One of the biggest names in the field of etymology, Lewis Thomas was a respected essayist, physician, poet and researcher, also renowned for his excellence in the fields of biology, science writing and academic administration. An alma mater of the prestigious Princeton University and Harvard Medical School, Thomas held honorable positions at Yale Medical School, New York University School of Medicine and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute. With his notable works ‘The Lives of a Cell’, ‘The Medusa and the Snail’, ‘The Youngest Science’, ‘The Fragile Species and ‘Et Cetera, Et Cetera’, he went on to receive the National Book Awards thrice. With his signature eclectic interests and superlative prose style, he tried to inculcate inception of ideas through the concepts of etymology. His thoughts and sayings focused on issues such as humanity, diversity, evolution, importance of knowledge, circle of life and technology. Here is a collection of quotes elaborating the mindset of this famous etymologist.
The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behaviour control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.
Survival, in the cool economics of biology, means simply the persistence of one's own genes in the generations to follow.
The uniformity of the earth's life, more astonishing than 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.
Of all celestial bodies within reach or view, as far as we can see, out to the edge, the most wonderful and marvellous and mysterious is turning out to be our own planet earth. There is nothing to match it anywhere, not yet anyway.
Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
There's really no such thing as the agony of dying. I'm quite sure that pain is shut off at the moment of death. You see, something happens when the body knows it's about to go. Peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Endorphins. They attach themselves to the cells responsible for feeling pain.
Having long suspected that there was something alive in there, running the place, separate from everything else, absolutely individual and independent, we've celebrated by giving it a real name. My self.
Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that the mere fact of our existence should keep us all in a state of contented dazzlement.
We are, perhaps uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take the idea of dying, unable to sit still.
Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.
We're as clever as we think we are, but we'll be a lot cleverer when we learn to use not just one brain but to pool huge numbers of brains. We're at a level technologically where we can share information and think collectively about our problems. We do it in science all the time - there's no reason why we can't do it in other endeavors.
Given the opportunity, under the right conditions, two cells from wildly different sources, a yeast cell, say, and a chicken erythrocyte, will touch, fuse, and the two nuclei will then fuse as well, and the new hybrid cell will now divide into monstrous progeny. Naked cells, lacking self-respect, do not seem to have any sense of self.
We leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch.
Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and most unaccountable of all the phenomena with which we are obliged to live. In all of nature, there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.
Doctors, dressed up in one professional costume or another, have been in busy practice since the earliest records of every culture on earth. It is hard to think of a more dependable or enduring occupation, harder still to imagine any future events leading to its extinction.
I won't compare ants and people, but ants give us a useful model of how single members of a community can become so organized that they end up resembling, in effect, one big collective brain. Our own exploding population and communication technology are leading us that way.
We habitually engage in meddling with nature. Until this century most of this meddling was good. Witness the preservation of the European countryside. But since then we've smoked it up and littered it and dumped too much in too many waters. I don't think it's our privilege to behave this way.
The great thing about human language is that it prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand.
We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours.
It is not a simple life to be a single cell, although I have no right to say so, having been a single cell so long ago myself that I have no memory at all of that stage in my life.
We are told that the trouble with modern man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature... In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the Earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.
Animals have genes for altruism, and those genes have been selected in the evolution of many creatures because of the advantage they confer for the continuing survival of the species.
All of today's DNA, strung through all the cells of the earth, is simply an extension and elaboration of [the] first molecule.
We live in a dancing matrix of viruses; they dart, rather like bees, from organism to organism, from plant to insect to mammal to me and back again, and into the sea, tugging along pieces of this genome, strings of genes from that, transplanting grafts of DNA, passing around heredity as though at a great party.
The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.
We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth's creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.
It is a distortion, with something profoundly disloyal about it, to picture the human being as a teetering, fallible contraption, always needing watching and patching, always on the verge of flapping to pieces.
We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis. Our genomes are catalogues of instructions from all kinds of sources in nature, filed for all kinds of contingencies.
We are not like the social insects. They have only the one way of doing things and they will do it forever, coded for that way. We are coded differently, not just for binary choices, go or no-go. We can go four ways at once, depending on how the air feels: go, no-go, but also maybe, plus what the hell let's give it a try.
A multitude of bees can tell the time of day, calculate the geometry of the sun's position, argue about the best location for the next swarm. Bees do a lot of close observing of other bees; maybe they know what follows stinging and do it anyway.
The future is too interesting and dangerous to be entrusted to any predictable, reliable agency. We need all the fallibility we can get. Most of all, we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds. That way we can keep open all the options, as we have in the past.
The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.
Very few recognize science as the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever taken by human beings, the chance to glimpse things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works.
I don't want to be reincarnated, that's for sure. When you've had rewarding experiences in your life - a loving family, friends - you don't need additional reassurances that you're going to do something with a new cast of characters. I'd just as soon pass.
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.
We tend to think of our selves as the only wholly unique creations in nature, but it is not so. Uniqueness is so commonplace a property of living things that there is really nothing at all unique about it. A phenomenon can't be unique and universal at the same time.
Medical knowledge and technical savvy are biodegradable. The sort of medicine that was practiced in Boston or New York or Atlanta fifty years ago would be as strange to a medical student or intern today as the ceremonial dance of a !Kung San tribe would seem to a rock festival audience in Hackensack.
A lot of people fear death because they think that so overwhelming an experience has to be painful, but I've seen quite a few deaths, and, with one exception, I've never known anyone to undergo anything like agony. That's amazing when you think about it. I mean, how complicated the mechanism is that's being taken apart.
Most of the time I've worked in labs if I didn't encounter something in a week entirely unexpected and surprising I'd consider it a lost week. Lots of that is due to mistakes and stupidity, but it could open a new line of inquiry. Something really good turns up once in a hundred times, but it makes the whole day worthwhile.
The dilemma of modern medicine, and the underlying central flaw in medical education and, most of all, in the training of interns, is the irresistible drive to do something, anything. It is expected by patients and too often agreed to by their doctors, in the face of ignorance.
As a species, taking all in all, we are still too young, too juvenile, to be trusted. We have spread across the face of the earth in just a few thousand years, no time at all as evolution clocks time, covering all livable parts of the planet, endangering other forms of life, and now threatening ourselves.
The earliest sensation at the onset of illness, often preceding the recognition of identifiable symptoms, is apprehension. Something has gone wrong, and a glimpse of mortality shifts somewhere deep in the mind. It is the most ancient of our fears.
Well, biology today as I see it has an amiable look - quite different from the 19th-century view that the whole arrangement of nature is hostile, 'red in tooth and claw.' That came about because people misread Darwin's 'survival of the fittest.'
My father was a doctor, and I admired him and got along well with him. He took me with him on house calls. We were living in Flushing, which was then a sleepy village of 25,000 - before the subway got there. I've been sure I wanted to be a doctor since I was about 12.
I suggest that the introductory courses in science, at all levels from grade school through college, be radically revised. Leave the fundamentals, the so-called basics, aside for a while, and concentrate the attention of all students on the things that are not known.
We can take some gratification at having come a certain distance in just a few thousand years of our existence as language users, but it should be a deeper satisfaction, even an exhilaration, to recognize that we have such a distance still to go.