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the lives of a cell

sophie b.'s picture

 Sophie Balis-Harris


Web Book Commentary: The Lives of a Cell

Throughout his collection of essays, The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas presents biology not as a topic of study which impacts our individual lives, but rather a large scale process which individuals compose a small part of.  Thomas begins by reminding us that the way humans perceive themselves in relation to the earth is categorically wrong. We, as humans often view biology, and even the existence of the earth, to be a function of our own existence, when in fact the opposite is true. Though we believe our species to be the most powerful of living creatures on earth, our existence is far from everlasting. Thomas points out that the earth is a far more durable and improbable entity than humans, who are "transient and vulnerable as cilia" (3). It seems that Thomas most wants the reader to understand that their lives (along with all living creatures) are inextricably linked to a biological "big picture". 

Thomas begins to demonstrate this big picture idea to the reader by examining the relationship between humans and the cells which we are composed of.  Throughout this course we have attempted to understand ourselves as biological entities, as well as improbably assemblies at the molecular level. However, in class many of us found it hard to relate to science at the scale of molecules and macromolecules because we couldn't understand our role in interactions that take place at such a small scale. I think this is because many of us who do not have scientific backgrounds do not really understand the complexity of our own bodies, and the organisms that compose us. While know that we have organs and cells, many of us do not understand the real implications of our internal structure. Thomas' description of human cells as "ecosystems more complex than Jamaica Bay"(4),  explains this role in a way that stresses  how the cell is of utmost importance to the human body. Thomas states that while we often view our cells as "successively enriched pockets of our own parts"(4), we should instead view them as occupiers within our bodies, as cells are diverse amongst themselves that contain a different DNA structure and reproduction cycle than ours.  Thomas states that he views cells as somewhat separate entities within him, all working towards his interest. 

. One of the major themes of our course, which Thomas also touches upon in his essays, is the idea of science as a process of "getting it less wrong", that there are no capital T truths. Unfortunately, most of us have not been taught to view science this way, most often, we are not taught to question the idea of facts, simply to absorb them. However the way that information is widely disseminated in our society often fragments information and causes many of us to end up with a cloudy understanding of scientific concepts. One particularly interesting conversation we had in class reflects this problem. We were discussing the way that science categorizes certain molecules as negative, or dangerous when they are actually essential elements of the life cycle. As a result of this, cholesterol has been personified as an evil invader of sorts, as it is a leading cause of heart disease. However cholesterol is in fact a necessary part of our existence, that should simply be monitored to prevent health problems. Thomas similarly discusses this concept in the essay The Lives of a Cell when he notes that "viruses, instead of being single minded agents of disease and death now begin to look more like mobile genes."(5) Thomas shows us that our perception of viruses, (along with other similar organisms) is limited because we only understand them in terms of our own experiences and of the societal perception of viruses. In the same way that most people's understanding of cholesterol's role is limited due to its negative popular image, so is our comprehension of the scope of the role of viruses. 

In the essay Death in the Open, Thomas discusses the way that death is hidden in many species.  Most animals never allow themselves to die in the open, instead leaving the earth quietly and largely unnoticed. This privatization of the act of dying attaches a stigma to death. We fear dying, and try to ignore its inevitability despite the fact that death is all around us- it is simply part of the cycling of life. In class, when we discussed the concept of death as a result of entropy, many of us had difficulty coming to terms with the idea of life as a process of breaking down, and becoming more probable states. It is very difficult for many of us to disassociate our own fears of dying from the concept of death as a whole, and simply categorizing our lives as a degenerative process can at times seem a little too morbid. However, I think that Thomas does an exceptionally good job at articulating the point we were driving at in class, when he states at the end of Death in the Open: 

" we have to give up the notion that death is catastrophe, or detestable, or avoidable, or even strange...everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies, cell for cell. There might be some comfort in the recognition of synchrony, in the information that we all go down together, in the best of company." (96)

I think that one of the reasons we are so fearful of death is because we generally view death as a solitary venture, we often think of ourselves as "going out alone". Perhaps if we could realize the biological "big picture" of death, we as a people would be able to view death as less of an individual loss and more as a universal process of which all people are a part of.  

Overall, I think that this book's philosophical perspective on biology is almost tailor made for this class. This course covered not only a basic foundation of biology but also what it means to think in a scientific way, and that one can never disassociate biology from oneself. Science happens everywhere- as we said on the first day, people are constantly performing experiments from the time infants realize their needs are met after crying out for attention. We simply have to continue to find ways to engage more deeply with science on a day to day basis. The way that Thomas writes about science makes the reader want to act on this philosophy, to actively experience science and experience it joyfully. 


Works Cited: 


Thomas, Lewis. The Lives of a Cell. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

lives of a cell and, among other things, death

There are at least two of you who think Lives of a Cell is a good fit for the course.  I'll take it seriously.  Thanks.  I particularly like here the "big picture" notion as a counter to "understanding things in terms of our own experiences", or, perhaps more accurately, as a way to expand our range of experiences and so to see things about ourselves, death included, in a useful broader context.