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

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One can almost feel the searing penetration of Lewis Thomas’ analytical eye as it descends the narrow barrel of the microscope and explodes onto a scene of vigorous, animated, interactive little cells—cells inescapably engrossed in relaying messages to one another with every bump and bounce; with every brush of the elbow, lick of the stamp, and click of the mouse…

Woven throughout Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher is a desire to link scientific phenomena with social behavior—to peruse the symbiotic relationship that we, as humans, are incapable or perhaps unwilling, to contemplate. Thomas’s ridicule of what he has identified as being a sort of human superiority complex is the needle—the mechanism—by which he is able to stitch together these two seemingly divided realms. He has sensed our inherent fear of “touch” and all that it embodies, simultaneously criticizing and enlightening us about our irrational, bizarre attitude towards the natural world. Our repudiation of “the inhuman” and our craving for control, according to Thomas, “[say] something about our century, our attitude toward life, our obsession with disease and death, our human chauvinism” (“Thoughts” 7).

Thomas’s self-appointed title of “biology watcher” seems, on the surface, unfitting for a man whose understanding of cellular interaction is so intimate. He is able to confer with nature and develop a profound connection with it; essentially, he is able to “touch” it. But the sense of touch, in Thomas’s mind, is not separate from the faculties of vision, hearing, smelling, or tasting; it encompasses all of them. The “watcher,” or for that matter, the “listener” or “taster,” is capable of becoming wholly immersed in his subject, no restrictions limiting the extent of his observations. It is for this reason that Thomas can expound the workings of an ant colony and delve beyond what is visible to the eye; he is capable of connecting with that colony on a variety of levels, part of a relationship that serves to inform and “edit” conceptions he holds about the workings of the human world.

This idea of “editing” resonates throughout Thomas’s works, Thomas indirectly employing the term as a means of expressing how we should view our affiliation with the earth. “When the earth came alive it began constructing its own membrane, for the general purpose of editing the sun,” he suggests in “The World’s Biggest Membrane.” “The earth has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun” (145).

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Thomas acknowledges the presence of a sustaining force, a cyclical channel of influence that binds the two orbs. The existence of each body results in the amendment of the other in a kind of synergetic rapport.

But does this kind of relationship mirror the connection shared between human beings and the earth? According to Thomas, we are misinformed about our earthly associations, unaware that “we are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia,” and that nature is “opaque to probability, impermeable to death” (“Lives” 3). Thomas has attributed our ignorance to an inherited program of human supremacy that has continually governed our attitudes towards the earth. He feels we have used—or misused, rather—our minds to fashion an image of ourselves as controllers, thinking ourselves owners of a “special lordship” that permits us to disturb our surroundings (3). “We still argue the details, but it is conceded almost everywhere that we are not the masters of nature that we thought ourselves; we are as dependent on the rest of life as are the leaves or midges or fish,” writes Thomas in “Natural Man.” “We are part of the system” (104). Thomas wholeheartedly endorses a human connection with nature, but understands that our stubborn love of domination prevents us from acknowledging its existence.

A byproduct of this longing for control culminates in what Thomas has identified as man’s will to isolate himself from everything “inhuman.” “We do not like the notion that there can be collective societies with the capacity to behave like organisms. If such things exist, they can have nothing to do with us” (“Societies” 12). But what is it about “the Other” that we find so incredibly inhuman? How can we, a species so dependent on social interaction, believe we hold the ability to live separate, isolated lives? In the essay “Vibes,” Thomas explores the complexity of the signaling mechanisms that occur between organisms “lower” than humans, eventually discovering that we are just as adept at producing discreet sensory responses as those under us. Thomas discusses the ability dogs have to detect distinct odors, for columns of ants to “smell out” the differences between themselves and foreign ants, and for minnows and catfish to recognize each member of their species by picking up on “person-specific” scents (37, 38). In terms of our own human ability to partake in the same phenomena, we “feel somehow inferior and left out of things by all the marvelous sensory technology in the creatures around us”; we feel lower, slighter than those things we’ve so adamantly, and ironically, deemed “lesser beings” (39). Thomas asserts that we “try to diminish our sense of loss (or loss of sense) by claiming to ourselves that we have put such primitive mechanisms behind us in our evolution” (39). And, logically, that is the way we would react, taking defensive measures to ensure the stability of our human sovereignty.

