Living Water: How a Remarkable Chemical Shaped the Land and Life of Earth | The BioLogos Forum

(system) #1

I’ve spent the past year and a half writing a book about the chemical story that organized life on our planet. The book is titled A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life, to be published by Oxford University Press before this year’s end. In the process of writing I’ve gained new appreciation for a chemical that is so common, it’s easy to lose sight of how important it is. In fact, you may not think of it as a “chemical” at all, even as its chemical power holds you together in a state of dynamic flow. (Some bottles at the supermarket read “chemical-free” even as they hold gallons of this chemical.) This chemical’s formula is familiar: H2O—water.

No other molecule is as “living” as water, whatever scale we choose, whether large as a solar system, as small as a protein, or as old as the Earth. Geology, chemistry, and biology show connections between water and life, some obvious, others surprising, all “living” in some way.

Very often we see right through the unique and life-giving gift that is water.

The more I learn about water, the more depth I see in the Bible’s metaphor of “living water.” Jesus described himself with this phrase, while alluding to the running water used to cleanse and purify in verses like Leviticus 15:13. When water flows, it lives, and it transforms. This holds deep meaning both for the soul and the body. After all, these two aspects of our existence overlap and have the same ultimate Creator.

I see chemical evidence of the power of flowing, “living” water today, yesterday, and a billion yesterdays ago. From geology to biology to research into the origin of life itself, the power of water shows the faithfulness and creativity of our Creator.

Let’s start with geology. Water is creative—its flow shapes both your feet and the ground beneath them. Every place on Earth, even the driest desert, has been shaped and washed by the power of water. Twenty years ago when I moved from Florida to Seattle, I moved from one water-shaped place to another.

In Seattle, as you might know, we’re shaped by rainfall. This familiarity with water also runs throughout time. Long ago frozen water carved the landscape of the Pacific Northwest with flowing, “living” glaciers. An advancing ice sheet from Canada traveled southwest and ran into the Olympic mountains around where Vancouver is today. The mountains stood firm, cracking the ice in two. One sheet turned west and joined the Pacific, carving the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The other turned south and scooped out the Puget Sound.

In Florida, the water is different, both in temperament and consistency. Routine 4:00 pm summer thunderstorms suddenly pour down rain that pools in your sandals, then stop just as suddenly as they begin. Water as pounding surf atomized rock and shells to make Florida’s miles of beaches. Water also carved deep aquifers underneath Florida, which become evident as sinkholes.

All this power is wrapped up in a tiny package. Water is the mustard seed of molecules. It is composed of two hydrogens and one oxygen, bonded with electrons, as H2O. Water is small enough that all you need to make a molecular model of it is a five things: two grapes (for the hydrogens), two toothpicks (for the shared electrons), and a plum (for the oxygen).

An individual water molecule may be small, but this makes it more exceptional, because it is small yet liquid. Liquid is a living, intermediate state of matter, between the frozen solid state and the nebulous gas state. It’s also hard to reach. It’s easier for molecules to go to the extreme states than to settle in a middle state.

As a result, liquid is an in-between state, neither too hot nor too cold, close enough to touch and yet energetic enough to slide around, flowing as a liquid, condensing into an ocean. In a word, liquid is living. Life as we know it needs water because it needs to be in this in-between state, its atoms coherent yet always in motion.

If liquids are living, then the universe is mostly dead, because liquids are rare. Looking at the periodic table, only two elements out of more than 100 are liquid at room temperature: mercury and gallium. Likewise, most molecules as small as water are gases. Big, complex molecules are harder to make and are therefore harder to find through the universe. Here on earth, water is the only molecule that combines liquidity with simplicity, and we literally have oceans of it.

Oceans open to the sun are Earth’s defining characteristic in the solar system, a gift to our planet that makes it appear as a “pale blue dot,” perceptibly different from yellow Venus and red Mars. Earth is locally unique because all three phases of water—gas, liquid, and ice— coexist under bright sunlight.

Among the scores of moons farther out in our solar system, we have found liquids on four: Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede and Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus. These all have a liquid foundation for life, but there are other drawbacks. All of these oceans are far from the bright sunlight that gives complex life on Earth its energy, and most are buried from their atmospheres under ice. I think that any life on these moons would probably be too simple and small to be seen by human eye. (More details are in Chapter 4 of A World From Dust.)

