Evolution and the Problem of Entropy

Evolution has a problem with entropy.

Any creationist will tell you that. It is part of the standard issue talking points. I agree, it does, but not in the way that creationists think.

I try to avoid getting drawn into arguments about evolution. Partly because I’ve been wasting my time that way for 20 years, partly because I’ve never seen anyone change their mind, and mostly because I turn into a self-important jerk, more often than not.

But, I never stay away for long. And when I return I usually learn something about people. For example…

It always strikes me how denialists have the easy half of the conversation. Their job is not to construct anything, but to demolish it. If the topic is a block of marble, the scientist needs to carefully chip away, delicately and specifically to reveal the statue inside. The denialist’s aim is to reduce it to an unattractive mess. There are many more ways to do the latter than the former, and it takes much less skill.

Why are there so many more video games about destroying things than about making them? Because the former is easier, you need less sophisticated interaction, a big gun is enough. The latter requires you to manipulate, slowly and with care.

Entropy is easy. Destruction is cheap. Destruction is easy to understand. Construction is slow and expensive.

Denialists of all stripes rarely offer any testable claims. Creationists are full of derision, quote-mining, drive-by-arguments and quantity of arguments favoured over their quality. There are some specific exceptions, and they are the ones that are generally dissected by scholars, but resources aimed at a popular audience are purely wrecking balls.

Its also why, I think, a lot of people with some allegiance to a ‘tribe’ can find the denialism of that tribe attractive. The message is “look, its easy to see how rubbish it all is, it doesn’t stand up to this wrecking ball, and trust us, because we’re like you, and they are the enemy”.


Something else occurred to me this weekend. When those of us who support the academic consensus on a topic oppose those who disagree, we often fall into ‘wrecking ball’ territory too. Derision is very easy to reach for, it is very easy to follow Duncan’s Law, find the most absurd claims and carp on at them. It is hard, generally, to engage with something you disagree with on its own terms. A couple of comments I wrote this weekend were totally in ‘jerk’ territory: I swung my self-righteous wrecking ball with glib abandon.

Entropy is seductive. Destruction is fun.

And so, we get arguments which go nowhere, and eventually both sides accuse the other of not taking them seriously, not listening, refusing to answer questions, arguing in bad faith, or being closed minded and ideologically motivated.

And, you know, I think that is probably true.


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8 responses to “Evolution and the Problem of Entropy

  1. I think you are spot on with this. I think social media has made this problem worse in recent years. When I joined twitter I quickly started down the derision route and that’s where it naturally takes you. It took me a few months to lift my head up and realise I was falling into group-think. I had never mocked before, so why was I now? I then started down the debate route and eventually ended up where you are now – I don’t even bother as I’ve never changed anyone’s mind and they have never changed mine!

  2. arc

    I was a bit hyperbolically sarcastic with don just now, to your great amusement.

    But what he said was completely ridiculous. Other creationists know full well they’re marginal in scientific circles, so even his (putative) fellow travelers would think this kind of utterance to be rubbish, assuming he’s serious. It’s so ridiculous and difficult to believe that anyone could be this misinformed that I’m not at all sure that it isn’t a joke, and it’s socially embarrassing to take a joke seriously 😉

    I vacillate on this. Sometimes I think we just shouldn’t mock anyone. But other times, like now, I think it’s one of the most effective social tools we have. Not that it’s very effective, but how else are you going to get someone to rethink what the hell they’re saying? Plus there ought to be some negative consequences for being a complete idiot.

  3. arc

    As far as not changing people’s minds goes, I’ve always maintained that it’s unrealistic to expect people to change their minds right there and then.

    Even with stuff that people don’t really care all that much about in itself, if they’ve asserted it in public, they’ve publicly committed themselves to its truth, and unfortunately most people feel they’ve lost face if they have to admit they’re wrong. Many people would rather double-down than do this.

    And of course it’s orders of magnitude more difficult if it’s an integral part of their worldview.

    But I don’t think the debate is entirely pointless.

