Quotes from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

Lewis Thomas ·  160 pages

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“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.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“The future is too interesting and dangerous to be entrusted to any predictable, reliable agency. We need all the fallibility we can get. Most of all, we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“If we had better hearing, and could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic tympani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonics of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“My mitochondria comprise a very large proportion of me. I cannot do the calculation, but I suppose there is almost as much of them in sheer dry bulk as there is the rest of me. Looked at in this way, I could be taken for a very large, motile colony of respiring bacteria, operating a complex system of nuclei, microtubules, and neurons for the pleasure and sustenance of their families, and running, at the moment, a typewriter.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“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.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher



“The uniformity of the earth's life, more astonishing than its diversity, is accountable by the high probability that we derived, originally, from some single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled. It is from the progeny of this parent cell that we take our looks; we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“Not all social animals are social with the same degree of commitment. In some species, the members are so tied to each other and interdependent as to seem the loosely conjoined cells of a tissue. The social insects are like this; they move, and live all their lives, in a mass; a beehive is a spherical animal. In other species, less compulsively social, the members make their homes together, pool resources, travel in packs or schools, and share the food, but any single one can survive solitary, detached from the rest. Others are social only in the sense of being more or less congenial, meeting from time to time in committees, using social gatherings as ad hoc occasions for feeding and breeding. Some animals simply nod at each other in passing, never reaching even a first-name relationship.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“Minnows and catfish can recognize each member of their own species by his particular, person-specific odor. It is hard to imagine a solitary, independent, existentialist minnow, recognizable for himself alone; minnows in a school behave like interchangeable, identical parts of an organism. But there it is.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“The individual parts played by other instrumentalists-- crickets or earthworms, for instance-- may not have the sound of music by themselves, but we hear them out of context. If we could listen to them all at once, fully orchestrated, in their immense ensemble, we might become aware of the counterpoint, the balance of tones and timbres and harmonics, the sonorities. The recorded songs of the humpback whale, filled with tensions and resolutions, ambiguities and allusions, incomplete, can be listened to as a a part of music, like an isolated section of an orchestra. If we had better hearing, we could discern the descants of sea birds, the rhythmic tympani of schools of mollusks, or even the distant harmonies of midges hanging over meadows in the sun, the combined sound might lift us off our feet.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“Working on a typewriter by touch, like riding a bicycle or strolling on a path, is best done by not giving it a glancing thought. Once you do, your fingers fumble and hit the wrong keys. To do things involving practiced skills, you need to turn loose the systems of muscles and nerves responsible for each maneuver, place them on their own, and stay out of it. There is no real loss of authority in this, since you get to decide whether to do the thing or not, and you can intervene and embellish the technique any time you like; if you want to ride a bicycle backward, or walk with an eccentric loping gait giving a little skip every fourth step, whistling at the same time, you can do that. But if you concentrate your attention on the details, keeping in touch with each muscle, thrusting yourself into a free fall with each step and catching yourself at the last moment by sticking out the other foot in time to break the fall, you will end up immobilized, vibrating with fatigue.
It is a blessing to have options for choice and change in the learning of such unconsciously coordinated acts. If we were born with all these knacks inbuilt, automated like ants, we would surely miss the variety. It would be a less interesting world if we all walked and skipped alike, and never fell from bicycles. If we were all genetically programmed to play the piano deftly from birth, we might never learn to understand music.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher



“Perhaps it is in this respect that language differs most sharply from other biologic systems for communication. Ambiguity seems to be an essential, indispensable element for the transfer of information from one place to another by words, where matters of real importance are concerned. It is often necessary, for meaning to come through, that there be an almost vague sense of strangeness and askewness. Speechless animals and cells cannot do this. The specifically locked-on antigen at the surface of a lymphocyte does not send the cell off in search of something totally different; when a bee is tracking sugar by polarized light, observing the sun as though consulting his watch, he does not veer away to discover an unimaginable marvel of a flower. Only the human mind is designed to work in this way, programmed to drift away in the presence of locked-on information, straying from each point in a hunt for a better, different point.
If it were not for the capacity for ambiguity, for the sensing of strangeness, the words in all languages provide, we would have no way of recognizing the layers of counterpoint in meaning, and we might be spending all our time sitting on stone fences, staring into the sun. To be sure, we would always have had some everyday use to make of the alphabet, and we might have reached the same capacity for small talk, but it is unlikely that we would have been able to evolve from words to Bach. The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“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.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“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 fro ourselves. We violate probability, by our nature. To be able to do this systematically, and in such wild varieties of form, from viruses to whales, is extremely unlikely; to have sustained the effort successfully for the several billion years of our existence, without drifting back into randomness, was nearly a mathematical impossibility.
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.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“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 al, 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...
We should credit it for what it is: for sheer size and perfection of function, it is far and away the grandest product of collaboration in all of nature.
It 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.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


“We should credit [the sky] for what it is: for sheer size and perfection of function, it is far and away the grandest product of collaboration in all of nature.

It 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 that the sound is there overhead, like the random noise of rain on the roof at night.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher



“I am sad that I did not see any of this myself. By the time I had received the communication on television and in my morning paper, felt the tugging pull toward Manhattan, and made my preparations to migrate, I learned that the army ants had all died.

The Art Form simply disintegrated, all at once, like one of those exploding, vanishing faces in paintings by the British artist Francis Bacon

There was no explanation, beyond the rumored, unproved possibility of cold drafts in the gallery over the weekend. Monday morning they were sluggish, moving with less precision, dully. Then, the death began, affecting first one part and then another, and within a day all 2 million were dead, swept away into large plastic bags and put outside for the engulfment and digestion by the sanitation truck.

It is a melancholy parable. I am unsure of the meaning, but I do think it has something to do with all that plastic- that, and the distance from earth. It is a long, long way from the earth of a Central American jungle to the ground floor of a gallery, especially when you consider that Manhattan itself is suspended on a kind of concrete platform, propped up by a meshwork of wires, pipes, and water mains. But I think it was chiefly the plastic, which seems to me the most unearthly of all man's creations so far. I do not believe you can suspend army ants away from the earth, on plastic, for any length of time. They will lose touch, run out of energy, and die for lack of current.”
― Lewis Thomas, quote from The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher


About the author

Lewis Thomas
Born date November 25, 1913
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