Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
Despite the diversity of topics considered by Thomas in The Lives of a Cell, all the essays share a characteristic structure. First, Thomas identifies the problem or issue, then he summarizes the known facts about a particular phenomenon or situation, pointing out apparently contradictory information. Thomas usually completes the essay by offering a theory which will provide unity and cohesion. In some cases, he echoes the accepted wisdom in the scientific community. On occasion, however, he will challenge the theories and conclusions set forth by his colleagues, even when he is reflecting on a subject in which he is not an expert.
In addition to a common structure, all the essays are linked together by two themes. One theme is the interconnectedness of all living things: The lives of plants, animals, and humans are interwoven in extremely complex ways. The other is the existence of a balance and order in nature, although that order is sometimes not obvious at first glance. He establishes these themes in the title essay through three claims: The cells of living things are complex ecosystems, the uniformity of life on earth is the result of all life being derived from a single cell, and in its complexity and interaction of living things, the earth most closely resembles a huge cell rather than an organism. These themes are subsequently explored, illustrated, and demonstrated through examples taken from both the biological and the social sciences.
Thomas frequently draws analogies between human and animal behavior; he particularly enjoys exploring the actions of the social insects, such as the ant. These creatures fascinate him because social insects (and other social animals, such as man) are qualitatively different creatures when in groups as opposed to when isolated. He also utilizes comparisons between what is usually thought of as living and not living. For example, having begun the collection with an essay drawing the analogy between the earth and a cell, Thomas concludes The Lives of a Cell by again describing the earth as if it were alive; this time, however, he focuses specifically on the atmosphere, which he compares to the membrane of a living cell.
Throughout the essays Thomas uses a positive tone. When faced with alternative explanations of natural phenomenon, he always opts for the one which was more optimistic about the future of humanity and life on earth. If neither alternative is truly optimistic, then Thomas can sound like a Pollyanna. This effort to accent the positive is evident in his essay on death, “The Long Habit.” In it, he argues that “dying is not such a bad thing to do after all,” since death is a natural and fundamental biological function. He even leaves room for the possibility of life after death.
It is in his essay on the Iks, a small African tribe, that Thomas’ optimism, his skill at drawing analogies, and his refusal to accept without question the unpalatable conclusions of other scientists all come to the fore. The Iks were depicted in 1972 by an anthropologist as selfish and loveless creatures, driven by hunger and misfortune into an alien life-style which contradicts all the commonly held precepts about the fundamental good of humans. Worse, the anthropologist concluded that all humans are potentially Iks but are prevented from descending to that level by society. If society falls apart, then the Iks will appear. Thomas rejects this pessimistic view out of hand, contending that the Iks “have gone crazy.” When their traditional society collapsed, each Ik became a one-man tribe. What appeared was not the normal behavior of the individual, breaking through the controls imposed by society, but just the opposite. The Iks were demonstrating the abnormal behavior often exhibited by humans acting collectively. Thomas draws analogies between the behavior of individual Iks and that of committees, cities, and nations. It is a long exercise, with no scientific data for support, to come to a conclusion which was preordained: Human beings individually are fundamentally good, but masses of human beings often do not act human.
At the time he wrote these essays, Thomas was an experimental pathologist with experience both in research and in medical practice. Not unexpectedly, a number of the essays deal with his concerns about the cost and effectiveness of medical treatment in the United States and the attitudes of Americans toward health, disease, and medicine. Some of these essays have attracted particular notice, in part for their positive attitude toward illness. For example, Thomas explores the concept of disease. He attacks as “paranoid delusions on a societal scale” the common beliefs that human disease is inevitable and normal and that disease bacteria are eager to infect the body. According to him, pathogenicity is relatively rare. Few microorganisms have found it advantageous to become diseases. For most, being an infecting agent is a freakish event, ultimately fatal to the microorganism, whatever happens to the host human.
Thomas is less upbeat when he discusses the health industry, for which, at the time he wrote, Americans were spending more than $80 billion. There are major flaws in the system. First, there is insufficient knowledge about many forms of disease, forcing the medical profession to apply what he calls “halfway technology”: organ transplants and other forms of expensive therapy to compensate for the effects of disease or to postpone death. Thomas prefers the decisive forms of medical technology; examples include immunization against disease or the use of antibiotics against bacterial infections.
Also annoying to Thomas is the American tendency to assume that they need the contributions of the medical community to be in good health. He would have people pay more attention and respect to “the built-in durability and sheer power of the human organism.” Thomas lets the reader in on a secret: Most medical problems will clear up without the intervention of the physician. Let nature take its course.
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