Although Thomas recognizes our egocentric reaction, he is not an advocate of it. He affirms that humans are more than capable of performing similar feats of complex communication. “We are marked as self by the chemicals we leave beneath the soles of our shoes, as unmistakably and individually as by the membrane surface antigens detectable in homografts of our tissues” (37). Therefore, we are like dogs, ants, minnows and catfish; we do communicate; we can sense one another.

This presents a serious problem: if we are so concerned about remaining in control, yet are able to “touch” one another without even our own conscious consent, how much control do we really possess? In “A Fear of Pheromones,” Thomas asks,

What are we going to do if it turns out that we have pheromones? What on earth would we be doing with such things? With the richness of speech, and all our new devices for communication, why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything? (16)

Pheromones (for those unaccustomed to Thomas’s fanatical use of scientific vocabulary) are involuntarily secreted molecules capable of carrying messages from organism to organism. According to Thomas, it is quite probable that human beings exude these molecules—a possibility that simultaneously blows our minds and scares us to death. To be able to decide when to talk, write, or telephone someone is one thing; but to have no control over our interaction with one another is something unthinkable, insufferable. Thomas, in a voice saturated with cynicism, predicts that we will soon raise “turrets with flames alight their tops [. . .] for the production of phenolic, anesthetic, possibly bright green sprays to cover, mask, or suppress all pheromones” (19). We will try to prevent their influence upon us, as we do with everything else, for pheromones do not just undermine our control; they control us. “Eight or ten carbon atoms in a chain are all that are needed to generate precise, unequivocal directions about all kinds of matters—when and where to cluster in crowds, when to disperse, [and] how to behave to the opposite sex” (16). They pose a threat to our primacy, infringing our human contract of domination.

Thomas seems fascinated by the idea of death—not fascinated so much with death itself, but more fascinated by our fascination with it. In “The Long Habit,” he explores our particularly strong addiction to prolonging life, focused on the idea that our “sickness of withdrawal,” or our unwillingness to be isolated, feeds this desire (48). This is nothing short of a contradiction: how is it that we fear isolation when, all throughout our lives, we strive to isolate ourselves from the rest of nature? In Thomas’s mind, the creation of new technology and medicine is a desperate attempt, on our part, to secure a hold over that which we cannot control. “We live in a world where the microbes are always trying to get at us, to tear us cell from cell, and we only stay alive and whole through diligence and fear” (“Germs” 75).

But to what extent do we achieve isolation from that which we cannot control? What is the result of our longing to remain separate? In an essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness,” historian William Cronon explains how our desire for isolation from the “inhuman” has resulted in the fabrication of what we know as “the wild,” or “the Other.”

Wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. [. . .] To the extent that we celebrate wilderness as the measure with which we judge civilization, we reproduce the dualism that sets humanity and nature at opposite poles. We thereby leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like. (174)
One can think of Cronon’s “wilderness” as the vague line dividing the natural world from the “civilized” world, a place “where we can see the world as it really is, and so know ourselves as we really are—or ought to be” (173). Like Thomas, Cronon acknowledges legitimacy in the mechanics of the natural, a standard against which we can measure our own social actions. Wilderness exists only in the minds of humans, a kind of contrived receptacle into which humans “trash” everything they’ve chosen to reject as “inhuman.”

In strikingly similar accord with Thomas, Cronon states: “To think ourselves capable of causing ‘the end of nature’ is an act of great hubris, for it means forgetting the wildness that dwells everywhere within and around us” (182). We may be comforted by the thought that “the wild” is a separate realm; but, according to Thomas and Cronon, wildness exists “in the seemingly tame fields and woodlot of Massachusetts, in the cracks of a Manhattan sidewalk, [and] even in the cells of our own bodies” (Cronon 182).

Thomas finds foolishness in the precautionary actions man takes to protect himself from “the wild.” In “Thoughts for a Countdown,” he details the inane rituals astronauts perform upon returning to Earth.

