that, in a closed system – a system isolated from all outside influences – the entropy of the system will increase until each part of the system, each cubic millimeter (or however you want to measure volume), looks pretty much the same as any other cubic millimeter (or however you want to measure volume). Entropy is a measure of the disorder of a system. You can think of entropy colloquially as the degree of disorder or randomness. A cloud of water vapor possesses a greater degree of entropy than that same cloud of water vapor when it was frozen into the crystal lattice of an ice cube. Another way to think of entropy is to think of it as the amount of information that would have to be specified in order to describe the system. With a cloud of water vapor, you would have to specify the X, Y, Z, and T (for time) coordinates separately for each molecule of water in the original ice cube. Even then, X, Y, and Z would vary as a function of T. With the solid water in the ice cube, you would only need a brief description of the dimensions of the ice cube – and you are done. Equilibrium will have been reached when the ice has melted, the liquid water evaporated to water vapor, and the water vapor from the original ice cube has, over an enormous span of time, dispersed evenly throughout the Universe: each unit of space in the Universe will then contain the approximately same number of water-vapor molecules from the original ice cube. (Statistically, there is a vanishingly small, but non-zero, probability that the water-vapor molecules could, just by random movement, spontaneously re-congregate into a crystal lattice. But it is stupendously more likely that the water vapor molecules will continue to move apart. This asymmetry of probabilities defines something called the "arrow of time". But let's not confuse matters, shall we?) What the second law says is that, absent some outside influence or cause, the ice cube will become more and more disordered until the original ice cube is in a state of equilibrium, evenly distributed throughout the cosmos.


What does this have to do with evolution? Everything, but not in the way Christian fundamentalists think. Every time – without exception – I have seen the second law cited as an objection to evolution, the person doing the citing always either omits entirely or breezily skates over the “preamble” to the law: In a closed system … As a system – any system … an ice cube, a biological organism, a whole ecosystem – increases in entropy, it dissipates energy, the energy that was needed to organize the system in the first place and to maintain that equilibrium once achieved. That energy, once lost, is now gone -- not destroyed, just no longer available. The toothpaste is out of the tube. If the system is to maintain its order, its integrity, and so stave off descent into randomness – entropy – it must receive a transfusion of energy from somewhere. That is what the freezer in your fridge does: it prevents the weakening of the electrostatic bonds that support the crystal lattice of the ice cube by removing heat from the water. (The heat is not destroyed, but becomes “waste heat”: fridge freezers produce heat!) That is also what happens with evolution: chemical reactions, sunlight, volcanism, even residual radioactivity from the earth’s core … a whole host of energy sources … “conspire” (metaphorically, not literally) to enable evolutionary processes to keep … well … evolving, despite the fact that, if left isolated, evolution would indeed grind to a halt, once the energy driving it was exhausted. Chemical and geological processes, especially sunlight, continuously replenish evolution’s gas tank. Evolution does not occur in a “closed system”. If the second law meant what fundamentalists say it means, their fridge freezers would not work and they could never have ice in their Coke.

o Evolution through natural selection is a random process

Time was when I was utterly dumbfounded by this objection … until I understood the objector’s semantic confusion. Faced with this objection, I used to always think GAWD! How can anyone look at the incredible complexity of the natural world – never mind the rest of the Universe – and not conclude that its existence is due to a causal web of drool-inducing complexity and subtlety? Of course, that was just their point: such complexity had to be the result of design, not random chance. And for there to be a design, there has to be a Designer … QED. Not!


The semantic confusion, I came to realize, subsists in equating complexity with randomness – and randomness, in turn, with a lack of structure. It is quite possible – in fact, it happens all the time – for randomness to be the result of very, very deep and very, very rigorous structure. Consider any game of chess. Chess is what game theoreticians call a “zero-sum” game: at the end of every game of chess, assuming it is played to completion, there is always precisely one winner and precisely one loser. (Can a game of chess end in a tie? I don't know. Let's suppose not.) Therefore – this is a theorem of game theory – for chess there exists an optimal strategy, which, if followed, will maximize – not guarantee, but maximize – the likelihood that either player will win. (Not all games are zero-sum and not all games have an optimal strategy.) What is the optimal strategy for chess? Last I heard – I have been away from the subject for a while – no one knew. Furthermore, even if we knew what the optimal strategy for chess is, that strategy is almost certainly of such complexity, with so many branches in logic, that only a supercomputer could utilize it in actually playing chess. But we do know an optimal strategy for chess exists. The reason an optimal strategy for chess is so mind-blitheringly complex is because chess itself is a complex game, so much so that if you could anticipate your and your opponent’s, say, next 20 moves, you would, almost by definition, be an international grand master of the game. Bottom line: the number of possible games of chess is certainly stupendous … it may well be infinite. In fact, if two people play a game of chess to completion, then reset the board and play again, and play again, and play again … etc. … it is vanishingly unlikely that they will play the same game of chess twice in a period of time that dwarfs the age of the Universe. Yet – and this is the point with respect to evolution – the rules of chess are quite rigorous and can be written on a few 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper. The rules of chess are the apotheosis of order and rigor … yet they give rise to a practically infinite array of possible games. As it is with chess, so it is with evolution:  deep and subtle structures of order can result in surface phenomena that appear to be anything but ordered.

 o The United States can and should undertake “nation building”


Granted, in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this principle is about as popular as Jack the Ripper at a feminists’ convention. But these things seem to go in cycles. While it is not slam-dunk certain, and while I can see into the future no better than anyone else, past experience renders me fearless in predicting that, in 10 or 20 years, a situation will arise in which the United States once again undertakes to build a nation from a beleaguered, or outright-failed, state by evangelizing for democracy, capitalism, K-Mart blue-light specials, and all the other eternal values that make life worthwhile … more than likely at gun-, bayonet-, and drone-point. Where have all the flowers gone … Oh when will they ever learn? The various steps in this cycle are even drearily easy to predict: (a) the United States, in pursuit of some (real or ostensible) compelling national interest, comes to the aid of an ally … hopefully first pausing to locate same on a world map … that we declare to be a non-negotiable bulwark of freedom and democracy; (b) US forces do the bulk of the fighting at first, all the while training indigenous people to eventually assume the burden of defending themselves; (c) at some point, the American military begins to disengage and come home, leaving the burden of the war on the “indigen-ized” military of the client state; (d) concurrently with (b) and (c), the American government and various NGOs undertake a Herculean effort to educate the people, give them health care, massively update their infrastructure, etc.; (e) the indigenous military of the client state ignominiously collapses, leaving, optimistically, some interim or coalition government, democratic in name only, to fall heir to the largesse – including military weaponry – heaped on them at American taxpayer expense back in the halcyon days of dewy-eyed naivete. After (e), the government falls apart, fractures into hostile factions, and the situation degenerates into civil war – this time fought with American weapons … which will be turned upon Americans, should we be foolhardy enough to intervene yet again ...  which – so says the smart money -- is entirely possible. But all the above notwithstanding, nation-building is like a zombie chopped in half at the waist by a drop-hammer, but whose head is still intact: it just keeps snarling and snapping, lusting after the brains it evidently did not possess in actual life.

I close with my favorite quotation by the late Dorothy Parker: No good deed ever goes unpunished.

James R. Cowles



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