Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Sewell, Part I

Update: June 2, 2005: In my original version of this post, I incorrectly suggested that Dr. Sewell had neglected to take quantum uncertainty into consideration in his description of a hypothetical computer simulation. I have now corrected that error, and have rewritten the relevant paragraph.

Something seems to happen to a person when he decides to reject evolutionary theory. He suddenly becomes incapable of saying anything correct or coherent about scientific research. His arrogance explodes out of all proportion to his accomplishments. He feels compelled to present the most ludicrous caricatures of modern science.

Take Granville Sewell, for example.

Sewell is a mathematician currently visiting Texas A&M University. He has recently posted this article (PDF format) at his website, in which he argues that the second law of thermodynamics is at odds with evolutionary theory. Since this is one of the oldest, and dumbest, canards against evolution, perhaps it's worth saying a few words about the argument he offers.

But first, some history. In 2000, Sewell published this article in The Mathematical Intelligencer. In it he raised two arguments against evolution: That natural selection can not craft complex biological systems and the aforementioned thermodynamics argument.

It was a pretty bad article, but the Intelligencer was, at least, kind enough to publish this essay of mine, among other replies, in a subsequent issue. Actually, only a small portion of this essay was intended as a reply to Sewell.

Incredibly, the Intelligencer then saw fit to give even more space to Sewell for a reply to the replies, but as far as I was concerned the issue was over. But now it seems Sewell wants to enter the fray once more.

His current essay is entitled “Can ANYTHING Happen in an Open System?” (Emphasis in original). That title, all by itself, is a dead giveaway that you are about to read a very silly argument indeed. Of course not just anything can happen in an open system. No one has ever claimed otherwise. That Sewell would frame the argument that way is a sure sign that he is more interested in knocking down strawmen and caricatures than he is in discussing science.

But we will come to that in a future post. You see, like most creationists, Sewell lards up his writing with so much outright nonsense that you must do a fair amount of debris clearing before you can address anything of substance. For example, here's Sewell explaining the problem evolution faces:

The discovery that life on Earth developed through evolutionary “steps”, coupled with the observation that mutations and natural selection - like other natural forces - can cause (minor) change, is widely accepted in the scientific world as proof that natural selection-alone among all natural forces-can create order
out of disorder, and even design human brains, with human consciousness. Only
the layman seems to see the problem with this logic. In a recent Mathematical
Intelligencer article [Sewell 2000], after outlining the specific reasons why it
is not reasonable to attribute the major steps in the development of life to natural
selection, I asserted that the idea that the four fundamental forces of physics
alone could rearrange the fundamental particles of Nature into spaceships, nuclear
power plants, and computers, connected to laser printers, CRTs, keyboards
and the Internet, appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics in a spectacular

As I said, so much nonsense.

In the opening sentence Sewell seems to agree that life on Earth is the product of evolution. That part's not nonsense. The nonsense begins when he suggests that a few observations of microevolution are the basis for the conclusion that natural selection is one of the primary shapers of evolutionary change. Studies of microevolution are certainly important and suggestive, but they are only a small part of the case for natural selection's role in evolution.

There is also the fact that every complex system studied in detail has just the structure it ought to have if it formed gradually via known evolutionary mechanisms. Biologists have found copious evidence of tinkering and bootstrapping in complex systems. Furthermore, for a great many systems scientists have been able to discern likely intermediate stages.

There is the fact that “adaptaionist” thinking has led to one explanatory success after another for biologists.

There is the fact that ethologists have had great success in explaining animal behavior using game theoretic models. These are mathematical models based explicitly on the assumption that the behaviors in question evolved via natural selection; the success of the models is evidence that the assumption is correct.

There is the fact that computer simulations based on natural selection, whether in the form of artificial life experiments or genetic algorithms, have shown that prolonged selection leads almost inevitably to complex products.

There is the rich body of mathematical work in population genetics that shows that variations conferring even very small selective advantages on their bearers are likely to spread with sufficient speed and frequency.

Of course, big books get written on any one of these topics. No one familiar with this body of work could possibly write something as dopey and simplistic as what Sewell wrote.

Incidentally, natural selection is not a “force” in the physics sense. That this is the sense he has in mind is suggested by his use of the same word later in the paragraph. It's a small point, but this sort of imprecise writing is common throughout Sewell's essay. It frequently makes it difficult to discern Sewell's intention.

We are next informed that it is only laymen who can see the flaw in the scientist's logic. The professionals, apparently, are hopelessly blind. This is a big litmus test: If the person whose work you're reading tells you that scientists are confused on a point that is clear to any layman, then you are reading the work of a crank. It has never once happened in the history of science that a theory collapsed because a layman pointed out a logical fallacy in its formulation.

