“The Lives of a Cell” by Lewis Thomas

Reading Thomas’ books is like watching a brilliant, inquiring mind at work, or rather at play, filled with wonder, wit and humor, exploring diverse subjects such as a cell, the earth, the universe, human body, the mind, music and language, and yet remaining coherent and fully accessible as if he was talking with the reader face to face.

Cells as Ecosystems

The mitochondria and chloroplasts in animal and plant cells have their own DNA and behave like bacteria, suggesting that they may have evolved from independent bacteria that took up residence in early eukaryotic cells and developed symbiotic relationships wit their hosts.

The Earth (withe the atmosphere as the membrane), the human body and societies are also ecosystems, with all the constituents contributing to the organization, maintenance and renewal of the whole.

Markers of Selves

There are biological markers to identify individual organisms (selves), such as chemicals in membranes, olfactory receptors, etc. These play important roles in immunological responses and interactions between organisms. Many of our diseases are overkill of the immunologic responses, or rather, “primitive kinds of memory. We tear ourselves to pieces because of symbols”.

Medicine and Health Care

“It is when physicians are bogged down by their incomplete technologies, by the innumerable things they are obliged to do in medicine when they lack a clear understanding of disease mechanisms, that the deficiencies of the health care systems are most conspicuous. If I were a policymaker, interested in saving money for health care over the long haul, I would it regard it as an act of high prudence to give high priority to a lot more basic research in biologic science.”


“If, as I believe, the urge to make a kind of music is as much a characteristic of biology as our other fundamental functions, … The rhythmic sounds might be the recapitulation of something else — an earliest memory, a score for the transformation of inanimate, random matter in chaos into the improbable, ordered dance of living forms.”

Music “may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, by it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance.”

Thoughts and Languages Evolve as Living Organisms

“If it were not for the capacity for ambiguity, for the sensing of strangeness, that words in all languages provide, we would have no way of recognizing the layers of counterpoint in meaning”, and language would not evolve.

“We store up information the way cells store energy. When we are lucky enough to find a direct match between a receptor and a fact, there is a deep explosion in the mind; the idea suddenly enlarges, rounds up, bursts with new energy, and begins to replicate. At times there are chains of reverberating explosions, shaking everything: the imagination, as we say, is staggered.”

“What we need is more crowding, more unrestrained and obsessive communication, more open channels, even more noise, and a bit more luck.”

Behold, the Internet, Wikipedia.


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