Review: The Lives of a Cell

In a scurrying ant hill, it is tempting to see a civilization, constructing its pyramids or cathedrals for generations far in the future — tempting too to consider our own societies as higher-order ant hills, each individual barely aware of their contributions to a larger force. Often these metaphors are dry, breaking down at the slightest probing, offering little beyond a shrug.

But in The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas manages to create, from such simple analogies, deep and complex meaning. In this delightful collection of essays from the early 1970s, Thomas, a physician and member of the National Academy of Sciences, uses empiricism not as final truth, but as a nucleating event for greater insights into our human nature and the driving curiosity behind science.

His central thesis, conveyed steadily across each compact essay, is the fundamental need for life to interact and the whole that emerges greater than its parts. From termite colonies to human language to the biosphere itself, Thomas treats symbiosis and emergence not as special arrangements but as the natural order of things: organisms seek cooperation before annihilation.

What sets this collection apart from most science writing is that it principally focuses on forming good questions rather than leading the reader to the ‘correct’ conclusion. It is searching and expansive. The essays synthesize disparate facts into cohesive, fresh interpretations of the meaning of life — all life. Most of Thomas’ ideas, unlike the science they are based on, are untestable. Those that could be falsified may be one day. Does this detract from his insights? I hardly think so; not all things worth considering can be tested.

It is also refreshing to see a committed scientist connect his discipline to his wider interests. Language in particular fascinates Thomas, with whole essays committed to language as humanity’s anthill — our genetic inheritance to construct and improve, ceaselessly. Entire other pieces absorb the reader in the speciation of words from Indo-European roots and the surprising (or is it obvious?) parallel development of etymological and biological evolutionary theories in the 19th century.

The work is of its time, of course. Thomas writes lovingly of our endosymbiotic organelles — the mitochondria and chloroplasts that undergird all complex life — and speculates that the centriole, the fibers that properly divide chromosomes, may be the third such cellular companion. Though this is not the case, we now know, it hardly detracts from the lesson on symbiosis as a deeply entrenched force of nature.

And even 25 years after the Cold War, his appeal against Armageddon resonates still. It takes the form of a challenge: to input into a computer a complete set of knowledge about a single organism, so that the survivors of a nuclear holocaust have a head start in rebuilding biological science. The target, Mixotricha paradoxa, is a brilliant choice as it, astoundingly, comprises at least five species in close endosymbiosis. These bonds are so tight that, in place of cilia, the protozoan uses hundreds of thousands of spirochete bacteria to power its swimming through the termite’s gut, where it digests cellulose in an additional layer of collaboration.

Thomas gives the challenge a lunar-like ten years and, more optimistic about a computer’s motivations than our own, writes:

“I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence. At the end of the decade, therefore, I am willing to predict that the feeding in of all the information then available will result, after a few seconds of whirring, in something like the following message, neatly and speedily printed out: ‘Request more data. How are spirochetes attached? Do not fire.’”

With such cleverness, he explores the anxieties of his time and communicates enduring lessons about the ceaselessly mysterious nature of studying biology, where each new answer only spurs more questions.

Science can tell us truths about nature; it has little to say on truths about ourselves, on how we should live, how we should feel about the world we study. Yet in contemplating the human need to search for understanding, and in attempting to synthesize a collection of biological facts into a philosophy of life, Thomas has drawn from science inspiration for a decidedly unreductive view of the creatures that inhabit our blue and green Earth.

Joyce Carol Oates, in reviewing this collection, writes:

“The Lives of a Cell anticipates the kind of writing that will appear more and more frequently, as scientists take on the language of poetry in order to communicate human truths too mysterious for old-fashioned common sense.”

Indeed, it is just this kind of poetry that elevates science — so often mistaken for dull and dry — to the the level of exploration, of wonder, of… what if!

[A version of this post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]