The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

by Lewis Thomas

Hardcover, 1974




New York: Viking Press, [1974]


Elegant, suggestive, and clarifying, Lewis Thomas's profoundly humane vision explores the world around us and examines the complex interdependence of all things.  Extending beyond the usual limitations of biological science and into a vast and wondrous world of hidden relationships, this provocative book explores in personal, poetic essays to topics such as computers, germs, language, music, death, insects, and medicine.  Lewis Thomas writes, "Once you have become permanently startled, as I am, by the realization that we are a social species, you tend to keep an eye out for the pieces of evidence that this is, by and large, good for us."

User reviews

LibraryThing member jhbadger
Lewis Thomas is a name I remember from my undergraduate days; my biology professors were fond of quoting him. I knew very little about him other than the fact that he wrote scientific essays in polished prose and was evidentally at one time quite well known even among the general public. But fame
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is fleeting and few of those who came of scientific age after his death in 1993 recognize his name. I suppose ten years hence Stephen Jay Gould will be equally obscure.

I discovered a first edition of this book in the famed "Strand" used bookstore during a recent trip to Manhattan. I was amazed at its physical appearance -- the pages had not yellowed, nor was the cover the garish psychedelic mess that books from the early 1970s tended to have. In short, the book would look quite in place in a modern bookstore. Having now read the slender tome, I would have to say that the contents seem (with few exceptions) equally modern.

Much like many of Stephen Jay Gould's books, "The Lives of a Cell" is a collection of essays originally printed elsewhere. In this case, the venue was the New England Journal of Medicine, but thankfully (in my opinion, at least) they mostly deal with issues of basic biology. The first thing I noticed was that Thomas used the term "genome" quite frequently and without explanation -- while few people today would fail to understand the term, I wonder what people in 1974 made of it; I myself don't recall hearing the term until 1991, when I met a student of Fred Blattner's who was working on the E. coli genome, and even as late as 1997 I recall having to explain the term to my parents. Secondly, it is interesting how obsessed Thomas seemed to be with endosymbiosis. Repeatedly, the theme that eukaryotic cells as we know them could not exist without the endosymbiotic help of mitochondria and chloroplasts is brought up. This also adds to the modern feel of the book because in recent years endosymbiosis has become a popular topic again as genome sequencing has allowed more detailed studies of endosymbionts and their relation to free living microbes to be undertaken. Thomas even suggested a genome project (although not in so many words): Mixotricha paradoxa, a protist that moves by the work of embedded endosymbiotic spriochetes -- in other words, its "limbs" are actually other organisms.

Other topics that Thomas addresses also are quite modern -- Thomas' pleas that biology look beyond the traditional reductionistic approach to look at entire systems are more or less identical with the sorts of editorials on the subject that one reads today, and his assertions that language has a biological basis predate Pinker's by decades.

The only things that don't quite hold up are Thomas' thoughts on international politics (which were understandably mired in the dated topics of the Cold War and fears of US-USSR nuclear war), and his view on computers, which like that of many people of his time, was based on the misunderstanding (propagated from films from the 1950's onward) that computers were genuinely thinking machines rather than simply fancy programmable calculators.

I highly recommend this book -- the essays are well written in much the same sort of style that Gould would later use, and it is simply amazing that it dates from 1974.
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LibraryThing member Silvernfire
Every now and then, a book I'm reading refers to this book or quotes from it, so I was happy to have a chance to finally read it directly. It's a collection of short essays, each about 7 pages long, on a variety of topics: language, medicine, germs, the Marine Biological Laboratory, how humans do
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and do not behave like social insects, etc. Thomas was a physician and he freely threw words like "prokaryotic," "eukaryotic," and "ribosomes" into his writing. But you don't need to have majored in biology to understand his essays; the technical stuff is never really what he's writing about. An enjoyable, thoughtful read.
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LibraryThing member AZ_Dude
A collection of essays on the idea of examining the Earth, not as a complex, living organism, but as a cell.
LibraryThing member Smiley
Wonderful little book that carrys a big punch.
LibraryThing member carterchristian1
A wonderful group of essays on biology, so very well written, not too long, with ideas that invite further exploration. I expect to dip into this frequently again and again in the future.

There are 2 particular chapters that I think should be read by all the Obama administration (and probably, in
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fact almost certainly won't)
Page 35 Bantam Books paperback
The Technology of Medicine. Thomas shows there are 3 categories of disease, those that cannot be cured, but absorb physicians's time, those that can be help with expensive technology and those that can be cured or prevented, largely with cheaper vaccines, requiring little medical expense.

