The Medusa and the Snail

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Dr. Lewis Thomas, President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, continues in this book the provocative commentary he began in his previous work The Lives of a Cell, winner of the 1974 National Book Award. The twenty-nine essays cover topics ranging from medicine to Montaigne, but through them all runs the common thread of an appreciation for the wonder of nature and man. The book takes its title from the medusa, a tiny jellyfish that lives on the ventral surface of a sea slug found in the Bay of Naples. The two organisms depend on each other for survival in what Thomas calls a “mix-up of selfness.” He uses the medusa and the snail as an example of the uniqueness of nature’s creations, a uniqueness shared by even the most tiny of microorganisms, asserting their distinctiveness by the way in which they tumble.

Daily life is grist for the mill of Thomas’ speculations. A visit to the Tucson Zoo, for example, sets him to wondering about how he apparently is “coded” to exhibit certain behavior when confronted with a given stimulus and about whether altruism, after all, may not be our most primitive attribute, rather than some sign of weakness.

Many of the essays in this book are centered on medicine, and in “The Youngest and Brightest Thing Around, (Notes for a Medical School Commencement Address),” Thomas sounds a note of optimism, suggesting that rather than being absurd, the human condition may indicate that we are “engaged in the formation of something like a mind for the life of this planet,” at a very primitive stage, “still fumbling with language and thinking, but infinitely capacitated for the future.”

Another essay, “On Magic in Medicine,” dissects in an amusing way the popular folklore about how to live a longer life by eating a good breakfast, exercising, and so forth. Thomas examines the statistical basis for the claims, concluding that it is a “kind of enchantment, pure magic,” but acknowledging that people are always skeptical of the skeptics. Still another lesson in humility comes in a discussion of “The Wonderful Mistake”: the way in which the DNA molecule was destined to make mistakes as it evolved, resulting in...

(The entire section is 910 words.)