I’m flying to and from Orlando these weeks, guaranteeing several hours of undisturbed reading.
I read Lewis Thomas’ book of essays in the air last week, The Lives of a Cell: Notes from a Biology Watcher (1974) [pdf]. It was quoted by a friend-of-a-friend on Facebook, and I recognized something in the quote and began reading the first essay. I got hooked. I had no intention of reading the whole collection but I’m very happy that I did. The prose was excellent, but I’m going to outline some themes.
Thomas’ essays tend to use biology as a springboard to launch into broader topics. He brings up probability often, while discussing medicine (he touches on iatrogenics in medicine), while discussing language development, while discussing science and science funding. He touts a holistic view of biology. Germs are vastly mostly beneficial/indifferent, and bacterial infections are usually catastrophes for the bacteria involved far more than the host. Poetically, Thomas notes that the capacity to infect is the result of an intimacy that takes a great deal of effort and time. Most diseases as we understand them are essentially iatrogenic phenomena- the nervous system is a minefield, often scorching the ground it’s meant to protect. Through some bacteria Thomas notes that some organisms can and will destroy themselves voluntarily as a(n over)reaction to a straggling intruder.
One central theme of Thomas’: Organisms are both collectives and components: He mulls on Myxofricha paradoxa, whose cilia are still entirely different organisms; blepharisma, which often accidentally destroys itself due to interactions between pseudo-distinct organisms within it; plant-animal assemblages in the sea; and, as I’ve mentioned before here, the distinct lineages of mitochondria and chlorophyll (and neurons, although Thomas never touches on that.) Thomas describes us all as assemblages, renting and leasing our bodies at the cellular level, swarming in/affected by/composed of whole biomes and ourselves comprising more complicated systems than we can appreciate. Thomas discusses insect collectives, where minds are larger than any individual’s body, and how the hive intelligence is embedded in communication- termites don’t build compulsively in isolation, they need to feel a group around them and interact with one another in appropriate numbers in order to change from dumb nomads to intelligent builders. Ant chemical trails build much of their intelligence into their environments. Bees are even more codependent on one another, dying in isolation. Locust nature is dependent on locust population density before there is even a possibility of triggering the single-minded swarm.
Lewis makes the connection between these emergent hive (communication-enabled) intelligences and human language, with its careful complexity, the adaptation of words that no individual person dictates (usually), the compounding of meanings even in words not thought of as being metaphorical (essentially all words are dead metaphors of a sort). For Lewis, it seems, urbanization is exciting because it piles us in together, and this closer and closer proximity is part of some grander pattern- this vague notion reminds me of an article that had a big impact on me last year: “Collapse Is Humanity Adapting To Its Own Presence”, an article that I referred to in some of my earliest posts but that seems to have totally disappeared from the internet. Thankfully, great excerpts were kept by Jordan Peacock.
Lewis also makes an amusing assertion that pheromones could conceivably play a major part in human communication. This interaction could take place at a noisy, low dosage level (we are actually not that bad at smelling):
What are we going to do if it turns out that we have pheromones? What on earth would we be doing with such things? With the richness of speech, and all our new devices for communication, why would we want to release odors into the air to convey information about anything? We can send notes, telephone, whisper cryptic invitations, announce the giving of parties, even bounce words off the moon and make them carom around the planets. Why a gas, or droplets of moisture made to be deposited on fence posts? Comfort has recently reviewed the reasons for believing that we are, in fact, in possession of an- atomic structures for which there is no rational explanation except as sources of pheromones-tufts of hair, strategically located apocrine glands, unaccountable areas of moisture. We even have folds of skin here and there designed for the controlled nurture of bacteria, and it is known that certain microbes eke out a living, like eighteenth-century musicians, producing chemical signals by ornamenting the products of their hosts.
In another essay:
But we may be better at [smelling] than we think. An average man can detect just a few molecules of butyl mercaptan, and most of us can sense the presence of musk in vanishingly small amounts. Steroids are marvelously odorous, emitting varieties of musky, sexy smells. Women are acutely aware of the odor of a synthetic steroid named exaltolide, which most men are unable to detect. All of us are able to smell ants, for which the great word pismire was originally coined.
