Review of "The Lives of a Cell"

The Lives of a Cell: notes of a biology watcher, by Lewis Thomas. ISBN 0140047433.

Lewis Thomas was an early practitioner of what one might call the Modern Scientific Essay. He does it very well: elegant and readable and interesting. The 29 essays in this book were originally published (monthly, I take it) in the New England Journal of Medicine. They were therefore not intended to be read all at once, and I regret that I found them a little indigestible taken in a batch. Not because of any fault in the individual essays, which are consistently excellent, but because a few themes recur and my tolerance for repetition is low.

The "cell" of the title is the earth, or perhaps more accurately its biosphere. Here we see the main preoccupation of the book: scale is deceiving, the small is recapitulated in the large, cells are like organisms, organisms (especially the social ones, like ants and humans) are like cells, societies are like ant colonies are like animals, the human race is like a single superorganism metabolizing information. All, no doubt, true and insightful, but it's hard to keep up the sense of slight shock that the author obviously wants you to feel each time he reminds you.

It's natural, though not necessarily fair, to consider Lewis Thomas a sort of predecessor of Stephen Jay Gould. How do they compare? Thomas writes more elegantly; his essays are shorter and more finely honed; but, at least on the strength of this volume, he doesn't have Gould's range. And, thankfully, he appears to be entirely uninterested in baseball.

These essays would, I think, do well read aloud; there's something of the "Letter from America" about them. Someone should make them into an audiobook, or a radio series. "One to be taken daily."