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The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas consists of short, insightful essays that offer the reader a different perspective on the world and on ourselves.
The book draws its name from the first essay, "The Lives of a Cell," in which Thomas offers his observations on ecology and the role of cellular activity. He writes that the "uniformity of the earth's life, more astonishing then its diversity, is accountable by the high probability that we derived, originally, from some single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled" (3).
He goes on to describe how this common ancestry means that we still have a lot in common with everything on this planet. Thomas says that "we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance" (3). Thomas relates to the reader that he has been trying to conceive of the earth itself as a type of organism, "but it is no go" (4). The earth is just too big, too complex for such an analogy. But then it came to him. The earth is most like a single cell (4).
In the next essay, "Thoughts for a Countdown," Thomas discusses further how all cellular life on this planet is interconnected and similar. He discusses the custom that was prevalent throughout the Apollo program that astronauts returning from space would be ushered into isolation wearing surgical masks. The implication is, of course, that the astronauts may have brought a strange virus.
Thomas states that this whole notion is built on a faulty understanding of science and biology. He points out that most of the associations on this planet between living things are cooperative (5). "It takes long intimacy, long and familiar interliving, before one king of creature can cause illness in another" (6). If there was anything microscopic living on the moon, it would have a "lonely time waiting for acceptance to membership here" (6).
In the next essay, "On societies as organisms," Thomas points out that the writers of books on insect behavior go to great lengths to distinguish the uniqueness of insect life.
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Nevertheless, Thomas admits that it's difficult for a bystander watching an ant colony not to do exactly that. He writes that ants are "so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment" (12). They farm. They raise livestock. They launch armies into war and use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse their enemies. They capture slaves (12). But because ants are part of a collective society, we don't like the idea that they are not something totally foreign.
The next essay, "Fear of Pheromones," betrays the fact that this book was first published in the early 1970s as Thomas writes: "What are we going to do if it turns out that we have pheromones?" and, of course, this discovery has been made for quite sometime. Nevertheless, his observations are funny. He points out that with all the new devices of communication, "why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything" (17). Likewise, some of Thomas' other observations sound a trifle dated. However, in the essays that stick to biology, Thomas' writing is not only entertaining, but sure to offer new information.
For example, in the essay entitled simply "Vibes," Thomas tell the reader that we "leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch" (43). He relates that one of the odd discoveries made by small boys is that when two pebbles are struck sharply together they emit, briefly, a "curious smoky odor" (43). If the stones are cleaned or heated the odor disappears. However, it returns if the stones are touched again by a human hand before being struck (43).
We "mark" everything we touch with our own distinctive scent (43). Nevertheless, humans are incapable of distinguishing much of the sensory information that goes on around us. Thomas argues that the way humans often denigrate the olfactory sense if due to the our feelings of inferiority on this subject (44). He then goes on to give a fascinating account of how animals communicate using olfactory signals.
Thomas' observations in this slim book span a variety of subject matter from the unique perspective of a biologist as the next essay demonstrates. Entitled "Ceti," Thomas informs the reader that "Tau Ceti is a relatively nearby star that sufficiently resembles our sun to make its solar system a plausible candidate for the existence of life" (49). It is in this essay that Thomas refers back to his initial analogy that the earth is like a single cell. He comments that an extraterrestrial embryologist, looking in on us from time to time, would be pleased with how the earth is coming along (51). The alien scientist would see "the beginning of a nervous system and fair sized ganglions in the form of cities, and now with specialized, dish-shaped sensory organs, miles across, ready to receive stimuli" (51).
The next essay, "The Long Habit," addresses that worst of biological necessitiesódeath. This leads into a discussion of people who have had near death experiences and been brought back. He observes that a common complaintóparticularly among the elderlyówas that the process was interrupted (60). Thomas waxes mystical as he proposes what might happen to consciousness at death. He says, "I prefer to think of it as somehow separated off at the filaments of its attachment and then drawn like an easy breath back into the membrane of its origin, a fresh memory for a biospherical nervous system" (61).
This is typical of Thomas' style as he combines personal observations with science fact and insightful observations. Often his topics are so unique that it is doubtful that one would find a serious scientist elsewhere writing on the same subject. For example, in "Some Biomythology," Thomas addresses mythical creaturesóthe Griffon, Phoenix, Centaur, Sphinx, etc. (141).
He then proposes creatures for a "new bestiary." This evolves into a discussion about the intricacies and peculiarities of some one-celled wonders with whom we share the planet such as the "Myxotricha paradoxa." (141). He ends his book with a tribute to the sky which "for sheer size and perfection of function" is the "grandest product of collaboration in all of nature" (174).
In short, this is a remarkable book in which Thomas shares his gift for words and his unusual perspective on the world. His agile mind flits from one subject to the next with ease and agility and the reader the fortunate beneficiary.