Lewis Thomas joins the small but might panoply of distinguished scientists who have stepped out to tell the rest of us about what’s being discovered and to offer heart-felt reflections on these understandings. His premier book, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, was published almost 40 years ago and continues to resonate fully, as evinced by the quotes below.
Here’s a trove of Lewis Thomas quotes:
You’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise….You’d think we’d never stop dancing.
The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.
The greatest of all the accomplishments of 20th century science has been the discovery of human ignorance.
It is in our genes to understand the universe if we can, to keep trying even if we cannot, and to be enchanted by the act of learning all the way.
I am a member of a fragile species, still new to the earth, the youngest creatures of any scale, here only a few moments as evolutionary time is measured, a juvenile species, a child of a species. We are only tentatively set in place, error prone, at risk of fumbling, in real danger at the moment of leaving behind only a thin layer of our fossils, radioactive at that.
As evolutionary time is measured, we have only just turned up and have hardly had time to catch breath, still marveling at our thumbs, still learning to use the brand-new gift of language. Being so young, we can be excused all sorts of folly and can permit ourselves the hope that someday, as a species, we will begin to grow up.
The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand.
The oldest, easiest to swallow idea was that the earth was man’s personal property, a combination of garden, zoo, bank vault, and energy source, placed at our disposal to be consumed, ornamented, or pulled apart as we wished. [UG: I trust he would readily agree to amend this to read Western idea.]
Worrying is the most natural and spontaneous of all human functions. It is time to acknowledge this, perhaps even to learn to do it better.
It is hard to feel affection for something as totally impersonal as the atmosphere, and yet there it is, as much a part and product of life as wine and bread. Taken all in all, the sky is a miraculous achievement. It works, and for what it is designed to accomplish it is as infallible as anything in nature. I doubt whether any of us could think of a way to improve on it, beyond maybe shifting a local cloud from here to there on occasion. The word ‘chance’ does not serve to account well for structures of such magnificence. [UG: We have, of course, thought of ways that degrade it.]
The atmosphere breathes for us, and it does another thing for our pleasure. Each day, millions of meteorites fall against the outer limits of the membrane and are burned to nothing by the friction. Without this shelter, our surface would long since have become the pounded powder of the moon. Even though our receptors are not sensitive enough to hear it, there is comfort in knowing the sound is there overhead, like the random noise of rain on the roof at night.
We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for Man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today.
It is in our collective behavior that we are the most mysterious. We won’t be able to construct machines like ourselves until we’ve understood this, and we’re not even close. All we know is the phenomenon: we spend our time sending messages to each other, talking and trying to listen at the same time, exchanging information. This seems to be our most urgent biological function; it is what we do with our lives. By the time we reach the end, each of us has taken in a staggering store, enough to exhaust any computer, much of it incomprehensible, and we generally manage to put out even more than we take in. Information is our source of energy; we are driven by it. It has become a tremendous enterprise, a kind of energy system on its own. All 3 billion of us are being connected by telephones, radios, television sets, airplanes, satellites, harangues on public-address systems, newspapers, magazines, leaflets dropped from great heights, words got in edgewise. We are becoming a grid, a circuitry around the earth. [UG: written prior to the internet!]
We do not have solitary beings. Every creature is, in some sense, connected to and dependent on the rest. It has been estimated that we probably have real knowledge of only a small proportion of the microbes of the earth, because most of them cannot be cultivated alone. They live together in dense, interdependent communities, feeding and supporting the environment for each other, regulating the balance of populations between different species by a complex system of chemical signals. With our present technology, we can no more isolate one from the rest, and rear it alone, than we can keep a single bee from drying up like a desquamated cell when removed from his hive…They live by collaboration, accommodation, exchange, and barter.
The next 3 paragraphs go together.
Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.
Even more astounding is our statistical improbability in physical terms. The normal, predictable state of matter throughout the universe is randomness, a relaxed sort of equilibrium, with atoms and their particles scattered around in an amorphous muddle. We, in brilliant contrast, are completely organized structures, squirming with information at every covalent bond. We make our living by catching electrons at the moment of their excitement by solar photons, swiping the energy released at the instant of each jump and storing it up in intricate loops for ourselves. We violate probability, by our nature.
Add to this the biological improbability that makes each member of our own species unique. Everyone is one in 3 billion at the moment , which describes the odds. Each of us is a self-contained, free-standing individual, labeled by specific protein configurations at the surfaces of cells, identifiable by whorls of fingertip skin, maybe even by special medleys of fragrance. You’d think we’d never stop dancing.