THE MEDUSA AND THE SNAIL and other Lewis Thomas Essays

Welcome to Throwback Reviews, a monthly review of a science book that has been available to the public for some time, but the impact of which is still prevalent.

The natural world needs its observers. Charles Darwin is arguably the prime example of a good observer of nature. With his insightful eye, he was able to produce one of the grandest theories of all of science. But writing and being an observer was a lost art for many scientists of the twentieth century, with many books focusing on processes and theories, but forgetting the art of producing beautiful writing. It’s usually one way or the other: some are great observers but don’t know how to compose good essay about it, and some do know how to write but are terrible watchers of science.

The Medusa and the Snail and other Lewis Thomas Essays

The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas

Lewis Thomas doesn’t fall on either side of this category. He’s one of those rare exceptions, a terrific writer with a keen eye for biology and the natural world in general. In his 1974 book, The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher, Thomas, the great physician and etymologist, gives an array of notes on the natural world that makes us fall into deep reflexion.

Thomas opens rapidly with an excellent essay on the self and what nature can teach us. The Medusa and the Snail — the title of the essay— brings attention to the trend in humans on elevating the feeling of self, with Thomas stating, “We tend to think of ourselves as the wholly unique creation in nature, but it is not so.” Further, Thomas takes on the journey on what he describes an interaction of two organisms where two selves make a single organism.

Thomas beautifully describes this phenomenon that involves the nudibranch— a colorful sea snail, which can be found in a bright orange color in Naples — and the Medusa in the Bay of Naples:

“When first observed, the nudibranch, a common sea slug, was found to have a tiny vestigial parasite, in the form of a jellyfish, permanently affixed to the ventral surface near the mouth. In curiosity to learn how the medusa got there, some marine biologists began searching the local waters for earlier developmental forms, and discovered something amazing. The attached parasite, although apparently so specialized as to have given up living for itself, can still produce offspring for they are found in abundance at certain seasons of the year. They drift through the upper waters, grow up nicely and astonishingly, and finally become full grown, handsome normal jellyfish. Meanwhile the snail produces snail larvae, and these too begin to grow normally, but not for long. While still extremely small, they become entrapped in the tentacles of the medusa and the engulfed within the umbrella-shaped body.” 

Thomas then goes all in on this exciting pair of invertebrates:

Soon the snails, undigested and insatiable, begin to eat, browsing away first at the radial canals, then the borders of the rim, finally the tentacles, until the jellyfish becomes reduced in substance by being eaten while the snail grows correspondingly in size. At the end, the arrangement is back to the first scene, with the full-grown nudibranch basking, and the nothing left of the jellyfish except the round, successfully edited parasite, safely affixed to the skin near the mouth.

Thomas, being the great observer that he is, notes that they can’t live in any other way. They are not really selves, they are specific others.” Thomas makes this distinction based on how we humans concentrate on the self, the I, and forget the contemporary world that makes everything depend on each other.

On Other Topics

The Hazard of Science

The book goes into other territories too. He describes the rise of biomedical science and the prospect of cloning and modifying an organism. In the essay The Hazard of Science, Thomas explains how some sectors of society disapprove that the scientist does the job that God is supposed to do.

Thomas writes,if man starts doing things reserved for the gods, defying himself, the outcome will be something worse for him, symbolically, that the litters of wild boar and domestic sows were for the ancient Romans.”

Evident of the atrocious thinking of the public and those who don’t want the advancements of biomedical science, Thomas pushes back on this notion:

“Indeed, if there is any single attribute of human beings, apart for language, which distinguishes them from all other creatures on earth, is in their insatiable, uncontrollable drive to learn thing and then to exchange the information with others of the species. Learning is what we do, when you think about it. I cannot think of a human impulse more difficult to govern.” 

Thomas then adds to the dialogue of the prospect of modern science by saying, Now, that we have begun exploring in the earnest, doing serious science, we are getting glimpses of how huge the questions are, and how far from being answered.”

Eventually, he gives his final thought on the topic, asking Is this hubris? Is there something fundamentally unnatural, or intrinsically wrong, or hazardous for the species in the ambition that drives us all to reach comprehensive understanding of nature, including ourselves? I cannot believe it.”

On Transcendental Metaworry

There are even some laughable blunders, especially in the essay On Transcendental Metaworry. Here, Lewis gives a meditation guide for worrying — the opposite of what meditation is. Looking at it in 2018, it is incredibly obvious how Thomas laughs at some of the new age gurus and gives us the contrary message that modern contemplative practices on mediation give us. The essay is straight up hilarious.

The books end on two strong essays, one on punctuation and the other on the history of medicine. Here is where Thomas is at his finest, explaining how punctuation is one thing, but detailed writing of the honor of his profession is another. As Thomas writes,Like a good many revolutions, this one began with the destruction of dogma.”

He then adds, “The history of medicine has never been a particularly attractive subject in medical education, and one reason this is that it so unrelievedly deplorable story.”

Last Word on Lewis Thomas and The Medusa and the Snail

Overall, Lewis Thomas could write about everything about his everyday life and still give a unique insight into details that we don’t notice. We often find topics on cell, bacteria and organisms challenging to comprehend, but in this classic book, Thomas can correlate with everyday life. Moreover, his witty points add ups to the broad topics in The Medusa and the Snail. In honor of the 25th anniversary of his death — he died at 80 in 1993 — I recommend everybody to pick up this classic and be amazed by the rare phenomena of the natural world.

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