The Lives of a Cell Critical Essays

Lewis Thomas


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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 entire section is 973 words.)