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Atmospheric Oxygen Rules Out Evolution

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Archives / 1976 / August

 

 

Atmospheric Oxygen Rules Out Evolution

G.T. Javor, Gerald E, Snow

G. T. Javor, Ph.D., is associate professor of Chemistry

Gerald E. Snow, Ph.D., is associate professor of Biology, both at Andrews Univer sity, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

 

 

WHEN we take a breath of air we do it for the purpose of providing oxygen to our body tissues. Without the continuous supply of this gas neither we nor the great majority of organisms on the earth could exist for more than a few minutes. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that oxygen is potentially poisonous to all life forms. 1

As living organisms use oxygen several toxic products are formed. If these toxic products are not removed, destroyed, or rendered harmless the organisms will die. There are elaborate enzyme systems distributed throughout the oxygen-using organisms (aerobes) that render the toxic products of oxygen harmless.

A relatively small number of species do not have enzymatic systems to protect themselves from the toxic products of oxygen. Such organisms (anaerobes) can exist only in the absence of oxygen, for simple exposure to air quickly kills them. Anaerobic organisms, as a rule, are simpler in structure than aerobic ones. This is why evolutionists propose that they may be most like the first organism on earth. As a corollary, evolutionists postulate the existence of an oxygen-free atmosphere on the primitive earth. This primordial atmosphere would have consisted mainly of hydrogen, ammonia, methane, and water vapor. In contrast, our present atmosphere contains mostly oxygen (21 per cent) and nitrogen (78 per cent).

Although Pasteur's work in the past century laid to rest the idea that life could arise spontaneously from nonliving sources under current environ mental conditions, by the middle of this century the topic of spontaneous generation of life once more became of major interest. In the past 25 years a number of laboratories throughout the world have been engaged in experiments to produce components of living cells under "primitive earth" conditions.

A measure of success has been achieved by these workers. When components of the postulated primitive earth's atmosphere were enclosed in a glass reaction vessel and its contents were irradiated with ultraviolet light or some other form of energy, biologically significant substances such as amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), purines, and pyrimidines (some of the components of the hereditary material); certain vitamins; and simple sugars were synthesized. To be sure, not all of these compounds were made in a given experiment, but the conditions were adjusted so as to favor the formation of a particular class of substances. Also, the quantities of products obtained were rather low. But the important point for this discussion is that in every successful experiment air or the gas oxygen was carefully excluded from the reaction vessel. On occasion when oxygen was included among the gaseous starting components, no biologically significant com pounds were formed.2

 

Oxygen Enhances Breakdown of Organic Compounds

 

Oxygen does not only prevent the formation of biologically significant com pounds in a "primitive earth" environment, it also can cause the modification and breakdown of already formed bio logical materials. We experience this, for example, when butter turns rancid, owing to the oxidation of its carbon com pounds. The combination of even low levels of oxygen with ultraviolet light enhances the breakdown of biologically significant substances (organic com pounds). Miller and Orgel, in their book The Origins of Life on the Earth, say that "it does not seem possible that organic compounds remained in the primitive ocean for any length of time after oxygen entered the earth's atmosphere. They are now present on the surface of the earth only because they are being continuously resynthesized by living organisms. Organic compounds occur below the surface of the earth, for example in coal and oil, because there the environment is anaerobic [without oxygen]." 4 Because of these facts, evolutionists assume that free oxygen was all but absent during a significant portion of the earth's "4.5-billion-year" history. It is considered to have been during this oxygen-free period that the first life forms are thought to have evolved.

According to the evolutionary model, the oxygen content in our atmosphere began to rise after the emergence of the first photosynthetic plants. 3 - 4 Photo synthesis is a complex process that converts the gas carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and sugarlike compounds called carbohydrates. The energy needed for this work is harnessed from light. In this manner some of the radiant energy of the sun is imprisoned into carbohydrates. This energy may be liberated later on when the carbohydrates are burned (for example, in the form of a log in the fireplace) or metabolized by an organism as food. When the carbohydrate is burned, and the energy imprisoned in its structure is released, oxygen of the air is consumed. In fact, exactly as much oxygen is used up when burning a certain quantity of carbohydrate as was produced during its photosynthesis. All plant material ever formed by photosynthesis is eventually broken down to carbon dioxide and water, except that which is buried in the crust of the earth. Estimates of the amount of organic carbon buried in the crust of the earth indicate that in the past there was produced about 15 times more oxygen than there is in our atmosphere at present.5 The excess amount presumably has been absorbed by "oxygen sink" processes, such as the oxidation of iron, sulphur, and volcanic gases. It would thus appear that the evolutionary scenario presented above is based on sound scientific reasoning.

However, additional considerations of the natural processes involved challenge the validity of this evolutionary scheme. Leigh Van Valen, a member of the committee on evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, questions the notion of slow build-up of oxygen in our atmosphere.6 He indicates that photo synthesis by green plants may be an in adequate explanation for the early accumulation of oxygen. According to him the net production of oxygen today and throughout the period of abundant fossil production (0.6 billion years) is about equal to that absorbed by the continuous "oxygen sink" processes. How could there be any net oxygen accumulation in the atmosphere during an earlier period of presumably much less photosynthesis and larger "oxygen sink"?

