I don’t know why the ratty brown dust jacket caught my eye. Seattle’s Pike Place Market isn’t exactly known as the place to go for book browsing. But I was in town for the wedding of my wife’s college roommate, and across from the guys chucking whole fish across the counter was a tiny little book store. Sitting on a discount rack right outside the entrance, I discovered a worn copy of Lewis Thomas’s 1974 book, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. I had no idea who Lewis Thomas was, but it was signed by the man himself and priced at fifty cents.
Then I cracked open the book and began to read.
“We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. … In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.”
Lewis Thomas was, primarily, a prominent physician – boasting a career that included titles like dean of the New York University School of Medicine, president of the Sloan-Kettering Institute and dean of the Yale Medical School. But, reading his work, I often wonder what he would’ve accomplished if he’d pursued writing full-time instead. Which, granted, says a lot about my misplaced priorities.
The Lives of a Cell is a collection of monthly essays he wrote for the New England Journal of Medicine under a contract that paid him no money whatsoever but also promised to never edit his work. It was a deal he reportedly said he couldn’t resist, and one that makes the end result that much more amazing to me.
Thomas fits twenty-nine essays into fewer than 150 pages which, no offense to Stephen Jay Gould, is a refreshing change of pace from most scientific essay collections I’ve encountered. While his prose is often poetic, it is always concise.
Anyone looking for tips or tricks for writing things just so, or exhortations to practice, practice, practice won’t find it in this book. This book teaches by example, and I learn something new about how to turn a phrase or construct a metaphor every time I pick it up.
I am particularly fond of an early essay where Thomas explores intelligence in individual organisms and what, four decades later, we call “swarm” intelligence. Thomas wryly notes that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to suggest that humans viewed from a distance look like a colony of ants at work, it would be blasphemy in scientific circles to suggest the opposite. He goes on to list ants’ various accomplishments – building “cities,” farming food, waging war and declares “Ants are so much like human beings to be an embarrassment.”
The extended metaphor of humans as insects extends to termites and bees, each example building his argument. The essay ends with Thomas proposing that science itself is a sort of swarm intelligence, each experiment and journal article adding to a collective knowledge far greater than any one individual could attain.
Every page is loaded with observations like this, quips that I wish I could memorize and bust out at my next science writers’ soiree. But the real magic is how Thomas is able to write so evocatively while constructing and advancing his argument. I could spend weeks coming up with a lede or kicker half as good as the stuff Thomas tosses out mid-paragraph.
The book chases a single big idea – that the earth is one gigantic cell and everything in it is connected. While it may come off as quaint today, these are the writings of someone thinking very hard about these things in the 1970’s, building a narrative of ecology that now seems almost obvious.
As a science writer, I have to say it’s not fair that someone who dedicated his life to the medical sciences was able to entertain an offer to write some unedited essays for a medical journal and produce a book that captures both the wonder and gravity of the scientific endeavor. Or in short, do exactly what us science writers try to do with each assignment.
Lewis Thomas, to paraphrase an old editor of mine, had “it.” Whatever “it” is.
Photo by Adam Hinterthuer