Lewis Thomas was born one hundred years ago today (thank you, Writer’s Almanac for spicing your daily poetry with these biographical seasonings).
By happy coincidence I’m currently re-reading The Medusa and the Snail, taking great pleasure in Thomas’ wit and insight. Warm-hearted irony leavens what might otherwise be heavy discussions of science, ethics, and humanity’s place in the biological world. Although his words are now forty years old, they illuminate many of our modern preoccupations: genetic engineering, the importance of biological networks, the beauty and mystery of evolution, and our endless paradoxical capacity for both destroying and ennobling the world.
Here is a short excerpt from The Medusa and the Snail, an essay titled The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around (Notes for a Medical School Commencement Address), in which Thomas reflects on Homo sapiens’ relationship with the rest of the community of life:
And now human beings have swarmed like bees over the whole surface, changing everything, meddling with all the other parts, making believe that we are in charge, risking the survival of the entire magnificent creature.
Mind you, I do not wish to downgrade us; I believe fervently in our species and have no patience with the current fashion of running down the human being as a useful part of nature. On the contrary, we are a spectacular, splendid manifestation of life. We have language and can build metaphors as skillfully and precisely as ribosomes make proteins. We have affection. We have genes for usefulness, and usefulness is about as close to a “common goal” for all of nature as I can guess at. And finally, and perhaps best of all, we have music. Any species producing, at this earliest, juvenile stage of its development — almost instantly after emerging on the earth by any evolutionary standard — the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, cannot be all bad.
For more on Thomas, The New York Times obit has some interesting stories and context.