The open, flowing oceans on Earth caused geological evolution, so that our rocks are different from those of our neighbors Mars and Venus. The geologist Robert Hazen estimates that the action of water on the Earth brought about more than 3,000 new minerals when there were only about 500 before, a multiplication of diversity in the rocks from this one chemical, water.

Jade, sapphire, emerald, all were made when water mixed and reacted with the Earth. Mother lodes of ores are found by following the ancient paths of water to where precious metals were deposited. Panning for gold requires a stream of running, living water.

Look at a drop of water in a microscope and you’ll see another way it is “living” water, this time in the realm of biology. Even the most crystal-clear pond water is home to thousands of undulating, spinning, pulsing amoebae and protozoa, a microscopic menagerie. Remove all of these, looking even closer at the atoms in water, and you would see that water is constantly moving around itself, forming, un-forming, and re-forming bonds, in what Bill Bryson described as a “quadrille.” This movement is unbridled, even joyful.

Liquid water hosts life even in extreme conditions. In the deepest parts of the oceans, ecosystems hidden from the sun cluster around bubbling clefts where hot, energy-laden gases escape from the earth. These vents are rich with crabs, lobsters, octopi. These animals bask in and ultimately feed on the sulfurous energy of the earth itself, mediated by the water. Of the four moons with liquid oceans, this looks most like the warm, ice-covered oceans of Enceladus.

I’m trying not to get my hopes up too far for finding complex life on Enceladus, however, because reading the DNA of these animals shows they did not evolve there. The DNA of complex life at the vents matches the DNA of more familiar surface species. This means that many of the creatures near the vents evolved at the surface, where chemical mixing and sunlight allowed their complexity to develop. Then they descended to the vents, where they were kept alive by the water and the earth’s energy. Eventually they lost the pigments, eyes, and even mouths that they didn’t need.

Life needs water and energy to survive, and it changes its form to survive, morphing in ways unthinkable and amazing. Through liquid water, life was able to fill what had previously been empty, to thrive and to surprise. That sounds like grace to me.

Deep-ocean vents may shed light on another dimension to water’s power. At that extraordinary place, water may have shaped the first living things on this planet, bringing a good creation to life four billion years ago.

The chemical ingredients life needs come together at the deep ocean vents: carbon, sulfur, hydrogen, iron, nickel, and especially energy from within the earth. Long ago, water’s chemical power may have brought these ingredients together to shape the first life forms.

I once avoided these ideas because I felt that a chemical bridge from non-life to life threatened God’s creative sovereignty. But I’ve changed my mind. If God came up with the ideas, then they actually convey God’s creative sovereignty. The more I appreciate the dynamic elegance of water’s chemistry, the more I think that God appreciates dynamic elegance, too. All origin of life experiments have an important role for the chemical power of flowing, liquid water.

For example, some deep-sea vents form rocks with holes that look suspiciously like small cells. These cavities naturally stockpile and separate chemicals, like natural laboratories with billions of water-filled chambers. They are lined with iron and nickel atoms that react with the sulfur and hydrogen streaming out of the earth like Champagne bubbles. One of the central molecules in all metabolism, pyruvate, forms spontaneously in these vents, as well as other related molecules. It’s as if a biochemical network is budding from the underwater rocks.

Maybe the heat was more simmering than boiling, say, the toasty temperature of a hot spring at the earth’s surface. This makes a different kind of natural laboratory, where holes in the rock act as gas condensers, collecting and condensing steam in a purifying cycle. Every organic chemistry lab contains complex glass sculptures built to condense and distill. Some hot springs have rocks that do the same chemistry.

Experiments in a similar environment found conditions where simple 4- or 5-atom molecules naturally rearrange into the complex, three-part nucleosides that make up DNA. Just a few weeks ago, the same group identified more pathways that make the building blocks of proteins and cell membranes from the same simple starting material. As these branching pathways grow in complexity, it looks more and more like we are rewinding and replaying the “tape of life” with genuine success.

Origin of life chemistry as a field is full of successes like these but also has a fair share of failures. Usually in chemistry, reactions work best when simplified and purified, but origin of life chemistry is different. If origin-of-life experiments are brought down to earth (with actual dirt), they can work better.

The deep-sea experiment above can’t make pyruvate without the iron and nickel from rocks. The DNA-making experiment needs everything to be mixed together in one pot so that thousands of reactions are run. The more the experimental conditions mimic the geological complexity of the early earth, the more the resulting chemicals appear complex and life-like.

