Friday, September 19, 2008

Notes on the Notes of Biology Watcher

A worry with any blog, of course, is to find that one is simply re-writing a Wikipedia entry.

There exists a perfectly functional such entry for the physician, writer, and (I daresay) philosopher Lewis Thomas. The quick-and-dirty essay* which follows here will be rather less encyclopedic, more quirky and personal.

I first encountered Dr. Thomas in one of those most delightful venues, a used book store. Given infinite hours, I will explore every shelf in such a place. When time presses, I limit myself to fantasy, fiction, poetry, children's books, and natural history. It was in the natural history section that I found The Medusa and the Snail. I probably read about half of it in the store, purchased it, and read the rest on the way home.

(My copy was a hardcover. One of the odd and delightful things about this book was that it had a large number (perhaps a half dozen) of nested jackets, one inside the other. It was like opening a set of Russian dolls.)

I'd never heard of the author before, but The Medusa and the Snail became one of my favorite books. When I learned he'd written others, I made a note to track them all down, which I finally did by simply visiting another used book store. Here they had all of Thomas' books and I was tempted to buy every one, but I restricted myself to The Lives of Cell (his first and perhaps most famous, subtitled Notes of a Biology Watcher) and The Youngest Science (subtitled Notes of a Medicine-Watcher**--I have a certain dislike for modern medicine and I thought that if anyone could improve my disposition it would be him).

The Lives of Cell and The Medusa and the Snail are collections of short essays on a wide range of topics, informed by the author's experience and knowledge as both doctor and scientist. He is one of that breed of doctors that are passionate natural historians as well. (Others include Dr. Doolittle and Dr. Maturin, and I'm sure some non-fictional people as well.) The essays are always educational and thought-provoking, but they can't help being somewhat dated. The Lives of a Cell was published in 1974 and The Youngest Science in 1983 (ten years before the author died).

I think it would be an outstanding and worthwhile mission to re-issue Thomas' essays, side by side with essays on the same topics by great contemporary scientists, experts from the many fields in which Thomas' essays dabble. These people could comment on his foresight, offer answers for those of his questions that have been addressed with modern techniques, and update the casual reader on the state of the art. I would be happy to spearhead this project. In fact, I would be happy to interview these people, who are doubtless too busy to be bothered to write essays, and do the writing myself. I would be terribly intimidated by Thomas' writing, of course, but deeply inspired as well.

(There are ants crawling on my computer, and I am struck by how absolutely wonderful that is. Isn't there something about how an ant colony can be manipulated to be a giant computer? They can certainly be manipulated into art forms--although Dr. Thomas tells a very sad story about that.)

I do have a quarrel with him, though. Not a quarrel perhaps, just a very interesting subject to pursue. In Lives of a Cell, he has an essay called "Autonomy" in which he expresses a certain satisfaction with the autonomous systems of the body--the way our hearts know how to beat, and our livers know how to perform their hepatic functions perfectly well, without any conscious intervention from the mind. He discusses how biofeedback techniques (although he doesn't use that word, curiously) are helping people learn how to actually control some of these previously autonomous processes--raise and lower their body temperatures, for example, merely by thinking about it.

He doesn't seem to think it's a very good idea: "Nothing would save me and my liver, if I were in charge. For I am, to face the facts squarely, considerably less intelligent than my liver. I am, moreover, constitutionally unable to make hepatic decisions, and I prefer not to be obliged to, ever."

Furthermore: "If I moved in to organize [my cells] they would resent it, perhaps become frightened, perhaps swarm out into my ventricles like bees."

A moment must be set aside here to delight in the quality of the metaphor, the quirkiness of the writing style.

And yet! And yet! I think he's thinking about it wrong. It's not about us meddling and wanting to take over these functions. I don't want my heart to stop doing what it is already doing, and await my instructions. It's simply a matter of consciously intervening with a suggestion, to facilitate some situation about which my heart cannot know--a necessary surgery, perhaps, or something else entirely. It's about enhancing autonomous function, not replacing it.

And Dr. Thomas himself must realize this, if I were having this conversation with him. Later, in Medusa, he tells a whole story about warts, and about how incredibly effective placebos are in wart removal. It turns out that warts need localized blood flow, and blood flow is fairly easy to control psychologically--i.e., by mental suggestion. That's amazing! That's exactly the sort of thing a central nervous system is so very good at, and we ought to recruit it for these tasks.

It's basically good management: not micromanaging, just trusting your employees to do what they know how to do (and you probably don't), but giving them instructions occasionally for the benefit of the whole.

Nevertheless, I deeply appreciate the sentiment on which he ends the "Autonomy" essay. He argues that we ought to use this technology (I presume he means biofeedback and related stuff) to be training ourselves to go in the other direction: rather than controlling more and more functions of the body, we must learn to let go of even those functions of which we are accustomed to being in control.

He writes: "Instead of getting in there and taking things over, couldn't we learn to disconnect altogether, uncouple, detach, and float free? . . . Of course, people have been trying to do this sort of thing for a long time, by other techniques and with varying degrees of luck."

See, that is precisely why I meditate.

* I'm too wildly busy to research this as much as I'd like to. I hope I can come back to it later and clean it up a bit. [Edit: It's been over two months and I just haven't found the time to add research and cleanliness. The post has just been festering guiltily in the back of my mind, so I decided it was time to post it as-is.]

** Yes, it's Biology Watcher and Medicine-Watcher--without and with a hyphen. Strange, no?

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