    For a start, there’s always the onlookers. For every person forthrightly asserting an ID position, there’s another 10 who believe the same thing but are just watching, another 20 who are kind of tempted by ID but don’t really know what to think, and another 100 who are largely on the fence. They’re usually invisible, but many of those people can be reached. By either side, which is why it’s important to do a good job of defending the position.

    But there’s also hope for the person you’re debating with. Not everyone changes their minds, but many do. Sometimes that change of mind isn’t a conversion, instead they just become much less sure of themselves and much less inclined to go “all mainstream scientists are just stupid or part of a conspiracy, clearly! wake up, sheeples”.

    The thing is, you’re unlikely to ever know this. The change may take years. But it does happen: I know people who changed their mind (not about this matter, but about others) quite radically, and James mentions that he has had people come back to him years later and said “you know what? you were right.”

    Sometimes even just having a person who’s clearly mentally competent doing a good job of defending a position is enough to get people thinking. If you happen to be someone who’s been in a creationist bubble your entire life and have thought evolution to be just obviously wrong, it can be (and probably ought to be) a bit of a shock to see people mount a decent defense of it.

    (This has happened to me on a few occasions, although not about creationism)

  4. arc

    Not that I think anyone’s obliged to engage them or anything. My point is only I don’t think it’s an entirely worthless activity.

  5. Ian

    @arc – on being sarcastic – but it was hilarious! Sometimes it helps your own sanity to mock a little, I think. I wouldn’t worry. You’re patient and open the vast majority of the time. You shouldn’t begrudge yourself a little fun too.

    @arc – on changing minds – excellent points all, and I agree. It can be tempting to see this as a battle between you and the denialist, rather than an opportunity to restate the facts for anyone else listening. Thanks for the more positive angle!

  6. arcseconds

    Seeing the interchange as being, as far as they’re concerned, a point in their intellectual development, rather than as a battle that needs to be won on the day; and also as something that concerns other people, suggests different approaches.

    It’s important to try not to come across as an intellectual bully, or as a bitter, ill-motivated person. There’s more to be gained by coming across as reasonable and nice than there is at combating every point. I try not to insult people directly, and while I might have a bit of fun, I try to play the ball and not the person. It’s the ideas that need to be shown to be unconvincing (or downright silly), and not the person shown to be an idiot. If the person’s being overbearing and insulting, then it’s a bit of a different story, but even then I’ll try and be lighthearted, rather than go for an all-in slagging match.

    (It’s not easy to do this in the heat of the moment, of course, and you’re not as bad as you make yourself out to be. The current debate has been going on for days, and it’s understandable that everyone’s getting a bit tired and frustrated. Greg Allison has mostly been nice and seems to be trying to engage honestly, but the mayan has not been, and unfortunately Greg’s had to bear the brunt of frustration built up over the previous conversations.)

    One thing that I always wonder about, and mention from time to time, is that for most anti-evolutionists, it really isn’t about where the evidence goes. It’s about their faith, their authority figures, their worldview, and fighting a battle against creeping godless materialism. So I sometimes wonder whether we should be even discussing the evidence.

    On the other hand, it’s pretty uncharitable and patronizing to say “well, OK, you’re acting kind of like you’re presenting evidence, and i know you think that’s what you’re doing, but that’s not really what’s going on. I’ve got better insight into you than you do, so I’m not going to discuss what you want to talk about, but rather the underlying issues”.

    And frankly, I’ve got some sympathy for them. “Spirits don’t make things go; molecules do” is a perspective that’s as totalizing as any.

  7. George

    “One thing that I always wonder about, and mention from time to time, is that for most anti-evolutionists, it really isn’t about where the evidence goes. It’s about their faith, their authority figures, their worldview, and fighting a battle against creeping godless materialism. So I sometimes wonder whether we should be even discussing the evidence. ” I agree that it is about faith, but faith of a strange kind. It is a faith of fear, a faith of loss not a faith of or in God. It is the placing of faith in the manipulation of man made religions. A placing of our human limitations on God. An assumption that we can have an understanding of God and his workings. I am not saying that we should not seek God or seek to understand God’s ways and means. But we must realize that we will never know it all until God choses to reveal that knowledge entirely. It is possible that neither entrenched faith or adroit science will ever satisfactorily answer the questions asked much less human constructs of religion.

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