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Lewis Thomas's Quotes

Lewis Thomas profile photo

Born: 1913-11-25
Profession: Scientist
Nation: American
Biography of Lewis Thomas

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A lot of people fear death because they think that so overwhelming an experience has to be painful, but I've seen quite a few deaths, and, with one exception, I've never known anyone to undergo anything like agony. That's amazing when you think about it. I mean, how complicated the mechanism is that's being taken apart.

Tags: Death, Experience, Fear

Animals have genes for altruism, and those genes have been selected in the evolution of many creatures because of the advantage they confer for the continuing survival of the species.

Tags: Advantage, Evolution, Survival

Doctors, dressed up in one professional costume or another, have been in busy practice since the earliest records of every culture on earth. It is hard to think of a more dependable or enduring occupation, harder still to imagine any future events leading to its extinction.

Tags: Busy, Future, Hard

Given the opportunity, under the right conditions, two cells from wildly different sources, a yeast cell, say, and a chicken erythrocyte, will touch, fuse, and the two nuclei will then fuse as well, and the new hybrid cell will now divide into monstrous progeny. Naked cells, lacking self-respect, do not seem to have any sense of self.

Tags: Self, Sense, Touch

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.

Tags: Giving, Real, Self

I don't want to be reincarnated, that's for sure. When you've had rewarding experiences in your life - a loving family, friends - you don't need additional reassurances that you're going to do something with a new cast of characters. I'd just as soon pass.

Tags: Family, Friends, Life

I maintain, despite the moment's evidence against the claim, that we are born and grow up with a fondness for each other, and we have genes for that. We can be talked out of it, for the genetic message is like a distant music, and some of us are hard-of-hearing. Societies are noisy affairs, drowning out the sound of ourselves and our connection.

Tags: Against, Moment, Music

I suggest that the introductory courses in science, at all levels from grade school through college, be radically revised. Leave the fundamentals, the so-called basics, aside for a while, and concentrate the attention of all students on the things that are not known.

Tags: College, School, Science

In the fields I know best, among the life sciences, it is required that the most expert and sophisticated minds be capable of changing course - often with a great lurch - every few years.

Tags: Best, Great, Life

It hurts the spirit, somehow, to read the word environments, when the plural means that there are so many alternatives there to be sorted through, as in a market, and voted on.

Tags: Hurts, Means, Word

It is a distortion, with something profoundly disloyal about it, to picture the human being as a teetering, fallible contraption, always needing watching and patching, always on the verge of flapping to pieces.

Tags: Human, Picture, Watching

It is from the progeny of this parent cell that we all take our looks; we still share genes around, and the resemblance of the enzymes of grasses to those of whales is in fact a family resemblance.

Tags: Fact, Family, Parent

It is only when you watch the dense mass of thousands of ants, crowded together around the Hill, blackening the ground, that you begin to see the whole beast, and now you observe it thinking, planning, calculating. It is an intelligence, a kind of live computer, with crawling bits for its wits.

Tags: Thinking, Together, Whole

Medical knowledge and technical savvy are biodegradable. The sort of medicine that was practiced in Boston or New York or Atlanta fifty years ago would be as strange to a medical student or intern today as the ceremonial dance of a !Kung San tribe would seem to a rock festival audience in Hackensack.

Tags: Knowledge, Medical, Today

Most of the time I've worked in labs if I didn't encounter something in a week entirely unexpected and surprising I'd consider it a lost week. Lots of that is due to mistakes and stupidity, but it could open a new line of inquiry. Something really good turns up once in a hundred times, but it makes the whole day worthwhile.

Tags: Good, Mistakes, Time

Much of today's public anxiety about science is the apprehension that we may forever be overlooking the whole by an endless, obsessive preoccupation with the parts.

Tags: May, Science, Today

My father was a doctor, and I admired him and got along well with him. He took me with him on house calls. We were living in Flushing, which was then a sleepy village of 25,000 - before the subway got there. I've been sure I wanted to be a doctor since I was about 12.

Tags: Father, Him, Living

Once you have become permanently startled, as I am, by the realization that we are a social species, you tend to keep an eye out for the pieces of evidence that this is, by and large, good for us.

Tags: Become, Good, Keep

The central task of science is to arrive, stage by stage, at a clearer comprehension of nature, but this does not at all mean, as it is sometimes claimed to mean, a search for mastery over nature.

Tags: Mean, Nature, Science

The dilemma of modern medicine, and the underlying central flaw in medical education and, most of all, in the training of interns, is the irresistible drive to do something, anything. It is expected by patients and too often agreed to by their doctors, in the face of ignorance.

Tags: Education, Ignorance, Medical

The future is too interesting and dangerous to be entrusted to any predictable, reliable agency. We need all the fallibility we can get. Most of all, we need to preserve the absolute unpredictability and total improbability of our connected minds. That way we can keep open all the options, as we have in the past.

Tags: Future, Keep, Past

The need to make music, and to listen to it, is universally expressed by human beings. I cannot imagine, even in our most primitive times, the emergence of talented painters to make cave paintings without there having been, near at hand, equally creative people making song. It is, like speech, a dominant aspect of human biology.

Tags: Cannot, Human, Music

The uniformity of the earth's life, more astonishing than its diversity, is accountable by the high probability that we derived, originally, from some single cell, fertilized in a bolt of lightning as the earth cooled.

