Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: Penguin (Non-Classics); Reissue edition (February 23, 1978)
The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas consists of twenty-nine essays that were originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine. These essays collections are a fusion of biology, language, and sociology. Thomas often connects the Ďcellsí that he speaks of to its biosphere as a whole. Moreover, Thomasís series of essays emphasizes a central theme in regards to how the cells act like bodies, which act like species, which, in turn, act like ecosystems. He focuses his essays on the correspondence between cells and organisms, how humanity functions as one macro-organism, and the recapitulation of small cells within larger cells.
Thomasís reference to the genetics of language implies that language in it of itself is considered as a species, which contains its own genesis and antiquity. He compels us to stop in our fast pace world and look critically and wonderingly at the live world in which we live in. As we become more introspective and ponder about our individuality and indivisibility, Thomas points out that it becomes overwhelmingly evident that connectivity is inescapable. There is a variant of connections that may occur among one another. At times, there may be a physical connection, such as the linkage between tissues, or, sometimes, it may be abstract, as in the case of language. However, every so often, the connection may also be blatantly metaphysical, like how beehives and anthills function more like a single organism rather than a society.
According to Thomasís observations, a bee is more like a cell in the body of the hive instead of being an individual member of the hive. He notes that although the queen bee may be the leader or head of the hive, she does not necessarily think or control the hive. Instead, Thomas perceives that the hive thinks for itself and reacts to stimuli in self-preserving and self-perpetuating ways that cannot be explained in terms of the cognitive capacity of an individual bee (57).
Throughout Thomasís essays, he uses analogies to describe multitude facets of life. For instance, in the chapters entitled Social Talk and Information, Thomas elaborates about the development and importance of languages, saying that language, once it comes alive, behaves like an active, motive organism (90). Human languages, despite its geographical origins, are constantly growing because new words are continuously being added. Meanings are always exchanged among languages, thus, Thomas observes, old language gives rise to new Ďchildrení languages (82). Sadly, as people stop speaking their languages, it eventually becomes a dead language.
Often times, we, the human race as a whole, believe that our minds can comprehend ourselves as well as places in the universe via discussions and analyses. Lewis elucidates to us that we actually understand our humanity surprisingly well, considering the fact that humans fail to realize that all cells innately know their role as a cell and how functions most successful as a whole. Thomas goes on to explain that the human mindís comprehension of mutuality, community, and society is actually more deeply inherent than we recognize it to be. It is no wonder why we should not be surprise that we cannot demystify it.
Thomas frequently compares earth to an organism, consisting of many sub-particles that interact with one another, similar to the way our body parts functions. The only difference is that our body parts have noticeable and defined connections with each other, while the correlation between different aspects of the earth may be ambiguous. Since different aspects of the earth have their own life cycles (e.g. birth, life, and death) its linkage cannot be deemed as separate organs. Thomas is trying to convey to us that earth is more like a cell Ė with its different parts comparable to the cellís organelles (71).
Although Thomasís essays are short, they are written elegantly and finely honed. On top of being beautifully written, his short essays are compelling as well as being accessible. Through Thomasís biological analogies, this book will enlighten you about the various aspects of biology. Since Thomasís essays were published each month, I do not believe that this book should be read all at once. Regrettably, I had to read it all at once for my class. I must admit, it was a bit indigestible to take it in all at once because Thomasís themes begin to repeats itself. However, if you take your time to read it, instead of reading it all at once, it can act as a food for thought.
Overall, this book is undoubtedly insightful. Thomasís meticulous observations and notes will surely make you ponder about the difference between an ant and the relationship an ant may contribute to their community as a whole. Indeed, Thomasís comparison of different organisms and its relation to its environment turns his writings into a work of art.