Earliest multicellular life?

Claimed 1.5 billion years earlier than previously thought


From El Albani et al., ref. 2, p. 100 Geologic setting showing the extent of the Francevillian formation in Gabon. The fossils were found near Franceville (marked by star). Note the stratigraphic setting and massive size of the Franceville formation, which suggests it was deposited early in the global Flood rather than more gradually in a deltaic environment, as the researchers propose.
Figure 1. Geologic setting showing the extent of the Francevillian formation in Gabon. The fossils were found near Franceville (marked by star). Note the stratigraphic setting and massive size of the Franceville formation, which suggests it was deposited early in the global Flood rather than more gradually in a deltaic environment, as the researchers propose.

Once again, a fossil find has re-written the evolutionary origins story, or so we’re told. Over 250 fossils, supposedly 2.1 billion years (Ga) old have been found in Gabon, in western Africa. The big surprise for evolutionists is their size: they are in the scale of centimetres long, getting as long as 12 cm. One report states that the discovery of the Gabon fossils “moves the cursor of the origin of multicellular life back by 1.5 billion years.”1

Is this true? Or are the reports playing fast and loose with terms such as “multicellular life”, and muddying the waters in which multicelled life supposedly evolved? As is often the case, the actual research tells a much less convincing story.2,3

Stratigraphy and age

These fossils are claimed to be about 2.1 Ga old, and are embedded in the sedimentary Franceville formation near Gabon in western Africa, which outcrops over 35,000 km2 and has a maximum depth of about 2,000 m (figure 1). The fossils were found closer to the top of the formation in finer-grained layers than those that occur underneath, and have an estimated density at the quarry in which they were found of 40 fossils/m2.4

Such a large sedimentary formation (figure 1) with hints of volcanism is likely to be catastrophically laid down, possibly during the Inundatory stage of the Flood according to Walker’s model5 and Oard’s diagnostic criteria.6 The sedimentary layering and large area suggests the Franceville formation is much too large to be post-Flood, (see below for creationist issues surrounding the interpretation of Precambrian fossils).

The volume of the Franceville formation as a whole, along with the fine sedimentary layers evidenced especially in the upper, fossil-bearing layers of the formation suggest that catastrophic burial is a better explanation than slow deltaic inundation.6

What are these fossils?

There is a lot of confusion around what these fossils actually are. El Albani et al. say that the folded radial structure evidenced in the fossils (figure 2) is too complex for mere inorganic processes.7 Moreover, the fossils displayed consistently higher organic carbon (as determined by the δ13C content) than the surrounding sediment, suggesting the fossils were originally organic. Moreover, the surrounding sediment is rich in organic carbon, and contains evidence of eukaryotic organisms as well.7 El Albani et al. say that the Gabon assemblage is most likely fossilized colonial organisms, and are thus evidence of multicellular life.8 But what exactly do they mean by ‘multicellular life’?

Evidence for the evolution of multicellularity?

The Gabon fossils have been hailed as multicellular life.1,9,10 The researchers have shown, capably I believe, that they have found true organic macrofossils. However, these fossils would be considered unimportant if it wasn’t for the age assigned to them and that they are called ‘multicellular organisms’ because of their size. This creates excitement because, at first look, it seems to make the unsightly problems of the Ediacaran and Cambrian ‘explosions’ of multicellular diversity less of a problem for evolutionists. However, as Donoghue and Antcliffe point out, defining multicellularity is a tricky business:

“Multicellularity represents one of the principal thresholds in evolutionary history. This threshold has been exceeded tens of times, perhaps because much of the requisite molecular machinery to facilitate cell–cell coordination is a shared primitive feature of living organisms, but also because some definitions of multicellularity encompass everything from simple bacterial colonies to badgers. Stricter definitions of multicellularity are met in far fewer instances.”11

This ambiguity creates confusion: when people ordinarily think of multicellular organisms, they think of animals and plants (and fungi). Therefore, to hear that “multicellularity has evolved tens of times” gives the impression that it is a simple transition. Moreover, equating the cellular coordination of the unicellular life12 or Gabon fossils to those in the Cambrian is misleading because there is a vast difference in the ‘multicellularity’ of the organisms these two fossil groups represent:

“Although the fossils are macroscopic, they do not seem to represent anything other than the basic type of multicellularity, which occurs earlier in time in the form of stromatolites.”13
From El Albani et al., ref. 2, p. 101 One of the macrofossil specimens.
Figure 2. One of the macrofossil specimens. a. Top shows lower side of the fossil. Bottom is its impression in the black shale. b. CT virtual reconstruction of fossil. c. Virtual section close to central part of fossil. Scale bars, 1.0 cm. Based on the appearance of fossils and their geochemical analysis the researchers suggest a biogenic origin for the fossils. Note however the simplicity of the structures, which suggests this and the other fossils are most likely colonial bacteria rather than true multicellular life.