Sewell's next claim is that he provided specific reasons in his 2000 article for thinking that natural selection could not craft complex systems. I invite you to follow the link I provided above and decide for yourself whether this claim is true. Be warned, however, that you will have to read his essay very carefully indeed to find anything related to biology in it. Mostly he just relies on the standard bad analogy of genes to computer programs.

After this we get some blather about computers and spaceships and the like. I'll respond to Sewell's point here as soon as I figure out what it is. The issue at hand is whether known natural mechanisms can account for the sort of biologocial systems we see in nature. Certainly once intelligence arrives on the scene it can cause things to happen that would not happen by natural forces alone.

So why is Sewell using the products of human intelligence to illustrate his intention? Is he making some point about free will? In asking how natural forces can cause atoms to arrange themselves into computers and the like, is he suggesting that if intelligence is the inevitable result of evolution then the products of intelligence are similarly predictable? If that is not what he means, then what can he possibly have in mind in asking whether natural forces alone can create computers?

In his 2000 article Sewell made a similar point:

I imagine visiting the Earth when it was young and returning now to find highways with automobiles on them, airports with jet airplanes, and tall buildings full of complicated equipment, such as televisions, telephones and computers. Then I imagine the construction of a gigantic computer model which starts with the initial conditions on Earth 4 billion years ago and tries to simulate the effects that the four known forces of physics (the gravitational, electromagnetic and strong and weak nuclear forces) would have on every atom and every subatomic particle on our planet (perhaps using random number generators to model quantum uncertainties!). If we ran such a simulation out to the present day, would it predict that the basic forces of Nature would reorganize the basic particles of Nature into libraries full of encyclopedias, science texts and novels, nuclear power plants, aircraft carriers with supersonic jets parked on deck, and computers connected to laser printers, CRTs and keyboards? If we graphically displayed the positions of the atoms at the end of the simulation, would we find that cars and trucks had formed, or that supercomputers had arisen? Certainly we would not, and I do not believe that adding sunlight to the model would help much.

After acknowledging that chance plays a major role in the development of a physical system over time (at least at the atomic level), Sewell then asks if a computer would “predict” that Nature would reorganize its fundamental particles in the manner he describes. Just another example of sloppy writing. The relevant question is whether the computer would acknowledge modern civilization as one possible outcome of the initial state of the universe four billion years ago. Sewell has no basis for saying it wouldn't, to put it kindly.

So you see the problem. In responding to Sewell's essay we are confronted with the fact that every sentence, and virtually every clause within every sentence, is total nonsense. It makes it very difficult to understand his argument well enough to compose a reply.

Sewell offers a sulky closing to his essay:

The development of life may have only violated one law of science, but that
was the “supreme” law of Nature, and it has violated that in a most spectacular way. At least that is my my opinion, but perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps it only seems extremely improbable, but really isn't, that, under the right conditions, the influx of stellar energy into a planet could cause atoms to rearrange themselves
into nuclear power plants and spaceships and computers. But one would think that
at least this would be considered an open question, and people who argue that it
really is extremely improbable, and thus contrary to the basic principle underlying
the second law, would be given a measure of respect, and taken seriously by their
colleagues, but we aren't.

Well boo friggin hoo! Maybe Sewell's colleagues don't take him seriously because he accuses them of being blind to logical fallacies that are obvious to any layperson. Maybe they are annoyed that Sewell talks about spectacular violations of the Second Law without performing the sort of entropy calculations that would be required to establish the validity of such a claim. Or maybe they just know enough thermodynamics to understand why Sewell's arguments are totally invalid.

We will have more to say in a future post.


At 3:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having critiqued Dembski's work at length, I know how frustrating it is trying to work out what the actual argument is when it is couched in so much drivel. But let me suggest a possible interpretation of Sewell's "encyclopedias and computers" nonsense. I suspect he believes--like Dembski--that intelligence (including human intelligence) is necessarily a supernatural phenomenon, not only in its origin but in its continual operation. Thus, for Sewell, it is not only molecules-to-man that must involve supernatural action, but also man-to-computers. This, I think, is his conclusion. But what's his argument in support of it? I think it's the old Argument from Personal Incredulity: I just can't believe this could happen by natural forces alone.

Richard Wein.

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a bit hasty there. Sewell is not just making the Argument from Personal Incredulity. He actually seems to believe that when humans build a computer they are violating the second law of thermodynamics. But that's OK. Being supernatural, intelligence is allowed to violate any natural laws.

It's cool to think that I'm violating the Second Law as I type these words. Boo to you, Second Law.

Richard Wein.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Sewell's argument runs along the lines of "All cats die; Socrates died; therefore Socrates was a cat."

Complex systems can't occur naturally as they violate the second law of thermodynamics. Complex systems, therefore must be designed. Computers and highways are complex systems. Coincidentally we know they were designed. Humans are also complex systems. And remember, nature cannot produce a complex system. So humans must also be products of design.

