I’ve always loved both science and writing. During my senior year of high school, as I wrote my college essays, I tried to find a way to weave the two together into a feasible future for myself: to explain why I love poems that overflow with biological imagery; to try to articulate the parallels I saw in the processes of biology and creating literature. And then when I read the book The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas, I felt like all my efforts were put to shame.
The Lives of a Cell is more of an anthology than a novel. As stated on the cover, it consists of Thomas’s “notes” as an observer of the world around him. Thomas originally wrote the essays as part of a column for the New England Journal of Medicine.
They are all united by common themes of the grandeur of life and its miraculous evolution; the universality of language and communication; and the importance and inevitability of working together as parts of a whole.
The book’s central purpose revolves around unearthing our insatiable urge to discover and expand our realm of knowledge, and it describes our role as protectors of the Earth and of our fellow organisms.
One interesting concept that Thomas proposes is the idea of humans as social organisms, as the nervous system of the Earth’s many pathways. He seeks to dispel the long-held belief that humans are above nature, saying instead that “we are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia... Man is embedded in nature.”
The most impressive thing to me is Thomas’s ability to see parallels between the tiniest and the largest processes. His perspective in uniting and traversing the microscopic and astronomical is otherworldly.
The other day, while I was doing research, I noticed that the samples of human nasal tissue we were imaging looked like nebulae illuminated by fluorescent light, and that was probably the best thing I had seen all day.
One of my favorite chapters is the last one, in which Thomas finally solidifies the analogy between the Earth and the cell by comparing the Earth’s atmosphere to the semipermeable membrane of a cell.
He ends with the realization that “for sheer size and perfection of function, [the atmosphere] is far and away the grandest product of collaboration in all of nature.” And within the membrane of the Earth, an expansive number of species flourish, protected and allowed to breathe, each fulfilling their own part in the continuation of life.
As suggested by the endosymbiont theory, nature tends toward energetically-favorable collaboration. I find it wonderfully romantic that we are living examples of this, being composed of more bacteria than human cells. We are just one of many organisms fortunate enough to have accumulated the right mutations under the right conditions to be where we are today.
Much of Thomas’s optimistic commentary on life’s evolution and future casts an unsettling shadow on not just the state of our environment today but also the way in which we prioritize (or don’t prioritize) the natural world.
In the “Information Age,” with our obsession with making forward progress, we’ve forgotten how to appreciate the progress that the world has already made, with and without our interference. While Thomas’ book may not have been intended as a call to action, you can certainly read it that way.
I had not thought of writing about this book for a while — there was simply too much that I wasn’t sure how to express. Then, more recently, I heard the song “Saturn” by Sleeping at Last. I ended up crying upon repeat listens and subsequent examination of its lyrics.
Not only is it achingly confusing in its simultaneously melancholy and hopeful tone, but it also encapsulates the same sense of wonder for the natural world and the universe and our role in it that Thomas captures — feelings that are conserved in us through generations just as much as any biological information.
To me, both Thomas’ book and Sleeping at Last’s song attempt to make sense of a world of disorder, to emphasize the fragility of human connection — and yet highlight its immense importance.
The progression and evolution of life may not be by chance, but the connections and friendships that we make throughout our lifetimes are certainly tenuous linkages that form against all odds, despite endless possible outcomes. As Thomas says, “We violate probability, by our nature.”
Or as Sleeping at Last phrases it, “With shortness of breath, I’ll explain the infinite / How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist.”