The Lives of a Cell

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Lewis Thomas/The Lives of a Cell

By Kathie Easter, for The Paper Store November, 1999

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The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas consists of short, insightful essays that offer the reader a different perspective on the world and on ourselves.

The book draws its name from the first essay, "The Lives of a Cell," in which Thomas offers his observations on ecology and the role of cellular activity. He writes that the "uniformity of the earth's life, more astonishing then 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" (3).

He goes on to describe how this common ancestry means that we still have a lot in common with everything on this planet. Thomas says that "we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is a family resemblance" (3). Thomas relates to the reader that he has been trying to conceive of the earth itself as a type of organism, "but it is no go" (4). The earth is just too big, too complex for such an analogy. But then it came to him. The earth is most like a single cell (4).

In the next essay, "Thoughts for a Countdown," Thomas discusses further how all cellular life on this planet is interconnected and similar. He discusses the custom that was prevalent throughout the Apollo program that astronauts returning from space would be ushered into isolation wearing surgical masks. The implication is, of course, that the astronauts may have brought a strange virus.

Thomas states that this whole notion is built on a faulty understanding of science and biology. He points out that most of the associations on this planet between living things are cooperative (5). "It takes long intimacy, long and familiar interliving, before one king...
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