At 5:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know this post is more rant than detailed reply, and understandbly so, but I'm willing to venture a guess there's a decent chance this blanket statement has some exceptions.

"It has never once happened in the history of science that a theory collapsed because a layman pointed out a logical fallacy in its formulation."

At 9:17 PM, Blogger Joseph said...

A different critique of the "entropy vs evolution" style of argumentation that occured to me is that a thermodynamic entropy cannot necessarily be defined for a system consisting of a single organism. Technically speaking, the entropy should only be definable for systems in equilibrium, while an organism that is continually generating a steady flow of heat into its environment is not in equilibrium with its environment. And if no thermodynamic entropy can be defined for such an organism, then Granville Sewell et al. don't have an argument.

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Ivo said...

but I'm willing to venture a guess there's a decent chance this blanket statement has some exceptions.

I agree, but nevertheless I've used similar statements on many occasions when discussing evolution, the theory of relativity, quantummechanics and other 'controversial' subjects and am still waiting for a counterexample.

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

You wrote:

“But of course the computer simulation would not predict those things, becuase at the atomic level there is a fundamental element of chance in what happens. Is Sewell not aware that Newtonian determinism died a long time ago? Ever heard of the quantum revolution?”

But Sewell wrote:

“perhaps using random number generators to model quantum uncertainties”

So your comment makes it appear that you didn’t even carefully read what he wrote.

In theory, Sewell’s point is legitimate although impractical. Would a computer, given the initial conditions of the earth and the laws of physics (including QM) ever simulate abiogenesis followed by evolution and then simulate something like itself being created? Of course a huge problem is that it would have to include much more than the earth. The moon, for example, is critical to complex life, and yet is younger than the earth and (probably) created as a result of a collision with the earth, ad so would not appear in an earth-only simulation, regardless of its accuracy.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Point taken. Sewell does acknowledge quantum uncertainties.

But as for having a legitimate though impractical point, what point is he making, exactly? I see a question asked about an impractical thought experiment with an assertion as to what the answer would be.

And I notice that you didn't bother to respond to any of the major points in the essay. Instead you chose to pick a nit. So let me ask you: You're a physicist. Do you think Sewell has a legitimate point to make about the second law of thermodynamics presenting some challenge to evolution?

At 3:18 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


"Do you think Sewell has a legitimate point to make about the second law of thermodynamics presenting some challenge to evolution? "

No, I do not. I see absolutely no conflict between evolution and the 2nd Law.

At 4:39 PM, Blogger Jason said...


An admirably clear response. Thank you.

At 5:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the person whose work you're reading tells you that scientists are confused on a point that is clear to any layman, then you are reading the work of a crank.

LOL. Thanks, I needed that! Where is Gary Larson when we need him?

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One mistake Sewell makes, and creationists in general, is to take the analogy of entropy as a measure of
disorder in a system too seriously.
Entropy isn't a very good measure of spatial order of a system. A good example is that of a self-gravitating gas. As a gas clumps together it becomes more ordered in positional space. At the same time it becomes more disordered in momentum space. The latter effect wins and entropy is increased.


At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sewell said in his original essay, "An archeologist attempting to explain the evolution of this computer program in terms of many tiny improvements might be puzzled to find that each of these major advances (new classes or phyla??) appeared suddenly in new versions; for example, the ability to solve 3D problems first appeared in version 4.0. Less major improvements (new families or orders??) appeared suddenly in new subversions, for example, the aility to solve 3D problems with periodic boundary conditions first appeared in version 5.6. In fact,
the record of PDE2D's development would be similar to the fossil record, with large gaps where major new features appeared, and
smaller gaps where minor ones appeared. That is because the multitude of intermediate programs between versions or subversions which the archeologist might expect to find never existed, because--for example--none of the changes I made for edition 4.0 made any sense, or provided PDE2D any advantage whatever in solving 3D problems (or anything else) until hundreds of lines had been added."

What an odd thing to claim. Did Sewell's program mysteriously grow by a series of miracles? Did Sewell suddenly sit down and write "hundreds of lines" for each new function by some unconscious process that insantly appeared, compliled, and ran flawlessly on the very first effort?

Absurd! Without fear of contradiction, I insist there were numerous attempts at generating his revised code. Further, these intermeadiate versions were subjected to "natural selection" based on failed versions that were "incrementally" improved.

It is even probable that Sewell co-opted some chunks of older code that were reused to generate his new "irreducibly complex" functions.

Maybe this was more than normally irritating creationist foolishness becasue Sewell invoked archaeology. Perhaps archaeologists are not so foolish as some creationist mathematicians.

baugh, err, bah humbug.

Gary "Dr.GH" Hurd
11 June, 2005

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