by Lewis Thomas
published by Penguin USA
© 1974 by Lewis Thomas
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Lewis Thomas managed to be both a top pathology researcher and a brilliant,
sophisticated writer. He almost singlehandedly invented what we might
call the "existential biological essay" genre with this book,
in which a person of great learning and perceptiveness might dare, however
tentatively, to ponder the meaning of life (in several senses of the
He has certain themes that he returns to again and again: humans as
hive animals, cells as cooperatives, fear of death, the language of
animal smells and sounds, the uselessness of medicine compared to nature's
healing powers, a dislike of nation-states and their grand ambitions
(war, the space program, various attempts to "manage" science).
His method is suggestive, metaphorical, allusive. Thomas is the master
of a specific literary tone, caught between awestruck wonder at the
beauty of nature and elegant Mandarin weariness at the inability of
humans to comprehend those wonders. To read him is to feel, at moments,
that the chasm between the two cultures has been bridged.
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