The Mind of a Biologist: Big Meanings in Tiny Animals

It’s hard to know where to begin with a book like Lewis Thomas’ The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. As slim as a mystery novella (the chapters are very short, the longest a bare 9 pgs), Lives of a Cell is packed with low-key language that disguises world-changing ideas. It took me a week to read a book that would ordinarily have taken a day simply because each short chapter generated so much I needed to think about that I couldn’t digest more than one at a time. It was like eating a meal so brilliantly prepared, balanced, and spiced that even though there wasn’t much bulk to each course one didn’t want to disturb the pleasure of the last by moving onto the next until one’s mouth and taste buds had been thoroughly cleansed and were ready for the richness to follow.

For instance, the two macro-notions that more or less underpin the book each could – and most likely have – engendered many deep philosophical works that discussed the ins and outs, pros and cons from the many different directions each of them suggests. I can’t possibly do justice to them here. I barely have the space to explain them let alone the many and various lines of thought they open up.

For example, one of the book’s two major themes is the idea that it is possible that mankind is a sort of superorganism, that, like certain kinds of social insects, when organized into a social marcrocosm we become, like ants and termites, capable of far more than we could ever hope to accomplish on our own – when we are operating on what he calls “our conjoined intelligence”. In the chapter titled “On Societies as Organisms” he writes:

Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The familes of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus garden. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.


A solitary ant, afield, cannot be considered to have much of anything on his mind; indeed, with only a few neurons strung together by fibers, he can’t be imagined to have a mind at all, much less a thought. He is more like a ganglion on legs. Four ants together, or ten, encircling a dead moth on a path, begin to look more like an idea. They fumble and shove, gradually moving the food toward the Hill, but as though by blind chance. It is only when you watch the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits.

The concept of mankind as a single organism unaccountably split into its component parts with each individual retaining its species cohesion while at the same time celebrating itself as the owner of a unique piece of the puzzle is not new. The entomologist William Morton Wheeler coined the term “superorganism” in 1911 to explain the phenomenon of insect intelligence when grouped together and science fiction writers have been playing with the idea ever since. The most recent well-known example is probably the Borg. But for a biologist to be toying with such an unorthodox interpretation of scientific data is unusual in 2008 and was near unheard of in the 70’s when this book was written.

Nor is that the only heretical idea Mr Thomas had up his sleeve. In The Technology of Medicine he suggested that we have the wrong end of the horse altogether. He noted that even then we were spending most of our medical dollars developing treatment modalities (which he said were little more than temporary fixes) rather than funding basic research looking for cures. The clear inference was that we were doing so largely to pander to Big Pharma which makes some money on cures but oodles more on treatments, and the longer the treatment has to go on the more profit there is in it. Running our medical system for the good of corporations, he said, was terribly expensive and bound to skew the society’s priorities. 

The point to be made about this kind of technology – the real high technology of medicine – is that it comes as the result of a genuine understanding of disease mechanisms, and when it becomes available, it is relatively inexpensive, and relatively easy to deliver.

The price [of curing a disease] is never as high as the cost of managing the same diseases through during the earlier stages…. If a case of typhoid fever had to be managed today by the best methods of 1935, it would run to a staggering expense.

Yet instead of studying “disease mechanisms” in order to understand how diseases happen and what causes them, which is what is necessary to find cures which would obviate the need for temporary fixes and prolonged treatment modlities, we are stuck in 1935-mode, paying inordinate hospital bills and outrageous charges for medications that do little more than make more money for Big Pharma, endlessly endlessly endlessly.

It’s obvious when he says it: as long as pharmaceutical corporations are running our medical system, more money will always be allocated for new treatments than for basic research that might make those treatments unnecessary. It also explains the heavy hikes in medical costs: our whole system is trapped by the lack of funding for the study of disease mechanisms because, of the three technological stages he describes, the stage of non-technology in which we’re stuck is by far the most profitable for the pharmaceutical/medical industry.

It isn’t hard to make the jump from the high price we pay for medicine because drug and medical corporations control the decisions governments make about what to fund to the equally high price we pay for the overall skewing of our culture so brutally toward money and money alone. People, especially the poor and kids, die because of those twisted priorities every day, and it isn’t too much to say, as Thomas nearly does, that most of it didn’t have to happen.

There are equally thought-provoking ideas in every one of these little chapters, and Thomas writes with the kind of poetic clarity that communicates them straight to your cerebral cortex. It is a mindbender of a book, beautifully written. I’m only sorry it took me this long to find it.

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