Page 95
Your Very Good Health
Sentence one...could be written today except for the amount of money
"We spend 80 bi on your health"..."essentially scatterbrained kind of business, expanding steadily without being planned."
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LibraryThing member coffeeandtea
A fascinating study. Elegant notes and insight into the who, what, and how of humanity and our world. I want to a be a microbiologist.
LibraryThing member DoingDewey
Although written in the 1970′s, these essays by Lewis Thomas cover subjects that are still some of the most interesting questions in biology today. From the awe-inspiring complexity of a single cell to our approach to curing diseases, from how our interactions compare to those of social insects
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to the health care system, the essays in this book will give you a new appreciation for biology and a unique, thoughtful perspective on these fascinating topics. Every time I finished an essay, I was struck by the thought that surely no one really just sits down and writes essays like this any more. More than anything else, the author reminded me of a naturalist, someone from the early twentieth century simply observing, wondering at, and trying to learn from nature.

As a scientist, I want that. Every day, I work at science and occasionally I get the feeling this book captures; a feeling of stepping back and no longer working at science, but wondering at it. In every essay, Thomas writes about biology in a deceptively casual, meditative manner which requires intimate knowledge of so much science just to be able to connect the concepts he uses to draw the bigger picture. And he doesn’t just write about it in a science-y way. I think anyone, even a non-scientist, could pick this book up and appreciate the poetic beauty with which he describes life. They might even learn a little biology along the way.

I know I’m handing out 5 star reviews like candy this week, but this another book where all I can say is: read this! The essays are each short, all under 10 pages, and they’re written in a very approachable way. I would highly recommend this book to a book club or even a journal club for all the thought provoking ideas it presents, as well as to any scientist because occasionally we need to be reminded just how awesome what we’re doing really is.
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LibraryThing member julie10reads
Thank you LibraryThing reader who suggested this book to me!

An assemblage of twenty-nine short essays on the recent genetic and molecular biologic revolution, presenting a holistic vision of nature: the earth as a superorganism of species, societies as superorganisms of individuals, man as the
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superorganism of organelles, and so on. Summary BPL

Although written between 1971 and 1973, these lyric essays retain their relevance in the 21st century. Dr. Thomas has been called a “cosmic dreamer”: he suggests sending Bach into outerspace as our first auditory contact with other species. Any language or data would be too outdated by the time it reaches the nearest livable planet (200 years), he says. Because he understands many subjects—not just medical—at a cellular level, Dr. Thomas writes about things in their essence. I hesitate to call his writing philosophical since that would necessitate organizing his thoughts into a system; his musings are more akin to poetic observation from which he deduces an underlying connectedness among all things. When he compares the view of our planet from outer space—a blue and green orb enveloped in the protective membrane of the atmosphere—to a cell, I had to catch my breath.

8 out 10 For readers who like to understand the world at its most basic level…
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LibraryThing member AlCracka
Aylin calls this "a wonderful blend of scientist, artist and original thinker," which is a very interesting thing to call an author.
LibraryThing member DarkWater
A great read for the scientist and poet alike, The Lives of a Cell sits at the busy cross streets of sociology, biology, and language. No one would argue with the fact that we, as humans, are social animals but Thomas goes one step further asserting "the whole dear notion of one’s own self –
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marvelous old free-willed, free-enterprising, autonomous, independent, isolated island of a Self – is a myth". Like an ant, only in the context of the entire anthill do we each take on meaning, serving as an organelle in the function of the whole organism which appears to have a collective conscious. Thomas also applies the language of genetics to the genetics of language, purporting language is itself a species, with a genesis and antiquity all its own. Like mitochondria, language is a constantly evolving suborganism carried along transiently by our most singly human artifact (culture), supported by our biological disposition for grammar and syntax, and equally as vital to our existence.
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LibraryThing member leslie.98
Biological science written for the general public - fairly easy to read and quite interesting even to someone like me who dislikes biology!
LibraryThing member AlexTheHunn
This is a fascinating book and one that is underappreciated. It can make you re-evaluate your idea of yourself and what is it that makes you, YOU.
LibraryThing member augustgarage
Some of the same insight (though more informed) as Herzog, though with a much more optimistic perspective. The essay about "computers" seems hopelessly outdated, but otherwise the book has aged pretty well.
LibraryThing member AlanWPowers
The author invited my wife, the artist Susan Mohl Powers (google her on wikipedia), to exhibit at Sloan Kettering after she did at Squibb International Headquarters in Princeton (and was reviewed in the NYT), but somehow in the early 80's she was developing other forums. I "taught" some of these
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essays, too good for a medical journal (they were often published in newspapers, too, as I recall) and found the prose as good as any contemporary non-fiction I had read,"the high probability that we derived, originally, from a single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled...we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance"(5). On mitochondria, he notes, "in a strict sense they are not ours. They turn out to be little separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes...Mitochondria are stable and responsible lodgers..."
Since I was a pre-med student at an excellent college, I follow this pretty well, but I believe only my nursing students really liked it at the community college when I taught chapters like "Death in the Open," and "The music of This Sphere."
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LibraryThing member dypaloh
Several years ago an immunologist happened to tell me how much she admired The Lives of a Cell. Lucky for me, because now I’ve read it and there is much in it I hope not to forget.

