Yesterday I was given a book to read for a retreat that I will take in next month. The book is The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas. It arrived by courier in the afternoon and I have already devoured the first six chapters. How did I not discover this book earlier? It is a series of poetic essays on the wonder of biology. The only other book I have read that is quite like it is Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Thomas may be a little more technical and scientific in his writing but both authors share a sense of holy awe at the biology of our planet. They remind us of the mystery that is at the heart of biology. Some would explain all of biology as an extension of physics. Lewis reminds us that biology is also an extension of the divine, the holy, and the other.
Readers of this blog who share my interest in the relationships between science and faith will surely enjoy The Lives of a Cell. I will end with a sample of the first chapter of the book so that you can assess for yourself whether or not you might want to read this inspiring book. For those who may not find it to be quite their cup of tea, I recommend that you start instead with Annie Dillard.
We are told that the trouble with Modern Man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature. He sits in the topmost tiers of polymer, glass, and steel, dangling his pulsing legs, surveying at a distance the writhing life of the planet. 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.
But it is illusion to think that there is anything fragile about the life of the earth; surely this is the toughest membrane imaginable in the universe, opaque to probability, impermeable to death. We are the delicate part, transient and vulnerable as cilia. Nor is it a new thing for man to invent an existence that he imagines to be above the rest of life; this has been his most consistent intellectual exertion down the millennia. As illusion, it has never worked out to his satisfaction in the past, any more than it does today. Man is embedded in nature. The biologic science of recent years has been making this a more urgent fact of life. The new, hard problem will be to cope with the dawning, intensifying realization of just how interlocked we are. The old, clung-to notions most of us have held about our special lordship are being deeply undermined.
Item. A good case can be made for our nonexistence as entities. 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. They turn out to be little separate creatures, the colonial posterity of migrant prokaryocytes, probably primitive bacteria that swam into ancestral precursors of our eukaryotic cells and stayed there. Ever since, they have maintained themselves and their ways, replicating in their own fashion, privately, with their own DNA and RNA quite different from ours. They are as much symbionts as the rhizobial bacteria in the roots of beans. Without them, we would not move a muscle, drum a finger, think a thought.
Mitochondria are stable and responsible lodgers, and I choose to trust them. But what of the other little animals, similarly established in my cells, sorting and balancing me, clustering me together? My centrioles, basal bodies, and probably a good many other more obscure tiny beings at work inside my cells, each with its own special genome, are as foreign, and as essential, as aphids in anthills. My cells are no longer the pure line entities I was raised with; they are ecosystems more complex than Jamaica Bay.
I would like to express my appreciation to the Pastoral Science program at Regent College for introducing me to the writing of Lewis Thomas. You can see more about the important work of this group at the Cosmos website.