A Tale of Shale and Oxygen in the Explosion of Life

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Trace elements tell a tale of critically low oxygen that nearly turned out the lights on the evolution of complex life.

The traditional view of oxygen’s role in evolution is being questioned. University of Tasmania geologist Ross Large believes his team has rewritten evolutionary history. So do scientists at the University of Southern Denmark’s Nordic Center for Earth Evolution. And the stories don’t match.

Traditional Tale with a New Twist

After a Great Oxidation Event 2.5 billion years ago and the evolution of microbial life 1.8 billion years ago, evolutionists believe plateauing oxygen levels kept evolution spinning its wheels for a billion years. Then, so the story goes, complex life appeared with the Cambrian explosion.

Large, whose study of trace elements in mudrocks apparently deposited on ancient seafloors appears in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, indicates oxygen dropped so severely that evolving life was actually staring extinction in the face. Critical conditions during the “boring billion” threatened to snuff out our chance to evolve before evolution got off the ground.

“During that billion years, oxygen levels declined and the oceans were losing the ingredients needed for life to develop into more complex organisms,” Large says. “We’ve looked at thousands of samples of the mineral pyrite in rocks that formed in the ancient oceans. And by measuring the levels of certain trace elements in the pyrite, using a technique developed in our labs, we’ve found that we can tell an accurate story about how much oxygen and nutrients were around billions of years ago.”

Oxygenation events

This graph summarizes conclusions from a study of what trace elements tell us about earth’s conditions long ago. The conclusions are not reliable because they are based on assumptions that reject God’s eyewitness accounts of earth’s creation and of the global Flood that wrecked the earth. Image by University of Tasmania, via PhysOrg.1

Incorporation of trace elements into pyrite is affected by many factors including the amount of oxygen. Correlating trace elements in pyrite from various strata with their assigned ages, Large concludes that oxygen levels plummeted before leaping back up 750–550 million years ago. “We think this recovery of oxygen levels led to a significant increase in trace metals in the ocean and triggered the ‘Cambrian explosion of life.’”

Traditional Tale Takes a Dive

Not everyone agrees that low oxygen levels delayed evolution of complex life. As reported in “Oxygen requirements of the earliest animal” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Danish scientists set out to see just how low an oxygen level the sea sponge could take. They write:

Here we challenge the widely held view that low levels of atmospheric oxygen delayed the origin of animals up until 850–542 million years ago. We provide experimental evidence suggesting that the last common ancestor of animals could have thrived in oxygen levels as low as 0.5% to 4% of present atmospheric levels, which were likely met on Earth well before animals evolved.2

Sponges are widely held by evolutionists to be the best living representatives of the earliest forms of complex life. (That view recently took a hit from the sea walnut. Read about it in “Comb Jelly: World’s Most Primitive Animal?”)

”The sponges continued to breathe and grow even when the oxygen levels reached 0.5 per cent of present day atmospheric levels.”

“Nobody has ever tested how much oxygen animals need—at least not to my knowledge,” says lead author Daniel Mills. “We decided to find out.” The species Halichondria panacea lives in the Kerteminde Fjord practically outside the marine research center’s door, so Mills and colleagues put them to the test. “When we placed the sponges in our lab, they continued to breathe and grow even when the oxygen levels reached 0.5 per cent of present day atmospheric levels.”

So if abysmally low oxygen levels can’t crush life from representatives of earth’s earliest complex creatures, what could have kept them from making their appearance? If life wasn’t just lurking in primordial slime waiting for oxygen levels to rise, what was the hold up?

“There must have been other ecological and evolutionary mechanisms at play,” Mills answers. “Maybe life remained microbial for so long because it took a while to develop the biological machinery required to construct an animal. Perhaps the ancient Earth lacked animals because complex, many-celled bodies are simply hard to evolve.”

Of course, based on the complete absence of molecules-to-man evolution in experimental biology, we add that multicellular bodies aren’t just “hard,” but impossible, to evolve.


Low oxygen can’t keep a good sponge down, a Danish study shows. These Halichondria panicea sponges endured rock bottom oxygen levels with no problem. Because evolutionists think sponges resemble the earliest complex forms of life on earth, they are now puzzled about why complex life took a billion-year-break before appearing. Image by Daniel Mills/SDU, via Terra Daily.3

Problems with the Assumptions

Both these approaches to unraveling life’s origins are built upon opinions about an untestable time—opinions that reject the only eyewitness account available to tell us about conditions that prevailed when life began and how that life “emerged.”

Despite their allegiance to the idea that life created itself and that simpler forms of life acquired information to become ever more complex, evolutionary scientists have never observed these things happening. Nevertheless, they presuppose that, given long enough, things that are never observed in science really happened.

The Tasmanian team writes that sedimentary pyrite “has opened a new window into deep time.”4 They offer “five separate lines of evidence.”5 All, Answers in Genesis geologist Dr. Andrew Snelling comments, are all based on uniformitarian assumptions—the idea that “the processes we study in the present have always operated in the same way in the past in terms of rates and intensities.”