Early in this charming collection of short essays, Lewis Thomas writes:
“Ants are so much like human beings as to
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be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They do everything but watch television.”

Hmm . . . I gave up watching TV years ago so it appears the narrow ground differentiating me from an ant is now vanished. Well, I am lazier than an ant. I’ve never captured a slave, for example. Maybe that’s enough to claim I ain’t an ant! But probably I should just admit our kinship and go research which species it’d be best to enlist with.

After all, a large theme for Thomas is the sociability of organisms, their being together with their own kind, driven to finding relationships, congenial or not, with other kinds, forming dependencies capable of sustaining illusions of independence for the party that doesn’t understand the situation. It has about it something of the miraculous.

While reading The Lives of a Cell one becomes impressed by the scope of these relations, by the rarity of “separateness,” by little-known continua in life. This last idea is dramatically illustrated in the process of dying. Thomas shares in his essay “The Long Habit” the following remarkable intelligence:
“Judging from what has been found out thus far, from the first generation of people resuscitated from cardiac standstill…Those who remember parts or all of their episodes do not recall any fear, or anguish. Several people who remained conscious throughout, while appearing to have been quite dead, could only describe a remarkable sensation of detachment . . .
“In a recent study of the reaction of patients to dying of obstructive disease of the lungs, it was concluded that the process was considerably more shattering for the professional observers than the observed. Most of the patients appeared to be preparing themselves with equanimity for death, as though intuitively familiar with the business. One elderly woman reported that the only painful and distressing part of the process was in being interrupted; on several occasions she was provided with conventional therapeutic measures…and each time she found the experience of coming back harrowing; she deeply resented the interference with her dying.”

What could speak more of the completeness of life’s preparations for the living individual in all its natural events?

In what Lewis Thomas tells us, in The Lives of a Cell, the reader enjoys more than mere acquaintance with interesting information. The book quietly extends our perceptions and alters our perspectives.
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LibraryThing member CenterPointMN
Brief glimpses into the many facets of our biological cosmos. Combines wit, professional insight and a strong sense about the human condition.
LibraryThing member bragan
A collection of very short essays from the 1970s in which Lewis Thomas, a medical researcher, muses about various topics related to medicine, biology, and nature. He is particularly interested in mitochondria, social insects and the ways in which human society does or doesn't resemble theirs, and
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the importance of basic research in medical science.

This is regarded as a real classic of science writing, or at least of writing by a scientist, so it's a little surprising it took me this long to get to it. I must say that, when I first started it, I didn't exactly think it was living up to its reputation. The essays here are really tiny, more a series of individual thoughts than anything else. And Thomas not infrequently uses some technical terms without explaining them, which I didn't find too much of a problem, but which does make it feel less accessible than I was expecting. He also engages in a fair amount of speculation and the occasional flight of fancy that aren't at all scientific, which bugs me possibly more than it ought to.

But the more I read, the more I came to appreciate Thomas's writing. It's rather beautiful, always thoughtful and often thought-provoking, and laced with subtle wit. And although it is very much of its time, aside from a few now-humorous remarks about computers, it's actually aged quite well.

So. Do I still think Lewis Thomas is over-hyped, for lack of a better phrase? Well, yes, a bit. But he is still good.
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LibraryThing member jigarpatel
Lives of a Cell is a collection of 29 beautifully written essays on science. Although focused on biology, you'll find essays touching on etymology, cosmology and healthcare. That's a blessing for the layperson. The treatment of some topics feels dated. For instance, genetics is mentioned only
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briefly. On other topics, such as treatment of the elderly and palliative care, Thomas shows great foresight.

In addition, Thomas dispels myths and adds interesting anecdotes. Several stick in my mind. First, the mitochondria in our cells has more in common with bacteria than other animals. Second, illness if often caused by bacteria themselves becoming infected or abnormal. Third, symbiosis is an arrangement as common as competition, and often more stable. Fourth, many insect species are social and have a critical mass beyond which they act as a single organism. There are many more nuggets which feed on the layman's mind and expand horizons.

Given the collection's breadth of outlook, I recommend this for anyone interested in biology, nature or science generally.
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LibraryThing member DoingDewey
Although written in the 1970′s, these essays by Lewis Thomas cover subjects that are still some of the most interesting questions in biology today. From the awe-inspiring complexity of a single cell to our approach to curing diseases, from how our interactions compare to those of social insects
Show More
to the health care system, the essays in this book will give you a new appreciation for biology and a unique, thoughtful perspective on these fascinating topics. Every time I finished an essay, I was struck by the thought that surely no one really just sits down and writes essays like this any more. More than anything else, the author reminded me of a naturalist, someone from the early twentieth century simply observing, wondering at, and trying to learn from nature.

Read more here...
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LibraryThing member Jeannine504
Beautiful writing, beautiful mind, beautiful soul.
LibraryThing member mykl-s
Thomas has a feel for biology and is very good at sharing his thoughts.



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