If we can imagine God giving his power to God’s creation, then origin of life chemistry experiments have no necessary conflict with a strong theology of creation. The first biochemical cycles would have obeyed the rules of chemistry, and we know who made those rules. Even the deepest part of the sea at the far extent of Earth’s history is part of God’s creation and ordered by God’s command.

Water is the medium of life-giving grace, and we can see through it to the one who ordered the atoms with the rules of chemical bonding (and the math that sets those rules). In Greek, such rules would be called the Logos—the wisdom and Word by which worlds were created. As a chemist, I am called to seek out the subset of those rules called chemistry, and to understand that God is at work providing and upholding them.

The world looks different if flowing, living water is seen as a chemical gift with the potential to create life. Water is powerful enough to carve landscapes, form gemstones and ores, and support fantastic microbes. Now to these powers is added the ability to make life by reacting with rocks, and the story of creation becomes that much more amazing.

The length of this story is incomprehensible to my small experience. Earth held an ocean of life-sustaining water on its surface for four billion years, not boiling it into steam like Venus or losing it to a barrage of asteroid impacts, like Mars. The word for that duration of constancy is faithfulness. Through eons, God has cared for us by upholding a universe with constant chemical laws, rules that convey the simple grace of living water.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

(Brad Kramer) #2

The author (@benmc) is available to respond to comments and questions.

(Merv Bitikofer) #4

Thank you, Ben, for deepening our understanding of how water is so full of life. That metaphor is so rich, and literally true in ways I hadn’t put together before.

Regarding two elemental liquids, you referred to gallium along with mercury; most texts (and tables) I’ve seen refer to bromine and mercury as the two elements liquid at room temperature. Gallium is almost there, though; even grasping it in your hands warms it up enough to melt it. But that is all peripheral to your main point. I’m glad none of those others were as common in the universe as water.

In fact … on a cosmological ranking, where is water among the most abundant compounds of the universe? Is it first? Or are there other silicates or oxides that beat it out?

(Albert Leo) #5

I am looking forward to reading your book as soon as it is published. I have spent my professional life studying the properties of water, especially how it solvates chemicals in competition with lipid phases. This helps predict how drugs are distributed throughout the compartments in the body, or how harmful chemicals travel through the environment. So I was familiar with many of the facts you presented in today’s blog, but you have the gift of presenting even mundane facts in a such a way as to give them a new and delightful perspective. One suggestion: you should have included the opal (my wife’s birthstone) as one of the gemstones that owe their beauty to water.
Al Leo, Pres.
BioByte Corp.

(Ben McFarland) #6

Hi Merv, Yes, exactly what would count as a liquid from the periodic table is surprisingly tricky because you need to consider pressure as well as temperature, and even more important, whether there’s any chance of having that element in a pure state in the environment! So depending on what you set as conditions, there’s three or maybe four possible liquids if you push it from the elements themselves. You’re right, the main point is, there’s not many. And to answer your other question, water is probably the most abundant compound in the universe. I remember a recent paper that found that a lot of the water in the solar system predates the sun, and there’s water detected on exoplanets, etc. I think methane is the only compound that’d give it a run for its money (off the top of my head). We have to stay in the first row of the periodic table and since the left side of that row is not very abundant, We’re left looking at C, N, and O compounds. Ammonia and cyanide would be up there too (which is why the second origin of life study I mentioned is exciting, because cyanide is one of the ingredients). Thanks for the questions. Yours, Ben

(Ben McFarland) #7

Yes – opal is my birthstone too, so it’s one of my favorites, and its entire appearance owes a debt to water. No water, no opal = a diminished world! Since opal even has a watery sheen/depth to it, its connection to water works on an intuitive level and I’ll make a note of that for explaining this in the future. Thanks for reading. Yours, Ben

(Brute Wolf) #8

You may be interested in this.

It’s a short music video celebrating the gift of water.

(Preston Garrison) #9

Glad to see Ben here. He also has a fine blog of his own. He is one those people who seems to have more than 24 hours in this days. Otherwise, I don’t know how he gets it all done.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #10


Thank you for a beautiful presentation.

My point is that when separate evolution from the environment as Darwinism does, and of course water is key part of the environment, you lose an important aspect of how nature and God works.

Dawkins says that nature works only on the vertical plane, either from top to bottom, or bottom to top. He sees nature working only from bottom up as do others. It is clear from ecology that nature also works laterally, as well as top to bottom and bottom to top. Environment shapes flora and fauna, while flora and fauna shape the environment. The creation of lichens which oxygenated our atmosphere is a wonderful example.