There is a fundamental difference between bacterial colonies, such as what the Gabon fossils most likely represent, and true multicellularity such as we find in animals, plants and fungi. Multicellularity as found in these latter organisms has four essential characteristics:14

  1. Genetic sameness throughout the cellular population to ensure every cell ‘plays by the same rules’.
  2. Physical cohesion between the cells such that separating some cells of from others causes severe injury or death to the organism.
  3. Intercellular coordination mediated through a cellular differentiation program for the development of the single cell zygote into a full-fledged multicellular individual.
  4. Repair and maintenance strategies, of which serial cell differentiation is the primary method, that work to maintain bodily integrity and control cellular selection throughout the life of the organism.

Moreover, cells and organisms that don’t possess true multicellularity cannot decouple totipotency15 and immortality16 because they don’t already possess a full cellular differentiation program. And there is a fundamental conflict between cell-level and organism-level selection because competition for survival between individual cells is incompatible with the intercellular co-dependence of true multicellularity. All of these parameters and problems combined render the evolution of true multicellularity essentially impossible.17

Bacterial and unicellular eukaryotic colonies show widespread evidence of communication and coordination. However, like such colonies, there is no evidence of cell differentiation in the Gabon fossils, such as different tissue structures. Since cellular differentiation is the cornerstone of true multicellularity,18 the Gabon fossils remain mere colonial organisms and provide no evidence for the evolution of true multicellularity.

Problems with the timing of the fossils

In spite of all the confusion about “the evolution of multicellularity” regarding the Gabon fossils, Donoghue and Antcliffe claim:

“It was Darwin’s view that absence of organisms in these early intervals of Earth’s history would prove his theory of biological evolution wrong. The discovery and continuing elucidation of the Precambrian fossil record has met Darwin’s predictions on the extent and structure of evolutionary history.”

However, the researchers state that there is some superficial similarity to one dubious Ediacaran fossil. Nevertheless, this is as close as the researchers get to positing any concrete evolutionary links between the Gabon fossils and multicellular life. The obvious implication of the superficial similarity to a dubious Ediacaran fossil is that the researchers do not believe the Gabon fossils are ancestors of the Ediacaran biota. Therefore, we are still no closer to identifying the putative ancestors of the Ediacaran or Cambrian biota.

Moreover, these colonies are speculated to have gone extinct after the “Great Oxidation Event” (GOE) that supposedly occurred between 2.4 and 2.0 Ga ago.19 Despite the major problems with such a scenario,20,21 how does it provide anything new or exciting for evolutionary history? At best it’s a failed evolutionary experiment that wasn’t successfully replicated for another 1.5 Ga. At worst it’s another independent explosion of multicellular diversity with no antecedent evidence, just like the so-called Ediacaran and Cambrian ‘explosions’.22

Finally, colonial bacteria are a far cry from the intricate differentiation and body planning programs witnessed to in the Cambrian fossils. Therefore we are left with fossils with modern analogues (modern bacterial colonies) with no links to anything more advanced. Once again, the fossils appear fully formed, with no evidence of gradual transition in the rocks. This is a far cry from substantiating Darwin’s claims about the fossil record—rather, they falsify them.23

Creationist implications

Precambrian fossils have been as controversial among creationists as they have been among uniformitarian evolutionists, though for somewhat different reasons. Creationists have long debated over where to place the pre-Flood/Flood boundary in the rock record, and Precambrian fossils and organic carbon have been some of the key points of contention.24 While these fossils may possibly be examples of macroscopic Creation Week fossils since they are most likely bacterial colonies and not nephesh life,25,26 they still remain consistent with an Early Flood interpretation as outlined above.27


These fossils superficially look impressive for evolution, but once you remove the equivocation they prove nothing. They end up creating more problems than they solve. However, whether these structures are true fossils or merely inorganic formations, they hardly present any problem for creationists. They present us with a class of organisms for which we have plenty of examples in the living world (prokaryotic colonial organisms) and we don’t need to postulate the multiple, independent rise of such coordinated complexity by chance. If the concretions are inorganic (which is a possibility10), then they obviously say nothing about evolution. Moreover, the Bible provides a much simpler explanation for the origin of such colonies that incorporates all the data against evolutionary speculations.

