I have just gone through one of the most unpleasant physical experiences of life – not being able to breathe. Most of us have had the breath knocked out of us when we got hit in the diaphragm and temporarily were left gasping for air. Imagine that feeling going on for hours, or even days. I am writing this while I am battling pneumonia, and fluid in my lungs has left me struggling to maintain my normal activities.
From a scientific perspective, being able to breathe is one of the most complex things we see in the natural world. Our lungs take in air that is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. The oxygen makes its journey into our vascular system and sustains our lives. Fish take the oxygen dissolved in water and bring the oxygen into their vascular system through gills. The complexity of these systems chemically and physically points to the design the Creator has built into His living things.
While the Bible speaks of God creating breath in all living things, the most commonly quoted statements about the breath of life in humans don’t refer to air at all. Genesis 1:26-27 says that God created male and female in His image. Genesis 2:7 tells us that God formed the man and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul.
Beginning in verse 16, we see God’s communication to man centering not around his physical well-being, but his spiritual well-being. The forbidden fruit and the relationship of good and evil, man’s dominance over the animal kingdom, and his relationship to woman all indicate a unique spiritual being with the soul breathed into him by God.
Earth’s atmosphere is incredible! There are three primary layers of the atmosphere, and we live in the bottom layer called the troposphere. It extends as high as about 33,000-43,000 feet (10-13 kilometers). This layer is where we have breathable air. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere and above that is the mesosphere.
The troposphere is not only where we have air we can breathe, but it is also where we have weather and clouds. In the stratosphere, the air is not dense enough to supply us with sufficient oxygen, but it is relatively peaceful with little turbulence. In the early days of commercial airplane flight, because of turbulence in the troposphere, many people became airsick. However, planes could not fly above the troposphere because, among other problems, the low air pressure in the stratosphere would create a lack of oxygen for breathing.
That changed in the 1930’s when the Boeing company designed the first successful airplane with a pressurized cabin. They called it the “Stratoliner.” It could fly above the turbulence and still provide breathing comfort. Today commercial passenger planes fly in the lower stratosphere for cruising comfort, with pressurized cabins for breathing comfort.
Life requires certain elements–one of which is oxygen. To live, we must have energy and our life-energy is produced by chemical reactions requiring oxygen. Because of the oxygen level of Earth, we can breathe easy.
When oxygen combines with other elements and compounds, we call the process oxidation or combustion. Oxidation results in the release of energy. Oxidation can be slow as when oxygen combines with iron to form rust. Oxidation can be fast, as when oxygen combines with chemicals in wood, producing fire.
The rapid combustion process releases energy in the form of heat and light. In our bodies, oxygen combines with other chemicals more slowly. As oxygen combines with sugar (glucose) in our cells, energy is released warming our bodies and powering our cells. The by-products of this oxidation are carbon-dioxide and water, which can be safely eliminated from the body.
The design of the oxygen molecule with its ability to pull off electrons from other elements makes combustion possible. Are there other chemicals which can produce combustion? Yes, chlorine, fluorine, and bromine can also produce combustion. However, the by-products of that combustion, such as hydrochloric acid, would be harmful or fatal to living cells. Oxygen has just the right properties to combine with carbon-based sugars in our cells to release energy and sustain life without producing compounds harmful to life.
The atmospheric oxygen level in Earth’s early history allowed life-forms to grow much larger than they do today. We find fossil remains of insects that grew to incredible sizes. There are wonderfully preserved fossils of a dragonfly called Meganeura which was the size of a modern-day hawk. Ants a foot (30 cm) long and centipedes that were as long as two feet (61 cm) show up in the fossil record. There are also fossils of mammals that were larger than any land mammals living today.
A major key to the huge sizes is the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere at the time those animals lived. New laboratory techniques in nuclear chemistry give us accurate methods of determining the oxygen level of the atmosphere in the past. Ice cores and tree rings confirm the measurements. Studies show that Earth’s atmosphere has had oxygen content as high as 35 percent in the past compared to 21 percent today. This higher oxygen level would have some negative consequences, with fires burning much hotter and faster and corrosion happening faster. Its effect on some living things, however, would be very positive.
Laboratory experiments have also shown us how oxygen content affects the size of living things. Insects do not breathe with lungs since oxygen diffuses into their bloodstream directly. Dr. Robert Berner at Yale has shown that a 35 percent level of oxygen in the atmosphere would increase the diffusion rate of oxygen in an insect’s bloodstream by as much as 67 percent. Body size varies directly with oxygen concentration, and experiments with fruit flies and mealworms consistently show high growth rates with increased oxygen. Studies done on alligators have shown that variations in egg development and growth are in direct proportion to the oxygen in the atmosphere. It is the same for mammals. Dr. Paul Falkowski of Rutgers has said, “Pound for pound, mammals typically need three times as much oxygen as reptiles do.” An oxygen level that would support reptiles might not support mammals.
All of this is very helpful in understanding a variety of issues relating to the Bible and the evolution/creation controversy. It is increasingly obvious that dinosaurs and humans could not survive together on this planet. At the time of the dinosaurs, the oxygen level was too low for mammals to survive. Competition for food and living space between humans and dinosaurs would be most difficult. Domestication of reptiles is impossible so humans would not be able to train dinosaurs to help with heavy chores.
The Bible does not mention dinosaurs, and no Hebrew word in Genesis 1 could legitimately be interpreted to mean dinosaurs. The emphasis that the Bible gives to the breath of living things as seen in the Hebrew word “nephesh” becomes more and more relevant as we learn more about how vital that concept of breath is. (See Genesis 2:7; 7:22, etc.)
Many people seem to feel that dinosaurs were unnecessary to human existence and that their presence denigrates evidence of God’s creation. The balance between the composition of the atmosphere and the abundance of life on Earth is critical. For plants to grow, there has to be soil, and soil is not as simple as it looks. Dirt must have the critical elements for food chains and cell reproduction. The production of all of those resources is not simple. As plants take in carbon dioxide and lock carbon into the soil, they release oxygen into the atmosphere. The ecological system of the planet at the time when the dinosaurs lived allowed not only the formation of soil but also the massive amounts of coal and fossil fuels we need.