[Returning astronauts] celebrate first of all the inviolability of the earth, and they re-enact, each time, in stereotyped choreography, our long anxiety about the nature of life. They do not, as one might expect, fall to their knees and kiss the carrier deck; this would violate, intrude upon, contaminate the deck, the vessel, the sea around, the whole earth. Instead they wear surgical masks. They walk briskly, arms up, untouching, into a sterile box. They wave enigmatically, gnotobiotically, to the President from behind glass panes, so as not to breathe moondust on him. They are levitated to another sealed box in Houston, to wait out their days in quarantine, while inoculated animals and tissue cultures are squinted at for omens. (6)

This recounting of one of our century’s greatest moments seems utterly preposterous. The joy and relief that would usually accompany a safe return to Earth are replaced by wariness and unease. The astronauts, who should be embracing the solid ground beneath their boots, are covered—smothered, even—by surgical masks and kept in isolation to avoid “contaminating” their surroundings. Their waves are “gnotobiotic,” as if with each motion of the hand, they are ridding themselves of bacteria and foreign molecules. I cannot remove from my mind the image of spectacled men in white coats and rubber gloves testing the blood and urine of the newly arrived, making sure that no “moondust” has dehumanized them. The scene is absurd. Nothing is particularly “welcoming” about the astronauts’ return; they are, in that moment, treated as aliens, quarantined out of human fear.

If Thomas were an astronaut returning home after spending months in intergalactic space, I imagine his reaction would be one of reverence towards the earth. I believe he’d wish to embed himself into nature once again, that he would be pleased to take his place in the continuing symbiotic relationship they share. Thomas, the watcher and thinker, testifies to possessing this kind of intrinsic bond with the earth, but can he really disengage his thinking from that of any other human being?

Because Thomas refers to the human population as a collective “we,” it is easy for us to forget that he isn’t really one of “us.” Thomas is an exception to our human disease, able to immerse himself in the world, more intrigued by the existence of “the Other” than fearful of it. He speaks from an elevated level of understanding, as if he has assumed the role of the “extraterrestrial Visitor” or “woolly-minded Visitor from Outer Space” that emerges in many of his writings (“Music” 24, 21). “It may turn out, as some scientists suggest, that we are forever precluded from investigating consciousness by a sort of indeterminacy principle that stipulates that the very act of looking will make it twitch and blur out of sight,” Thomas offers, perhaps as an explanation for his playing “alien” to our society (“Habit” 52). For Thomas, a virtual step away from Earth allows him to separate himself from humankind, granting him a chance to diagnose our misconstrued image from afar.

As for the rest of us, cursed in our having two feet planted on the ground and with slim chances of ever venturing out into space, we have become so overwhelmed by our fear of the “inhuman” that we readily separate ourselves to the point of absurdity, to the point where we truly forget that we are social creatures whose lives depend on interaction.

Is Thomas merely trying to remind us that we are incapable of understanding ourselves in relation to the world? Or is he suggesting some way in which we can remedy our human superiority complex? In an essay entitled “Computers,” Thomas attributes our ability to make progress to our inherent “fallibility” and “improbability” as human beings. It is in our ability to err, to change, to acquire new ways of doing things that we are able to better our comprehension of ourselves and the world around us. “We simply think our way along, pass information around, exchange codes disguised as art, change our minds, transform ourselves” (113). Computers are infallible; “lower” animals are infallible; humans are the only fortunate ones programmed with the propensity for making mistakes. We propel ourselves along this way, editing and being edited by each error we make in that classic symbiotic liaison that embodies humanity and the natural world. Thomas writes, “The future is too interesting and dangerous to be entrusted to any predictable, reliable agency. We need all the fallibility we can get. Most of all, we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds” (113).

In his long-winded, detailed descriptions of carbon chains and nitrogen fixation, of pheromones and mitochondria, Thomas is urging us to reconsider our human attitude towards the natural world. He’s encouraging us to resign from our dictatorial role over the earth and embrace it, to explore our fallibility, treasure it, and let it influence the future of our existence. Thomas has given us the taste of potential, sometimes mocking us, but always enlightening us about our social nature and its inextricable place in the workings of our environment. Where we reject, Thomas embraces—the familiar scent of moondust on his breath.

Works Cited

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Encounters: Essays for Exploration and Inquiry. 2nd ed. Ed. Pat C. Hoy II and Robert DiYanni. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. 164-82.

Thomas, Lewis. The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Penguin Books, 1974.

“The Lives of a Cell.” 3-5.

“Thoughts for a Countdown.” 6-10.

“On Societies as Organisms.” 11-15.

“The Music of This Sphere.” 20-25.

“Vibes.” 37-41.

“The Long Habit.” 46-52.

“Germs.” 75-80.

“Natural Man.” 103-106.

“Computers.” 112-114.

“The World’s Biggest Membrane.” 145-148.


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