Van Valen postulated several possible solutions to this problem, none of which were to his liking, and concluded "The cause of the original rise in oxygen concentration presents a serious and unresolved quantitative problem." 6

G. R. Carruthers, of the Naval Space Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., pointed out an additional difficulty with the initial rise in atmospheric oxygen by green-plant photo synthesis. An atmosphere void of oxygen would not contain the ultraviolet-absorbing ozone layer. Any photosynthesizing organism, by definition, would be exposed to light radiation and doubtless would be destroyed by the lethal short-wavelength ultraviolet rays. 7

Ultraviolet radiation, on the other hand, plays an important role in the production of atmospheric oxygen. It has been known for some time that in the earth's upper atmosphere, above the ozone layer, molecules of water are shattered by the strong ultraviolet radiation of the sun. The eventual products of this reaction are atomic and molecular oxygen and hydrogen. Hydrogen is light enough to escape the earth's gravitational attraction, whereas oxygen re mains.

Calculations for the production of oxygen by the photodissociation of water vapor were made by R. T. Brinkman, of the California Institute of Technology, using certain assumptions where data were not available. He found that this process could produce 32 times the amount of oxygen currently found in our atmosphere and that a minimum of one fourth of this atmospheric level of oxygen should have been present for more than 99 per cent of this earth's postulated evolutionary history. 8

These results were awarded a mixed reception because of their unfavorable implications for current evolutionary postulates. Then, pictures taken by a special camera placed on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 16 mission revealed that substantial amounts of hydrogen are leaving the earth's atmosphere, owing to the action of ultraviolet radiation on the water vapors of the upper atmosphere.9 This finding shows that the photodissociation of water is a significant physical reality and an important source of atmospheric oxygen. 10 The most recent measurements of this process indicate a rate of oxygen production about 5 times less than Brinkman's calculations, 11 but Carruthers, who directed the camera experiments during the Apollo 16 mission, indicates that in the past these rates probably were several times greater.7

In 1973 the Mariner 10 spacecraft flew by the planet Venus and radioed back to earth information about the composition of its upper atmosphere. Unexpectedly, the atomic oxygen content of the upper atmosphere of Venus was found to be similar to what it is on earth. 12 It is unlikely that oxygen is being produced on Venus via photosynthesis by plants, inasmuch as to our knowledge this planet is devoid of any known forms of life. The substantial amount of oxygen on Venus is likely to come from the interaction of the sun's ultraviolet radiation with gaseous water vapor or with carbon dioxide. 13, 14 The importance of this observation rests in the undeniable demonstration that oxygen is produced in the absence of plants in a "primitivelike" atmosphere.

Postulate No Longer Tenable

All available evidence taken together seems to indicate that it is no longer tenable to postulate the existence of long periods of an oxygen-free atmosphere at any time during the earth's history. The presence of oxygen in the atmosphere rules out the possibility of any biologically significant compounds' being formed in the "primitive atmosphere." This realization has forced some scientists to propose that "biological- building-block substances such as amino acids were actually brought to earth by meteorites." 15 This amounts to admitting their inability to postulate a scientifically valid mechanism that could yield even the simplest building blocks of biologically important sub stances in the context of chemical evolution.

The concept of spontaneous generation of life is the only logical alternative to the Biblical account of Creation. Evolutionists, rejecting the Mosaic account of our origins as a myth, have enthusiastically advocated this other alternative. They have turned to the book of nature to gain support for their concepts. But "since the book of nature and the book of revelation bear the im press of the same master mind, they can not but speak in harmony. By different methods, and in different languages, they witness to the same great truths." 16

The validity of this statement is apparent when we consider the origins of atmospheric oxygen and the chances for the spontaneous generation of life. The book of nature tells us that if oxygen had always been in the atmosphere of our earth, life could not have come about by a slow step-by-step self-organization of matter, but rather through a creative act by the One who commanded that "the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind." 17

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Notes

1 Irwin Fridovich, "Oxygen: Boon or Bane," American Scientist 63(l):54-59, 1975.

2 R. M. Lemmon, "Chemical Evolution," Chemical Reviews 70:95-109, 1970.

3 M. G. Rutten, The Origin of Life (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 1971).

4 Stanley L. Miller and Leslie E. Orgel, The Origins of Life on the Earth (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974).

5 William W. Rubey, "Geologic History of Sea Water: An Attempt to State the Problem," Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 62:1111-1148, 1951.

6 Leigh Van Valen, "The History and Stability of Atmospheric Oxygen," Science 171:439-443, 1971.

7 G. R. Carruthers, "The Hydrogen Geocorona, and the Problem of the Origin of the Atmospheric Oxygen." Presented at meeting of American Chemical Society, University of Delaware, April 18, 1973.

8 R. T. Brinkman, "Dissociation of Water Vapor and Evolution of Oxygen in the Terrestrial Atmosphere," Journal of Geophysical Research 74:5355-5368, 1969.

9 G. R. Carruthers and T. Page, "Apollo 16 Far-ultraviolet Camera-Spectrograph: Earth Observations," Science 177:788- 791, 1972.

10 News Release #30-72-7 from the Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C.

11 B. A. Tinsley, University of Texas at Dallas, personal communication, 1975.

12 A. L. Broadfoot, et al., "Ultraviolet Observations of Venus From Mariner 10: Preliminary Results," Science 183:1315-1318, 1974.

13 G. R. Carruthers, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., personal communication, 1975.

14 At the present time there is some controversy concerning the source of atmospheric oxygen on Venus (A. T. Young, Dept. of Physics, Texas A & M University, personal communication, 1975). Both carbon dioxide and water can give rise to oxygen when exposed to ultraviolet radiation.

15 "Life on Earth: From Chemicals in Space?" Chemical and Engineering News, November 19, 1973, pp. 21, 22.

16 E. G. White, Education, p. 128.

17 Gen. 1:24.

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