The Lives of a Cell Revisited

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher
Lewis Thomas

Reading is fuel here at AHC so you might think there would be a premium placed on fresh material. That’s more or less true. I kid myself that it’s about needing new ideas to bounce off existing ones but, really, it’s driven by boredom. Were I in primary school today they’d slap an ADHD label on me and get the drugs into my system as fast as possible. Yet I’m not opposed to rereading even though, as the nuns taught me, you can’t get back time. So if I am to re-read, it better be worth it.

Lewis Thomas’ first book was worth a second visit.

The Lives of a Cell was published in 1975 and won the National Book Award. I probably last read it sometime in the 1980s. I had the chance to hear Dr. Lewis speak around 1983 and that probably piqued my interest; this time a pristine copy of the original hardback fell into my lap for under $5. (Books, by the way, used to be much better made.)

Thomas was a medical doctor who went into research and wound up running Rockefeller University. Along the way he started writing about science–biology and medicine mostly–for a general readership. Once he retired his repertoire expanded to include his loves–language and music. You can see the appeal and why a reread was not a burden.

Those themes are seen here though not in the form they would later appear. In this volume the music encountered is made by ants and termites, not Mahler. And language creeps in over the course of the essays entering originally in discussion of social animals, particularly insects. I didn’t recall the etymological fascination and I’m not certain I’m ready to accept that building a termite mound and the ongoing evolution of language are, at root, the same thing. That’s my human chauvinism talking.

There are, to be sure, some missteps. This is science and things change. We read Darwin because the theory still holds as explicated. (I would like to believe we read him also to demonstrate that science writing can embody style but I fear that’s a pipe dream.) We don’t, however, read the gradualists now that punctuated equilibrium is accepted. Here’s an example of predicting beyond one’s own expertise:

“To match what we can do there would have to be more than 3 billion of them [computers] with more coming down the assembly line, and I doubt that anyone would put up the money, much less make room. And even so, they would all have to be wired together, intricately and delicately, as we are, communicating with each other, talking incessantly, listening.” (p 111)

That’s about as good a description of the Internet as you can find.

Why, then, read science if it is so subject to looking silly a few short decades later? I’d suggest that the above quote is really about technology. We should expect technology to change and supplant. Science ought to help us understand what is happening at a fundamental level. When Lewis sticks to cellular biology you get the theories that are still being built on currently.

There’s a tradition in the West of fearing science that dates back at least to Mary Shelley. The mad scientist is a stock character because, I think, we instinctively recoil from fact in the absence of a human context. When you read Dr. Thomas the human context, and a sense of wonder at being able to apprehend what science has uncovered, is never far away.

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One thought on “The Lives of a Cell Revisited

  1. Pingback: A Soldier in the Army of the Lord | An Honest Con

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