Also how plants create food and oxygen out of light, CO2, and water, while animals need food and oxygen to live.

When we examine the harmony, complexity, and diversity of the universe it is hard to say that it is not the product of a rational design. Especially science is witness to that fact. This is not ID. This is the essence of life.

(Ben McFarland) #11

Hello Roger, Thanks for reading! My first reaction is agreement with parts of your argument. My argument is precisely that evolution cannot be separated from the environment. One of the authors that my book summarizes is RJP Williams, who wrote a book titled The Natural Selection of the Chemical Elements: The Environment and Life’s Chemistry. Dawkins’ “selfish gene” is too separated from the environment, for example, and that’s one reason where that idea (I won’t say meme) doesn’t work. My book is more directly written to challenge Gould’s “tape of life” idea that evolution is basically contingent (which gets a short shout-out in the article as you may have noticed). I think it’s basically (but not entirely) determined by chemical factors, including availability from the environment.

In the book I talk about how other biological factors such as the interactions between species also predictably shape evolution. That may count as environment, too.

I think we differ in the point of design and nature of the action of the designer. Here’s my reasoning starting with my opposition to Gould’s idea. If the tape of life is not correct, then we should be able to predict the broad outline of evolution. This must be possible, because it happened! Williams did it in the 90’s before the genetic data showed he was (largely) right in the late 00’s. But if evolution is regular enough to be predictable in a universe regular enough to be comprehended and summarized by scientific laws … then even the origin of life may be predictable, comprehensible, even (in a minor way) repeatable. That’s what I think we’re seeing, especially with Sutherland’s experiments. Any design would not be an incomprehensible, apocalyptic introduction of life to a lifeless universe, but it would be contained in the outworking of the chemical laws as summarized in the periodic table. (Not to mention the physical constants that built those atoms, but I’m a chemist so I look at the table.)

As a Christian, I firmly believe that the regular laws were not obeyed at the Resurrection, but that a “higher law” was obeyed that physically transformed Jesus – and that at other times (related to that event) they were also not obeyed. So I have an open mind about whether they may have been superseded earlier in life’s history – but instead of seeing evidence for that, I see plausible evidence for consistency and the “integrity of nature” being maintained. Again, this is from the glimmers of complexity emerging from the watery early-earth environments.

But I fully understand that once I accept the Easter miracle then other miracles could indeed happen, and that origin of life is not understood well enough to be a closed case, far from it. My judgment at present is that the chemical laws could have been obeyed on a planet with open oceans of H2O – and then that a chemical progression followed with oxygen as its centerpiece.

I’d have to write a book on that … good thing I did! But it won’t be out till December at the earliest.

By the way, I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to continue this conversation right now because I’m getting on a plane for Africa tomorrow, to teach biochemistry there for a month and a half. I may be able to reply if you’d like to keep this going, but I’m just not sure what my wifi status will be like.

Thanks for the comments, I hope to continue this conversation one way or another. Yours, Ben

(Ben McFarland) #12

Preston, Thanks, I’ve been focused so much on the book that my blog is mostly book reviews – but now that I’m finishing up the book I plan to update the blog more frequently soon. So, yes, there’s an open invitation for all to check it out. Yours, Ben

(Ben McFarland) #13

I do like this! Thanks for sharing.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #14


Thank you for the great response. The book by Williams looks very interesting. Thank you for the reference.

I think that I would agree with your opposition to Gould’s idea. For one thing I understand Gould took the direct of evolutionary teleology to be complexity. I would take it to be diversity, which is different.

While I do not think God programed our world in such a way that it had to produce life in the manner that we now see it, God certainly did put all the elements in place and nursed the delicate connections that produced life while giving the Creation and especially humans the ability to fashion our lives according to God love.

I would not be too concerned about believing in the Resurrection. Some people seem to confuse the Resurrection, which was a singular sign or miracle that revealed the power and love of God with the “everyday” miracles of Jesus Who healed the sick and raised the dead. These too were signs of the power and love of God, but we believe in Jesus not because of the miracles, but because He is the Messiah, the Savior.

The message of the Resurrection is not that God has power over the regular laws of nature, although God does, but that life is stronger than death, and good is stronger than evil. The Resurrection has nothing to do with the laws of nature, but everything to do with the meaning and nature of life.

God did not just give us life to take it away from us. God gave life to enjoy while we are “alive” and also after we die if we use it not just to enjoy for ourselves, but to benefit others as well.
I am looking forward to reading your book and continuing the discussion.

(system) #15

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