Wiener has proposed, on intuitive grounds, that defects and misinterpretations in such a communication system may be an unexplored territory for psychiatry. The schizophrenic, he suggests, may have his problems with identity and reality because of flawed perceptions of his own or others signals. And, indeed, there may be something wrong with the apparatus in schizophrenics; they have, it is said, an unfamiliar odor, recently attributed to trans3-methyl-hexanoic acid, in their sweat.
Finally, Lewis acknowledges that holism as a scientific guide is out of vogue, because more reductionist schema are evidently more *actionable*. Working with small parts in contained environments yields results. When he talks about holism and scientific method I’m reminded of Greer’s observation about Wolfram’s NKS thesis: perhaps instead of taking useful parts and applying them manipulatively, we should employ a perspective where we watch whole systems that didn’t exist for any engineered reason, and just… see what happens.
This view of things is compatible with the very old notion that a framework for meaning is some- how built into our minds at birth. We start our lives with templates, and attach to them, as we go along, various things that fit. There are neural centers for generating, spontaneously, numberless hypotheses about the facts of life. We store up in- formation the way cells store energy. When we are lucky enough to find a direct match between a receptor and a fact, there is a deep explosion in the mind; the idea suddenly enlarges, rounds up, bursts with new energy, and begins to replicate. At times there are chains of reverberating explosions, shaking everything: the imagination, as we say, is staggered.
This system seems to be restricted to human beings, since we are the only beings with language, although chimpanzees may have the capability of manipulating symbols with a certain syntax. The great difference between us and the other animals may be the qualitative difference made by speech. We live by making transformations of energy into words, storing it up, and releasing it in controlled explosions.
Speechless animals cannot do this sort of thing, and they are limited to single-stage transactions. They wander, as we do, searching for facts to fit their sparser stock of hypotheses, but when the receptor meets its match, there is only a single thud. Without language, the energy that is encoiled, Spring like, inside information can only be used once. The solitary wasp, Sphex, nearing her time of eggs, travels aloft with a single theory about caterpillars. She is, in fact, a winged receptor for caterpillars. Finding one to match the hypothesis, she swoops, pins it, paralyzes it, carries it off, and descends to deposit it precisely in front of the door of the round burrow (which, obsessed by a different version of the same theory, she had prepared beforehand). She drops the beast, enters the burrow, inspects the interior for last-minute irregularities, then comes out to pull it in for the egg- laying. It has the orderly, stepwise look of a well- thought-out business. But if, while she is inside inspecting, you move the caterpillar a short distance, she has a less sensible second thought about the matter. She emerges, searches for a moment, finds it, drags it back to the original spot, drops it again, and runs inside to check the burrow again. If you move the caterpillar again, she will repeat the program, and you can keep her totally pre- occupied for as long as you have the patience and the heart for it. It is a compulsive, essentially neurotic kind of behavior, as mindless as an Ionesco character, but the wasp cannot imagine any other way of doing the thing.
From “The World’s Biggest Membrane”:
It takes a membrane to make sense out of disorder in biology. You have to be able to catch energy and hold it, storing precisely the needed amount and releasing it in measured shares. A cell does this, and so do the organelles inside. Each assemblage is poised in the flow of solar energy, tapping off energy from metabolic surrogates of the sun. To stay alive, you have to be able to hold out against equilibrium, maintain imbalance, bank against entropy, and you can only transact this business with membranes in our kind of world. `When the earth came alive it began constructing its own membrane, for the general purpose of editing the sun. Originally, in the time of prebiotic elaboration of peptides and nucleotides from inorganic ingredients in the water on the earth, there was nothing to shield out ultraviolet radiation except the water itself. The first thin atmosphere came entirely from the degassing of the earth as it cooled, and there was only a vanishingly small trace of oxygen in it. Theoretically, there could have been some production of oxygen by photo- dissociation of water vapor in ultraviolet light, but not much. This process would have been self-limiting, as Urey showed, since the wavelengths needed for photolysis are the very ones screened out selectively by oxygen; the production of oxygen would have been cut off almost as soon as it occurred.