The Medusa and the Snail

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910

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.

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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 mutations and what we consider progress in evolution. Tongue in cheek, Thomas comments that if a human commission had been in charge of the process, mass firings would probably have resulted.

A scenario for mutations leads Thomas into some carefree speculation in an essay with the deceptively simple title of “Ponds,” all about how mutant goldfish will emerge from a slimy, garbage-filled Manhattan pond on their brand-new little feet to stroll the sidewalks and climb tall buildings. The inevitable ending, of course, will be an all-out counterattack by health officials and the disappearance of the new breed of goldfish.

Thomas is no pessimist about the human condition. In “The Health-Care System” he warns of the perils in thinking the human body too fragile and of the danger of becoming a nation of hypochondriacs, obsessed with jogging and diets and other regimes intended to stave off our inevitable collapse. The real danger, he says, is that while we are preoccupied with our ills, real and imagined, “the whole of society is coming undone.”

The author also discusses the currently popular topic of cloning. He points out the incredible effort that would be required to duplicate, for example, one successful statesman, along with his parents, his teachers, his associates, his enemies, and everyone else who influenced his development. Instead, says Thomas, we should spend our time worrying about how to encourage mutations, since improvement arises from change. Thomas next skewers another currently popular fad—meditating your way to happiness—in the essay “On Transcendental Metaworry,” explaining how even an ordinary person, given adequate instruction and the proper surroundings, can worry him- or herself into an absolutely crushing state of anxiety, even without artificial aid from such yet-to-be-invented devices as the “Angst Amplifier” or the “Artificial Heartsink.”

Two essays—“On Natural Death” and “The Deacon’s Masterpiece”—deal with death and dying. In the first, Thomas presents the comforting medical observation that when death is imminent, pain is likely to be turned off. In the second, he discusses the lessons to be learned from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or, the Wonderful ’One-Hoss Shay,’” suggesting that this, in metaphor, may be what happens when a healthy old man or old insect dies: “the bursting of billions of bubbles, all at once.” Concludes Thomas: “What a way to go!” Some of Thomas’ bluntest words are directed at the medical profession. He includes a warning about the dangers of specialization at too early an age, a pointed reminiscence about a day when doctors’ salaries were less important, and a reminder that we need better science not for leisure or health or longevity, “but for the hope of wisdom which our kind of culture must acquire for its survival.”

Taken altogether, these essays are a reminder of what a wondrous thing is nature—and man. It is no accident that Montaigne turns out to be one of Thomas’ favorite writers. As Thomas says of Montaigne, “He is, above all else, an honest and candid man. . . . If Montaigne is an ordinary man, then what an encouragement, what a piece of work is, after all, an ordinary man! You cannot help but hope.” For many readers, Thomas’ own essays will have much the same effect.

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