Lewis Thomas Essays

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The circuits are so intimately interwoven that the anthill meets all the essential criteria of an organism.

Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. As evolutionary time is measured, we have only just turned up and have hardly had time to catch breath, still marveling at our thumbs, still learning to use the brand-new gift of language.

They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. Being so young, we can be excused all sorts of folly and can permit ourselves the hope that someday, as a species, we will begin to grow up.

Cells are required to stick precisely to the point.

The strongest impression the casual reader gets, leafing through, is that proper dying has become an extraordinary, even an exotic experience, something only the specially trained get to do.

Also, you could be led to believe that we are the only creatures capable of the awareness of death, that when all the rest of nature is being cycled through dying, one generation after another, it is a different kind of process, done automatically and trivially, more “natural,” as we say.I believe that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause. Inside were two young MPs, trapped in bent steel, both mortally hurt, with only their heads and shoulders visible. We had a conversation while people with the right tools were prying them free. An elm in our backyard caught the blight this summer and dropped stone dead, leafless, almost overnight.One weekend it was a normal-looking elm, maybe a little bare in spots but nothing alarming, and the next weekend it was gone, passed over, departed, taken.I am entitled to say, if I like, that awareness exists in all the individual creatures on the planetworms, sea urchins, gnats, whales, subhuman primates, superprimate humans, the lot.I can say this because we do not know what we are talking about: consciousness is so much a total mystery for our own species that we cannot begin to guess about its existence in others.Taken is right, for the tree surgeon came by yesterday with his crew of young helpers and their cherry picker, and took it down branch by branch and carted it off in the back of a red truck, everyone singing.The dying of a field mouse, at the jaws of an amiable household cat, is a spectacle I have beheld several times. Early in life I gave up throwing sticks at the cat to make him drop the mouse, because the dropped mouse regularly went ahead and died anyway, but I always shouted unaffections at the cat to let him know the sort of animal he had become. Recently I’ve done some thinking about that mouse, and I wonder if his dying is necessarily all that different from the passing of our elm.At the instant of being trapped and penetrated by teeth, peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland; instantly these substances, called endorphins, are attached to the surfaces of other cells responsible for pain perception; the hormones have the pharmacologic properties of opium; there is no pain.Thus it is that the mouse always seems to dangle so languidly from the jaws, lies there so quietly when dropped, dies of his injuries without a struggle. I do not know if this is true or not, nor do I know how to prove it if it is true.


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