The Fragile Species: A Forgotten Masterpiece of Perspective on How to Live with Ourselves and Each Other

“We need a better word than chance… To go all the way form a clone of archaebacteria, in just 3.7 billion years, to the B-Minor Mass and the Late Quartets, deserves a better technical term for the record than randomness.”

The Fragile Species: A Forgotten Masterpiece of Perspective on How to Live with Ourselves and Each Other

When Earth first erupted with color, flowers took over so suddenly and completely that, two hundred million years later, the baffled Darwin called this blooming conquest an “abominable mystery.”

When earthlings first realized that our Milky Way is not the cosmic whole but one galactic particle of the whole — one of unfathomably many galaxies, each abloom with billions of stars orbited by other worlds — the universe suddenly appeared “so brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.”

When it became clear that a mysterious substance is holding each galaxy together, keeping each world’s orbit a perfect corolla around the stigma of its star, we gave that substance a name befitting an abominable mystery: dark matter.

Along the way, we — thinking, feeling, meaning-hungry creatures — kept trying to make beauty of the truths we found, composing poems about flowers and poems about dark matter as we composed our equations and our theories.

Art by Ohara Hale for “Let There Always be Light (Searching for Dark Matter)”

Reality’s ability to continually baffle us with what we don’t yet know, and our willingness to continually plumb the unknown for new truth and beauty, even as it baffles and terrifies us, is the loveliest thing about being alive. The best thing about being human is to be alive as a group of inquisitive, imaginative creatures.

This is the essence of it all Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) — a scientist, poet, and perhaps my favorite writer about the native poetics of reality — explores throughout his altogether exquisite final essay collection, The Fragile Species (public library).

The galactic Lewis Thomas

Thomas’s opening essay was originally given in 1987 as part of the 50th reunion of Harvard Medical School Class. It is a reflection on Thomas’s thoughts about the marvellous bafflements in science that have occurred since his departure in the prime years of their lives, half a century ago. He writes with his trademark winking genius

I cannot count the number of new items of ignorance I’ve picked up in fifty years; the list is simply too long. Instead, I have prepared another kind of list, shorter, more personally humbling, of some things I think I might have been learning more about if I hadn’t been so puzzled all those years by medicine itself. These are the things that most people of my age understand well, which I have never had time to study.

I am most proud of the Federal Reserve System. I’ve never known what it was or what it did or how it did it, and what is more I don’t want to be told. This is true for both the stock and bond markets, as well as the word processor, which I do actually own and find a bit confusing. It also applies to the universe, black holes and galactic mirrors. And space-time. Space-time is the most important thing. It’s impossible for me to get hold of.

Art by Daniel Bruson for “My God, It’s Full of Stars”

Thomas gives a wink and then turns his gaze to the object of his meditation. This is our natural inability or ability to grasp how the remote abstractions became fleshy and concrete. There is something incredibly lovely about Thomas’s warm humor — here is man of extraordinary intellect, scientific erudition, and uncommon human sensitivity, inviting the rest of us, far more ordinary and modestly lettered, to join him in his gladsome bafflement at the seeming miracle of life:

Even my own problems with evolution biology are a problem. I don’t believe in first principles. They are not important. The big picture is more important than the small details. I have a good understanding of randomness and chance, as well as election and adaptation. I also know that evolution is progressing, but not the big picture. Problems arise when I consider the oldest known form of life: the indisputable bacteria cells found in rocks at 3.7 billion year old. They were our Ur-grandparents, but then there was nothing other than bacteria. Now, in my yard, is Jeoffry my Abyssinian cat Jeoffry. These microbes are almost free-living, disguised as mitochondria. And, by the way… our amazing, yet-immature, deadly selves that can menace nature without being distracted by music

Leaning on his training as an etymologist — that is, an evolutionary biologist for the living organism of language — Thomas adds:

It is necessary to use a different word from chance. To go from a cloned archaebacteria to the B-Minor Mass or the Late Quartets in just 3.7billion years takes a different technical term than randomness.

The word “I like” is my favorite. stochasticIts lineage within our language makes it better. It was the first root. SteghThe Indo-European of 30.000 years ago was referred to as a point stake. SteghMoved into Greek TokhosIt means a target or object for archers. In our language targets refer to what they are. However, aiming arrows is as imperfect as it gets. Tokhoswas used to denote aiming or missing, pure chance, randomness and stochastic. On that philosophical basis, then, I’m glad to accept all of evolution in a swoop, but I’m still puzzled by it.

Thomas then made a series of pirouettes, observing that the stochastic miracles of life and death across time exist only because they both exist. A generation before Richard Dawkins made his poetic point about the luckiness of death and an epoch after the grief-stricken Darwin, having lost his most beloved child, found personal solace in the scientific fact that the death of the individual is what fine-tunes evolution to ensure the survival of the species — “there is grandeur in this view of life,” Darwin wrote — Thomas dismantles the central logical fallacy beneath our species’ fantasies of immortality, be they retro-religious or techno-futuristic.

