The Lives of a Cell

ED's picture

 If Biology 103 has taught me anything this semester, it is that nothing and everything matters. Everything matters in the sense that there is no such thing as a real closed system and everything is related; the progression of everything affects everything else, in some complex way. Nothing matters in the amazing sense that, to our current knowledge, only humans consciously care about life on Earth and in the Universe on a long time scale… things do not “matter” objectively outside of human perception. The course has taught me quite a bit about the faultiness of human perception in that we believe our perceptions hold truth. We so easily forget other animals do not see, smell, hear, taste, touch, or sense the world the same way humans do. Even all humans perceive a bit differently from one another.

Lewis Thomas, in his book The Lives of a Cell, approaches biology with the same sort of worldly context as we have in Biology 103. He recounts and observes in a tone both lighthearted and down to earth. In the collection of essays that composes this book, he does a fantastic job of reminding the reader of how life might be viewed and lived from different scales and through the eyes (or other senses, to be fair) of other animals. This has given me a lot to think about in terms of defining life, a definition we wrestled with throughout our class.
For example, Thomas describes some animals, particularly insects, as functioning only when together as a single organism, explaining that “There really is no such creature as a single individual; he has no more life of his own than a cast-off cell marooned from the surface of your skin.” (54). How are we to change our definition of life is when it is pointed out that the circuits of ants covering anthills “are so intimately woven that the anthill meets all the essential criteria of an organism” (54)?
In our biology class I have noticed that web papers were almost exclusively about the biological phenomena of human beings, topics ranging from music to swearing to rampaging to eating to love. Learning about Thomas’ accounts of other organisms provided me with a broader view of life on Earth and insights into human subtleties that studying human beings alone could not provide. The fact that the world is unconsciously organized is what makes life on Earth so fascinating to study, and makes humans so unique. We put a gross amount of effort into our own upkeep (many of us do, anyway), from meticulously choosing the clothing we wear to the friends we make to staunchly preventing death for as long as possible.
Perhaps we do not have to try so hard to keep ourselves in one piece; however, it is this picky part of humans that makes us unique. Some aspect of our perception has enabled human desire to build incredibly elegant, complicated wants beyond our basic needs, such as wanting to write a story, or to create this specific piece of art with this specific medium. Our appetite for specific things drives us to make choices, which have helped us accomplish unprecedented behaviors, but also get us in trouble.
Lewis Thomas also touches on human consciousness and our attitudes toward death, which we addressed in several class discussions. Specifically, we talked about some controversies in health care pertaining to several recent separate scientific studies that encourage doctors and patients to only start mammograms at fifty, and to do them only every other year. The class was fairly split—about half of the students felt that this would be a good measure, saving a lot of money that could be more efficiently spent, while the other students (usually these students had had some sort of close experience with cancer, I discovered at the end of the discussion) believed it would be unfair to be one of the few women who could have been saved by more vigorous screening. But what of the costs of providing the means for screening? Or the costs of any other kind of healthcare, for that matter (an “80-odd billion it is said to cost the nation” in the 1970s (31))? Thomas writes, in a chapter about the technology of medicine,
If the installation of specialized coronary-care units can result in the extension of life for only a few patients with coronary disease (and there is no question that this technology is effective in a few cases), it seems to me an inevitable fact of life that as many of these as can be put together, and as much money as can be found will be spent. I do not see anyone has much choice in this. (34).
Thomas was born in 1913 and wrote these essays in the 1960s or 70s. Little has changed in the last forty years. He quotes Thomas Browne in a later chapter: “The long habit of living indisposeth us to dying.” (47). Lewis Thomas aptly continues, “These days, the habit [of living] has become an addiction: we are hooked on living…” (48). This human tendency to fear death so fiercely is intriguing to me. Thomas explains the stories of several people who have “died” before, or at least who began to, to try to ameliorate evasive human attitudes toward death. Such people report “peace, calm, and total painlessness,” “tranquility,” and feeling strange that “so many people were rushing around … moving urgently, handling his body with such excitement, while all his awareness was of quietude.” (51). Perhaps there is little to fear, unless of course, as someone in our class suggested, fear drives love of life itself.
This book touches on several other things that really connect to our class, including the concept of improbability, which I was really taken with: “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.” (141). I enjoyed this book very much. It reinforced some essential lessons and ways of thinking I learned in Biology 103 that I will keep with me for as long as I am improbably assembled.
And lastly, to reinforce that science is a loopy process, it is appropriate to end my paper with this quotation:
“It is nice to think that that there are so many unsolved puzzles ahead for biology, although I wonder whether we will ever find enough graduate students.” (41).



Paul Grobstein's picture

finding subtleties outside ourselves

I like a lot the idea of biology as providing openings to "subtleties that studying human beings alone could not provide."  Another author who is particularly good along these lines is Loren Eiseley (cf The Star Thrower).   Thomas Nagel's classic article, "What is it like to be a bat?," makes the issue of "through the eyes (or other senses, to be fair) of other animals" a central issue in philosophy of mind.  And Oliver Sacks' essays on neurology (eg The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) are a nice demonstration that there are subtleties to be found not only in differences between humans and other organisms but also in differences between ourselves and other humans (see also Neurodiversity).  

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