Every day of our lives we take in and use large quantities of an exceedingly dangerous substance. Every cell in our body, for all practical purposes, burns because of this substance. It can damage the molecules of our bodies and the things we make.
That substance is oxygen. While it is very dangerous, we have to have it to generate enough energy to function. Being warm-blooded takes a lot of energy and only burning sugars in the presence of oxygen can generate enough useful energy for us.
Oxygen can damage us though. It can react with many different types of molecules. It can damage things like amino acids, proteins, and the nucleic acids. Which brings us to the next claim by Texas creationists.
Photo dissociation of water vapor has been a source of oxygen since the Earth formed, and there is substantial geologic evidence that a significant amount of oxygen existed in the atmosphere prior to the advent of photosynthesis. Oxygen breaks down amino acids and sugars that are postulated to have formed!
The claim here is that there was oxygen in the atmosphere of the Earth at all times AND that the oxygen present was enough to disrupt the formation of organic compounds, thereby preventing life from forming.
Let’s tackle this in reverse. There is no controversy about the fact that free oxygen can degrade and destroy many organic compounds. Oxygen is highly reactive, which is why it is needed for things to burn (chemically combust). If free oxygen was present in the early atmosphere, then organic compounds exposed to that oxygen would be likely to be destroyed.
This part of the claim is true. And everyone knows that the best lies contain some truth.
The question is, is there enough oxygen in the early Earth’s atmosphere to prevent organic compounds from forming?
We have a great deal of evidence about the development of life on the planet. The timeline of life on the planet is something like this:
- 4500-3500 mya (million years ago) – earliest life appears. Note that 3800 mya is the earliest form of life found that passes all the requirements to be labeled life. However, it is already complex (in terms of structure) and that means that there is significant amounts of life before this point.
- 3800 mya – Greenstone Formation forms, contains isotope signatures indicative of life.
- 3900 – 2500 mya – cells resembling prokaryotes appear in the fossil record.
- 3500 mya – lifetime of the last universal ancestor; photosynthesis that doesn’t produce oxygen as waste develops.
- 2800 mya – oxygen photosynthesis develops
This is a well established timeline of the development of life. We’re not in the cutting edge here. Just general information that has been well known for decades. These dates have been peer-reviewed and supported by multiple lines of evidence.
So what about oxygenation? Let’s look at that timeline. This timeline is based on geology and chemistry. We know that certain types of atoms are really good at reacting with free oxygen (iron, for example). Free oxygen in the atmosphere will react with these atoms and molecules, removing that oxygen from the atmosphere.
- 3850 – 2450 mya – practically no oxygen in the atmosphere
- 2450 – 1850 mya – oxygen produced, but rapidly absorbed by oceans and rocks
- 1850 – 850 mya – oxygen outgases from the oceans, but is absorbed by terrestrial rocks (banded mountains)
- 850 mya to present – all the systems that absorb oxygen are filled and free oxygen gas begins to accumulate in the atmosphere
The above link contains two full pages of references to support these dates and claims. This is not made up. Again, this is not brand new information. The ranges of publication dates from from the early 90s to the mid 2000s. By making this claim as is, the creationists are simply ignoring all of the data generated by science.
Comparing the two tables here, we get a very obvious conclusion. There was functional life, even prokaryotes before any oxygen was present in the atmosphere and even not that much in the oceans.
The first organic molecules (nucleotides, amino acids, and others which can form without life) were formed at least 2 billion years before any oxygen was present.
Very simply, this claim is incorrect.