Jacob’s DreamWilliam Blake (1805). This print is also available as a stationery card, a mask, or as an image.

With an eye to various speculative proposals — which have grown all the more various and more unsoundly speculative in the decades since — about hacking the entropy that frays at all matter in order to attain long-term preservation of information systems, including the information system of us, Thomas considers the inherent syllogism of such hopes:

If it had been arranged that way, we’d all still be alive forever but, in the nature of things, we would still be those same archaebacteria born 3.7 billion years ago, unable to make molecular errors, deprived of taking chances, and therefore never blundering into brains.

If we could only be immortal. WeWe could not exist. If we were perfect we wouldn’t exist. Only because of our imperfection and mortality, Darwin, Dickinson, and myself, does the whole of us continue to drift through the impartial stars of the universe of humanity.

Van Gogh had his art in mind but he was actually working on a scientific truth. It is a truth that existsentially and evolutionarily. He observed how our inspired errors propel us forward.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s century-old illustrations for French fairy tales. Available as both a print or stationery card.

Thomas is an intelligent man who loves the human condition with a playful logic. He considers how this awareness could lead him to the unconscious.

The laws of physics are the basis for nature’s immense machinery. Our brains and we are both part of this machinery. We have made it here, as well as our existence, because these laws were in effect on the top of what we consider the pinnacle of quantum mechanics and chance. All you have is pure luck.

However, this is Lewis Thomas. This isn’t a case of vacuous materialism. Lewis Thomas makes the most profound point of caricaturing its superficial opposite.

Although this view is a significant step towards understanding the nature of our existence, it does not take us to the end. The problem of consciousness is still a major issue. Because of this unsolved matter, our minds are also plagued by incessant questions that continue to disturb and disrupt our sleep. (For which, of course, there are no good answers). Ask yourself questions like “Are we the only species on earth with true consciousness?” Why does being be, but not nonbeing? Is it wrong to have something instead of nothing? What is the best way to organize your life or society in compliance with laws of nature that prohibit purpose, causality and morality? Where’s the fun in it?

Plate taken from an original theory or new hypothesis of the universe by Thomas Wright (1750). Available as a print or face mask as well as as stationery cards.

Thomas also wrote a piece in the book. This is the passage that the whole book takes its title from. He writes about the Cold War’s peak and the menacing threat of nuclear disaster. Since then, the environmental catastrophe menaces our time has only changed its costume.

This place is huge and I have no idea how to fit in. A member of a delicate species. I am still young to this world. Our tentative setting is imperfect, we are prone to errors, and at real risk for fumbling. We will leave behind only a very thin layer of radioactive fossils.

Thomas adds, in an extraordinary passage, in context of ecological precariousness in which he discusses the only possible solution.

Our brains are not the only reason we’re different. We also differ from each other mainly because we have a lot of discordance with one another. All the other parts of the earth’s life seem to get along, to fit in with each other, to accommodate, even to concede when the stakes are high. They help each other out, they eat one another, and try to find ecological niches. However, their behavior is controlled by something called restraint. Although it is rough by some standards, this world does not seem to be a win-all-win situation. There is no evidence that nature has been vandalized or meanness if you look beyond our heads. On balance it is a tolerant, fair-natured, and amiable environment.

We are the anomalies for the moment, the self-conscious children at the edge of the crowd, unsure of our place, tending to grabbiness… But we are not as bad a lot as some of us say… At our worst, we may be going through the early stages of a species’ adolescence, and everyone remembers what that is like. While growing up can be hard for one person, it can cause long-term pain for whole species. This is especially true for those who are as nervous and brainy as we are. If we can last it out, get through the phase…. or we may find ourselves running again.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
The century-old artwork of Virginia Frances Sterrett, an adolescent. This print is also available as stationery cards and a print.

Thomas says that our maturity is not what will save us, it’s our mutuality.

We are more compulsively social, more interdependent and more inextricably attached to each other than any of the celebrated social insects… One human trait, urging us on by our nature, is the drive to be useful, perhaps the most fundamental of all our biological necessities. Although we make many mistakes, sometimes confuse it with self-regard and even attempt to pretend it, it is in our genes. It only requires a more precise set of criteria for utility than what we currently agree upon.

Complement this fragment of The Fragile Species — which remains one of the finest, most fiercely humanistic and scientifically perspectival books I have ever read — with philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility and the forgotten visionary William Vogt, writing half a century before his ideas shaped the modern environmental movement, on our interdependence resilience, then revisit Lewis Thomas on our wiring for mutuality and his science-rooted existential meditation on the medusa and the snail — still the subtlest, sanest thing I have read about the eternal mystery of the self.

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