Book Review: The Medusa and the Snail

More notes of a biology watcher
by Lewis Thomas
Review by Brian Wright

Medusa and the SnailThe highly scientifically and medically distinguished Dr. Lewis Thomas—attended Princeton University and Harvard Medical School; became Dean of Yale Medical School and New York University School of Medicine, and President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Institute; his formative years as an independent medical researcher were at Tulane University School of Medicine—writes in the crystal clear, sparsely elegant style of a great master of literature. For one reason or another, in the late 1970s, The Medusa and the Snail came to be a book that the ‘intelligentsia’ simply had to read. Or anyone striving to be well rounded and embracing a life of the mind. I remember the joy of reading this book rather than the content; I thought some day I’d like to be able to write so intelligently about various subjects of philosophic and political interest.

So this second time around, I paid even more attention. What is the central calling card of Herr Thomas? It comes through in the first signature article, “The Medusa and the Snail.” (The book is a collection of essays on everything from human cloning to the origin of the word ‘etymon.’) He opens up the piece by a discussion of ‘selfhood:’

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You’d think, to read about it, that we’d only just now discovered selves. Having long suspected that there was something alive in there, running the place, separate from everything else, absolutely individual and independent, we’ve celebrated by giving it a real name. My self.

Then showing his love of etymology (study of the roots of words):

It [self] is an interesting word, formed long ago in much more social ambiguity than you’d expect. the original root was se or seu, simply the pronoun of the third person, and most of the descendant words, except ‘self’ itself, were constructed to allude to other, somehow connected people; ‘sibs’ and ‘gossips,’ relatives and close acquaintances came from seu. Se was also used to indicate something outside or apart, hence words like ‘separate,’ ‘secret,’ and ‘segregate.’ From an extended root swedh it moved into Greek as ethnos, meaning people of one’s own sort, and ethos, meaning customs of such people. ‘Ethics’ means the behavior of people like one’s self, one’s own ethnics.

Note the easy precision of Dr. Lewis’s wording and punctuation. Next:

We tend to think of our selves as the only wholly unique creations in nature, but it is not so. Uniqueness is so commonplace a property of living things that there is really nothing at all unique about it. — page 2

And then the author describes the life cycle of a common sea snail called a nudibranch in the Bay of Naples, which contains a parasite near its mouth. The parasites at certain seasons of the year produce offspring, i.e. jellyfish (the medusa) that float up gracefully in the water containing within them the snails and the snails’ own larvae. Which become entrapped in the tentacles of the jellyfish, but instead of being consumed by the jellyfish, the nudibranch continue to grow and proliferate, while eating the jellyfish back to square one, where the medusa parasite is returned affixed to the snails’ mouths. Talk about unique!

This original story gives the reader an idea of what most of Dr. Lewis’s pieces are about: he takes a common subject then looks at it from a special angle. For example, in The Wonderful Mistake, the author says this “…capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without the special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music. Viewed individually, one by one, each of the mutations that have brought us along represents a random, totally spontaneous accident, but it is no accident at all that mutations occur; the molecule of DNA was ordained from the beginning to make small mistakes.” — page 29

And the humor. In “On Transcendental Metaworry” about anxiety:

Prehistoric man, without tools or fire to be thinking about, must have been the most anxious of us all. Fumbling about in dimly lit caves, trying to figure out what he ought really to be doing, sensing the awesome responsibilities for toolmaking just ahead, he must have spent a lot of time contemplating his thumbs and fretting about them. I can imagine him staring at his thumbs, apposing thumbtips to each fingertip in amazement, thinking, By God, that’s something to set us apart from the animals—then the grinding thought, What on earth are they for? There must have been many long, sleepless nights, his mind all thumbs.

It would not surprise me to learn that there were ancient prefire committees, convened to argue that thumbs might be taking us too far, that we’d have been better off with simply another finger of the usual sort. — page 83

Or this paragraph on semicolons; I wish I had written this:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer. — page 126

Each of the essays in The Medusa and the Snail is but a few pages, short enough to enjoy before descending into Rackville at night. I’m truly sorry to have not had Dr. Thomas around in our time now, perhaps to fry the orthodoxy of political obedience and media mind control that threatens to end the species (e.g. WWIII looming with US/Israeli plans to attack Iran). What would he have had to say about Big Pharma, Obamacare, torture and murder as public policy? In the 1970s when he wrote, an esteemed writer of his stature could readily abjure from the political fray. Back then political control wasn’t as obviously monolithic and supreme, or psychotic and antihuman. Today you can’t hold back.

And that’s truly a shame. I cannot wait to come to the other side of the threat, to a world where politics takes care of itself and brilliant, sane, and civil writing is a central part of all that matters… along with the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff. [A fondness for which, esp. Bach, Dr. Thomas shares.] The Medusa and the Snail is a sterling example of the absolute best that humanity has to offer. 10 stars.

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