The Medusa and the Snail

I just reclaimed one of my favourite books, essays by Lewis Thomas entitled The Medusa and the Snail, published in 1979 (the essays were written at various times in the 1970s).

If Lewis Thomas were around now, and if he were writing a blog (as seems fairly likely), I am sure I would follow it. His essays are beautifully written, on interesting topics, and even when he argues a point which conflicts with my prejudices, he does it without any nastiness.

My favourite of the essays are the title essay (which I will quote from below), “On Warts” (where he discusses the observation that it is possible to hypnotise someone to cure the warts on one side of their body, and wonders about what remarkable human powers this hints at), and “On punctuuation” (a short lesson on the use of punctuation, full of wit and erudition).

He is a kind of medical Montaigne, and indeed one of his essays, “Why Montaigne is not a bore”, comments on the fact that Montaigne often talks about himself, describes himself as an ordinary person, and yet still manages to be interesting.

Some other essays in the book include

  • “The Deacon’s Masterpiece”, his meditation on death. He claims that we could (and probably will in the future) eliminate disease; but this doesn’t mean that we will live forever. Rather, we will be like the Deacon’s wonderful one-hoss shay (in the poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes), built so that every part continues to work perfectly until the time comes when suddenly, all at once, they all wear out, and the shay disintegrates. Indeed, elsewhere he quotes Montaigne on the subject of death:

    If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; Nature will in a moment fully and sufficiently instruct you; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care for it.

  • “On Magic in Medicine”: this discusses a lifestyle survey of 7000 people in California, 371 of whom died within five years. From they survey a list of “seven lifestyle items which can add eleven years to your life” was compiled and widely publicised. Already the numbers 7 and 11 suggest magic, but there is more. One of the items was “eating breakfast”. Thomas points out that, of the 7000 people, perhaps a significant number were already ill at the time of the survey, so ill that they couldn’t face eating breakfast in the morning …
  • “The Selves”: he admits to having many selves making up a noisy meeting, quietened only by the music of Bach.
  • “On Etymons and Hybrids”: Indo-European roots of modern scientific terminology. Memo to GM researchers: “hybrid” and “hubris” have a common root …
  • “Medical Lessons from History”: the most important event, in the early nineteenth century, was the admission that “the greater part of medicine was nonsense”. Only after this had been agreed could real advances occur.

Here is one of my favourite passages, in the title essay. It is about the modern (1970s) view of Self (not much change there then). He tells the following story from natural history, which puts an interesting slant on this subject.

… the tale told of the nudibranch and medusa living 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 attached 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 then engulfed within the umbrella-shaped body. At first glance, you’d believe the medusae are now the predators, paying back for earlier humiliations, and the snails the prey. But no. 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 nothing left of the jellyfish except the round, successfully edited parasite, safely affixed to the skin near the mouth.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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