God created everything in six literal days (Exodus 20:11 and Genesis 1). From God’s Word we know creation took place about 6,000 years ago. Without God’s eyewitness account there is no way to know what conditions were like in the beginning. God created an atmosphere early in Creation Week and on the 3rd day created plants. The next day He created the first animals. Thus, conditions were right for life from the beginning. While observational science has never shown how life could emerge on its own, God has told us He spoke all kinds of plants and animals into existence in the space of just three days. And life has gone on, varying and reproducing within created kinds, ever since.

Also from God’s Word (Genesis 6–9) we know a global Flood wrecked the earth. We see evidence of that catastrophe in earth’s geology. The deepest geologic layers were in place before the global Flood. Since much of that material was put in place by God in just a few days, uniformitarian assumptions about the minerals found there can only yield wrong conclusions. Dr. Snelling says:

In the earlier sedimentary rocks (Precambrian or pre-Flood) any interpreted correlations between trace elements in sedimentary pyrite grains and atmospheric oxygen completely go askew, because of the underlying uniformitarian assumptions.

In the barren uniformitarian Precambrian world that evolutionists claim existed there were no land-dwelling, oxygen-breathing vertebrates or land surfaces clothed in trees, shrubs, and grasses.

In contrast, the biblical pre-Flood world was luxuriantly vegetated with an over-abundance of animals, as reflected in the enormous quantities of animals and plants buried in Flood rocks, so the atmospheric oxygen levels had to have been as high then as they are today.

This vividly illustrates the role of assumptions in interpreting the past. A model for past atmospheric oxygen levels built by extrapolating present day environmental conditions back into the past cannot be proven by measuring trace elements in pyrite today. Any tests of such models are always dependent on the assumptions being made. The only way to test and prove models is by verification from an eyewitness from the past who can tell us what happened.

The global Flood buried billions of dead things beneath tons of sediment. Evolutionists believe the many resulting fossil layers represent not the order in which dead things were buried but rather the order in which living things evolved. Since biological observations have never demonstrated evolution of increasingly complex life forms, it makes more sense to interpret the fossil layers in light of the eyewitness testimony provided by the God.

Laws of Nature Did Not Change

These researchers ignore the most catastrophic event in history—the event that literally reshaped the earth’s surface—so they draw incorrect conclusions about past conditions as well as how life got here.

Creation scientists do not claim the laws of nature were different in the past—an accusation repeatedly posited by Bill Nye in the recent Nye-Ham Debate. Natural laws did not change at the time of the global Flood, but the conditions that prevailed on the earth during the Flood and in the years soon after were radically different from those before and also different from those we see today. Dr. Snelling explains:

We can today study the pyrite (iron sulfide) grains forming in different muddy sediments and show that their trace elements reflect the chemistry of the water from which the sediments were deposited, which in turn reflects the level of atmospheric oxygen.

However, as soon as we go back to sedimentary rocks deposited during the Flood, the geologic processes involved were orders of magnitude more catastrophic than sedimentation rates and environmental conditions today.

That is not to say that natural laws were suspended during the Flood, because water still flowed downhill and fast-moving water still generated devastating cavitation of bedrock, just as it does today. But environmental conditions were totally different and catastrophic, so you wouldn't expect the trace elements in pyrite grains within sedimentary rocks laid down during the Flood to be the same as they are today.

Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the data in this study show wild variations in trace element concentrations in the Phanerozoic (Flood) rocks, exactly as would be expected under the highly fluctuating conditions in the catastrophic global Flood.

Origins and Eternity

God’s Word provides a consistent account of life’s origins that makes sense of the biology and the geology we see in the world. God’s Word also tells us the true history of humanity and the true nature of humans. In it we learn that the death and suffering recorded in the fossil record and in human history entered the world as a result of mankind’s rebellion against God, beginning with the rebellion of Adam soon after Creation Week.

God’s Word gives us more than the story of our past. It offers hope. Since Adam, all have sinned and thereby earned our Creator’s condemnation, but we are graciously offered eternal abundant life through trusting in the salvation purchased for us through the sacrificial death and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus Christ. It makes sense to accept not only God’s account of the origin of life but also to accept God’s offer of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

Further Reading

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Answers in Depth

2014 Volume 9


  1. “Evolution stuck in slime for a billion years,” Phys.org, February 18, 2014, http://phys.org/news/2014-02-evolution-stuck-slime-billion-years.html.
  2. Daniel B. Mills et al., “Oxygen Requirements of the Earliest Animals,” PNAS 111, no 11 (March 18, 2014): 4168–4178, doi:10.1073/pnas.1400547111.
  3. “Theory on Origin of Animals Challenged: Animals Needs Only Extremely Little Oxygen,” Terra Daily, February 19, 2014, http://www.terradaily.com/reports/Theory_on_origin_of_animals_challenged_Animals_needs_only_extremely_little_oxygen_999.html.
  4. Ross R. Large et al., “Trace Element Content of Sedimentary Pyrite as a New Proxy for Deep-Time Ocean-Atmosphere Evolution,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 389 (March 1, 2014): 209–220, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2013.12.020.
  5. Ibid.


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