Ben McFarland
 on April 26, 2016

A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life

It’s about the creation of the universe. It’s also about the mechanisms of evolution. It’s about how the words “creation” and “evolution” talk about the same thing.


When I tell someone I’ve written a book, their first question is usually “What’s it about?” What is my book about? It depends on who’s asking. Here’s some possible answers:

It’s about the creation of the universe. It’s also about the mechanisms of evolution. It’s about how the words “creation” and “evolution” talk about the same thing.

It’s about how chemistry (yes, chemistry!) is a gift. As a chemist, when I see the stacked boxes in the Periodic Table of the Elements, I know they hold surprises, like wrapped presents on Christmas morning. The boxes of elements, together, tell a story that gives a hidden order to chemistry, geology, biology, and even history.

It’s about the chemical job that each element performs in life and how that job is predictable from the element’s place on the periodic table. It’s about how much each element dissolves in ocean water and how many hydrogens and oxygens it binds, which helps determine how that element can be used by life. The chemical process of dissolving leads the way for biological function.

It’s about how these chemical rules changed over time, in a sequence that too few people know about. The complexity of life was sequenced and shaped by chemistry, and evolution gained a certain chemical order.

It’s about geology, too. The world is a stage for life, built as oceans of water moved mountains and made protective chemical shields. Water catalyzed what some scientists have called “mineral evolution,” producing more types of minerals on Earth than on any other planet in the solar system.

It’s about colors in rocks and plants. Mineral evolution gave us motherlodes and gemstones. Biological evolution was powered by colorful pigments that caught the sun’s energy and terraformed the planet.

It’s about dozens of elements, lined up like paints on a palette. Iron and sulfur gave a spark of life; manganese was a key that unlocked oxygen; and copper and zinc lent special chemistry to your enzymes and immune system.

It’s about how some of these elements fit together and work together, like complementary colors. Magnesium fits with the phosphorus in the backbone of your DNA. Iron and sulfur make tiny prisms of catalytic power that were abundant in the ancient sea.

It’s about why we never see some elements in life. Despite some early erroneous reports, arsenic can’t be used by life because its available form in water is too chemically fragile. Beryllium and aluminum are too sticky to be anything but rejected by cells.

It’s about one element—oxygen—that stands out among all others in energetic potential and structural utility. Oxygen was hidden from life, then it killed life, and then it gave new energy and new shapes for life to become more complex than before. Oxygen was a lynchpin that changed the world and shifted the periodic table toward new elements and new possibilities in a predictable sequence.

It’s about a universe old enough and rational enough to host billions of years of evolution, beginning with math and ending with us. It’s also about something young enough to hold only a few decades in its memory—your own consciousness.

It’s about how some processes work best not confined to one place or another, but at the interface where two such places meet. Archaean rocks may have catalyzed life-giving reactions where the rock met water. In the ancient ocean, patches of sulfurous water may have fostered evolution at their fringes. Life thrives on the border between chaos and order, which is one reason why the liquid state of matter is crucial.

It’s about how the stories told by science are interwoven. Rocks, elements, and life evolved as geology, chemistry, and biology cooperated. The ideas of the inorganic chemist R.J.P. Williams takes center stage in the book, but an evolutionary biologist (Simon Conway Morris), an astrophysicist (Eric Chaisson), and an engineer (Adrian Bejan) are featured as well.

It’s about how science and the liberal arts are interwoven. History, painting, music, and literature inspire, and are inspired by, chemistry.

It’s about learning by seeing as well as by reading. Two artists, Gala Bent and Mary Anderson, drew the places and things that the words describe. 40 of their illustrations in the book help show what’s going on.

It’s also about philosophy, or at least the nature of history. If we rewound and replayed the “tape of life,” I argue that what we would “hear” in evolution would be much the same the second time around. It’s about how, at certain levels, life is predictable and ordered—and at other levels, like those of individual species and genes, it’s not.

It’s about a grand story behind history. Natural history is not one random thing after another, but  a flowing, surprising narrative. The world is not a happenstance to be overcome but a gift to be unpacked. The universe is saturated with a deep yet comprehensible rational structure, or in ancient Greek terms, a logos.

To use big words, it’s about chemistry, convergence, and contingency. To use little words (that are probably better), it’s about fate and free will. It’s about how the history of life is simple enough to be described in 350 pages, yet how every soul formed by that history is more complex (yet less predictable) than a galaxy.

In short, this book tells what it’s like to be a chemist looking at natural history through the lens of the periodic table. Life looks different from this perspective. It is older than I expected when I began my career as a scientist. It is more ordered than I expected from reading so much about the contingencies of the “Tape of Life” from the works of Stephen Jay Gould. And it is a bigger story than one single discipline can tell.

It is the story of the periodic table shaping and interacting with a planet teeming with life, and it is part of the story about why I am a chemist.

Whatever your background with science and chemistry, this book gives you the chance to see the world through the eyes of a chemist. I hope you enjoy it!

About the author

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland teaches biochemistry and chemistry at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. He grew up near Kennedy Space Center and wanted to be a paleontologist in the second grade. He received a dual B.S. in Chemistry and Technical Writing from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in Biomolecular Structure and Design from the University of Washington. His research uses the rules of chemistry to redesign immune system proteins. In 2013 he received an Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) grant from BioLogos to write A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford University Press, 2016). He lives near Seattle with his wife Laurie and his children Sam, Aidan, Brendan, and Benjamin.