Published: 15 July 2010

References and notes

  1. Discovery of a complex, multicellular life from over two billion years ago, Physorg.com, 30 June 2010. Return to text.
  2. El Albani A., Bengtson S., Canfield D.E., et al., (18 other authors), Large colonial organisms with coordinated growth in oxygenated environments 2.1 Gyr, Nature 466:100–104, 1 July 2010, doi:10.1038/nature09166 Return to text.
  3. Donoghue, P.C.J. and Antcliffe, J.B., Early life: Origins of multicellularity, Nature 466:41–42, 1 July 2010; doi:10.1038/466041a. Return to text.
  4. El Albani et al., ref. 2, pp. 100–101. Return to text.
  5. Walker, T., A biblical geologic model; in: Walsh, R.E. (Ed.), Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Creationism, Technical Symposium Sessions, Creation Science Fellowship, Pittsburgh, PA, pp. 581–592, 1994; see also Walker, T., Biblical Geology 6 July 2010. Return to text.
  6. Oard, M.J., Defining the Flood/post-Flood boundary in sedimentary rocks, Journal of Creation 21(1):98–110, 2007. Return to text.
  7. El Albani et al., ref. 2, p. 102. Return to text.
  8. El Albani et al., ref. 2, pp. 102, 103. Return to text.
  9. Complex, Multicellular Life from Over Two Billion Years Ago Discovered, Science Daily, 1 July 2010 Return to text.
  10. Maxman, A., Ancient macrofossils unearthed in West Africa, Nature news, 30 June 2010. Return to text.
  11. Donoghue and Antcliffe, ref. 3, pp. 41–42. Return to text.
  12. Shapiro, J.A., Thinking about bacterial populations as multicellular organisms, Annual Reviews Microbiology 52:81–104, 1998. The difference between multicellular and unicellular organisms is that unicellular organisms can still survive and reproduce without the aid of any other cells, whereas individual cells in a multicellular organism cannot. Return to text.
  13. Donoghue and Antcliffe, ref. 3, p. 42. Return to text.
  14. Doyle, S., Evolution of multicellularity: what is required? Journal of Creation 23(1):5–7, 2009. Return to text.
  15. Totipotency is the ability of a cell to reconstruct a whole organism. Return to text.
  16. Immortality is the capacity for never-ending cell division. Return to text.
  17. Michod, R.E., Nedelcu, A.M. and Roze, D., Cooperation and conflict in the evolution of individuality IV. Conflict mediation and evolvability in Volvox carteri, BioSystems 69:95–114, 2003. Return to text.
  18. Doyle, S., Serial cell differentiation: intricate system of design, Journal of Creation 22(2):6–8, 2008. Return to text.
  19. El Albani et al., ref. 2, p. 101. Return to text.
  20. Tapp, B., Origin of oxygen more complex than imagined, Journal of Creation 21(2):3, 2007. Return to text.
  21. Snelling, A., The first atmosphere—geological evidences and their implications, Creation 3(4):46–52, 1980. Return to text.
  22. Doyle, S., Ediacaran explosion , 5 March 2008. Return to text.
  23. Doyle, S., Remarkable mammal hairs in amber? 22 June 2010. Return to text.
  24. For a recent example, see the forum of four articles on Precambrian geology and the Bible: Froede Jr, C.R., Reed, J.K., Oard, M.J., Hunter, M.J., Dickens, H. and Snelling, A.A., Journal of Creation 22(3):40–50, 2008. Return to text.
  25. Dickens, H. and Snelling, A.A., Precambrian geology and the Bible: a harmony, Journal of Creation 22(1):65–72, 2008. Return to text.
  26. Dickens, H. and Snelling, A.A., Precambrian geology and the Bible, no dissonance or contradiction, Journal of Creation 22(3):47–50, 2008. Return to text.
  27. Oard, ref. 6, pp. 99–102. Return to text.

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