Science Book Reviews : The Lives of a Cell -- Notes of a Biology Watcher , by Lewis Thomas

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Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell -- Notes of a Biology Watcher

          This book is given rank 11 in the "Modern Library list of 100 best nonfiction." It won the National Book Award in 1974. Paperback; 181 pages. It consists of of 29 short articles on issues in biology that were originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The articles are philosophical rather than technical. Lewis Thomas is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, and has been a faculty member at the University of Minnesota, New York University, and Yale.

          The book contains considerable discussion of the fact that the meaning of "organism" is ambiguous, a matter of the viewer's perspective. We usually think of one human, one tree, etc., as an organism, but the matter isn't that clear.

          An astonishing fact to ponder is that the organelles within a single cell are themselves separate organisms. The mitochondria and chloroplasts [pages 2-3, 82-83] are individual prokaryotic organisms (related to the monera, that is, the bacteria kingdom), even though we're talking about the cells of eukaryotic organisms (animals, plants, fungi, and protista). These organelles have their own DNA and RNA which are clearly bacteria-like and distinct from the DNA and RNA of the creatures in whose cells they live. Somehow they were captured by cells in primordial times and became adapted to live inside them. These organelle are endosymbionts, Thomas writes, "... they were probably engulfed by larger cells more than a billion years ago and have simply lived there ever since." [page 83] Some biologists also view cilia, flagella, centrioles, and basal bodies as separate organisms.

          This is no small matter, literally. Mitochondria and chloroplasts are "... the most important things on earth. Between them they produce the oxygen and arrange for its use. My mitochondria comprise a very large proportion of me ... there is almost as much of them in sheer dry bulk as there is the rest of me." [84] One must raise "the whole question of my identity." [85] "I did not mind it when I first learned of my descent from lower forms of life ...[but] ... I had never bargained on descent from single cells without nuclei .... I have not, in a real sense, descended at all. I have brought them along with me, or perhaps they have brought me." [85-86]

          The odd but inevitable conclusion is that a single cell is an entire ecosystem.

          This point must segue into a discussion of "societies as organisms." If one cell is in fact a community, a world, perhaps we can view the human race or some other biological group as one macroscopic animal, with an individual metabolism and intelligence. There are instances in which a distinct intelligence appears when many "individuals" interact, e.g., the behavior of flocks of birds and schools of fish, and the division of labor among ants and bees in the architecture they produce, even though the behavior a single creature is random and meaningless. Perhaps, then, an entire community is a kind of animal.

          Bearing this in mind, I review the remark Lewis Thomas had made in the beginning of the book:

"I have been trying to think of the earth as a kind of organism, but it is no go. I cannot think of it this way. It is too big, too complex, with too many working parts lacking visible connections. The other night, driving through a hilly, wooded part of southern New England, I wondered about this. If not like an organism, what is it like, what is it most like? Then, satisfactorily for that moment, it came to me: it is most like a single cell." [4]

          Some of his conclusions are bound to be controversial in the political sense:

"There is really no such creature as a single individual; he has no more life of his own than a cast-off cell marooned from the surface of your skin." [page 63]

"For total greed, rapacity, heartlessness, and irresponsibility there is nothing to match a nation. Nations, by law, are solitary, self-centered, withdrawn into themselves. There is no such thing as affection between nations, and certainly no nation ever loved another." [129]

          Another example of the philosophical musings of Lewis Thomas is the article entitled A Fear of 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?" [17]

          A reader who browses the table of contents might not find it self-explanatory. For example, the chapter called The MBL is about the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The chapter called The Iks is about the tribe known as the Iks in Uganda. In the article entitled Ceti, this is the acronym for communication with extraterrestrial intelligence, and discusses the conclusions reached as a result of a joint U.S.-Soviet CETI conference in 1972.

          See several customer comments, pro and con, on the linked page.

The Lives of a Cell - Notes of a Biology Watcher , by Lewis Thomas

Table of contents, based on the 1974 Bantam Books edition;
page numbers might not be exactly the same as in the
1995 reissue by Penguin Books.

 1.  The Lives of a Cell	       1
 2.  Thoughts for a Countdown	       5
 3.  On Societies as Organisms	      11
 4.  A Fear of Pheromones	      17
 5.  The Music of This Sphere	      22
 6.  An Earnest Proposal	      29
 7.  The Technology of Medicine       35
 8.  Vibes			      43
 9.  Ceti			      49
10.  The Long Habit		      55
11.  Antaeus in Manhattan	      62
12.  The MBL			      68
13.  Autonomy			      75
14.  Organelles as Organisms	      81
15.  Germs			      88
16.  Your Very Good Health	      95
17.  Social Talk		     102
18.  Information		     107
19.  Death in the Open		     113
20.  Natural Science		     117
21.  Natural Man		     121
22.  The Iks			     126
23.  Computers			     130
24.  The Planning of Science	     134
25.  Some Biomythology		     141
26.  On Various Words		     149
27.  Living Language		     156
28.  On Probability and Possibility  165
29.  The World's Biggest Membrane    170

Reference Notes 		     175
About the Author		     181
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