Tags: High, Life, Single

Very few recognize science as the high adventure it really is, the wildest of all explorations ever taken by human beings, the chance to glimpse things never seen before, the shrewdest maneuver for discovering how the world works.

Tags: Chance, Human, Science

We are not like the social insects. They have only the one way of doing things and they will do it forever, coded for that way. We are coded differently, not just for binary choices, go or no-go. We can go four ways at once, depending on how the air feels: go, no-go, but also maybe, plus what the hell let's give it a try.

Tags: Give, Hell, Try

We are not made up, as we had always supposed, of successively enriched packets of our own parts. We are shared, rented, occupied. At the interior of our cells, driving them, providing the oxidative energy that sends us out for the improvement of each shining day, are the mitochondria, and in a strict sense they are not ours.

Tags: Driving, Energy, Sense

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Much more quotes by Lewis Thomas below the page.

We are told that the trouble with modern man is that he has been trying to detach himself from nature... In this scenario, Man comes on as a stupendous lethal force, and the Earth is pictured as something delicate, like rising bubbles at the surface of a country pond, or flights of fragile birds.

Tags: Country, Nature, Trying

We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth's creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.

Tags: Away, Future, Worry

We can take some gratification at having come a certain distance in just a few thousand years of our existence as language users, but it should be a deeper satisfaction, even an exhilaration, to recognize that we have such a distance still to go.

Tags: Existence, Few, Language

We carry stores of DNA in our nuclei that may have come in, at one time or another, from the fusion of ancestral cells and the linking of ancestral organisms in symbiosis. Our genomes are catalogues of instructions from all kinds of sources in nature, filed for all kinds of contingencies.

Tags: May, Nature, Time

We habitually engage in meddling with nature. Until this century most of this meddling was good. Witness the preservation of the European countryside. But since then we've smoked it up and littered it and dumped too much in too many waters. I don't think it's our privilege to behave this way.

Tags: Good, Nature, Until

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. A phenomenon can't be unique and universal at the same time.

Tags: Living, Nature, Time

We're as clever as we think we are, but we'll be a lot cleverer when we learn to use not just one brain but to pool huge numbers of brains. We're at a level technologically where we can share information and think collectively about our problems. We do it in science all the time - there's no reason why we can't do it in other endeavors.

Tags: Brain, Science, Time

Well, biology today as I see it has an amiable look - quite different from the 19th-century view that the whole arrangement of nature is hostile, 'red in tooth and claw.' That came about because people misread Darwin's 'survival of the fittest.'

Tags: Nature, Today, Whole

The cloning of humans is on most of the lists of things to worry about from Science, along with behaviour control, genetic engineering, transplanted heads, computer poetry and the unrestrained growth of plastic flowers.

Tags: Control, Poetry, Science

The great secret of doctors, known only to their wives, but still hidden from the public, is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.

Tags: Great, Medical, Morning

Our behavior toward each other is the strangest, most unpredictable, and most unaccountable of all the phenomena with which we are obliged to live. In all of nature, there is nothing so threatening to humanity as humanity itself.

Tags: Behavior, Humanity, Nature

Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.

Tags: Mind, Music, Work

We live in a dancing matrix of viruses; they dart, rather like bees, from organism to organism, from plant to insect to mammal to me and back again, and into the sea, tugging along pieces of this genome, strings of genes from that, transplanting grafts of DNA, passing around heredity as though at a great party.

Tags: Again, Great, Rather

We leave traces of ourselves wherever we go, on whatever we touch.

Tags: Leave, Touch, Whatever

A multitude of bees can tell the time of day, calculate the geometry of the sun's position, argue about the best location for the next swarm. Bees do a lot of close observing of other bees; maybe they know what follows stinging and do it anyway.

Tags: Best, Sun, Time

Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.

Tags: Moment, Path, Sometimes

There's really no such thing as the agony of dying. I'm quite sure that pain is shut off at the moment of death. You see, something happens when the body knows it's about to go. Peptide hormones are released by cells in the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. Endorphins. They attach themselves to the cells responsible for feeling pain.

Tags: Death, Feeling, Pain

I won't compare ants and people, but ants give us a useful model of how single members of a community can become so organized that they end up resembling, in effect, one big collective brain. Our own exploding population and communication technology are leading us that way.

Tags: End, Single, Technology

Any species capable of producing, at this earliest, juvenile stage of its development... the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, cannot be all bad.

Tags: Bad, Cannot, Music

Human language... prevents us from sticking to the matter at hand.

Tags: Human, Language, Matter

I don't think that the permanence of the individual human soul is an indispensable part of religious thought.

Tags: Human, Soul, Thought

If we are to be destroyed we will do it ourselves by warfare with thermonuclear weaponry.

Tags: Destroyed, Ourselves, Warfare

If you want to use a cliche you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon., or on society.

Tags: Society, Try, Yourself

Survival, in the cool economics of biology, means simply the persistence of one's own genes in the generations to follow.

Tags: Cool, Means, Simply

The most solid piece of scientific truth I know of is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature.

Tags: Ignorant, Nature, Truth

We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.

Tags: Built, Error, Mistakes

Worrying is the most natural and spontaneous of all human functions.

Tags: Human, Natural, Worrying

Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labour, exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.

Tags: Child, Human, War

As a species, taking all in all, we are still too young, too juvenile, to be trusted. We have spread across the face of the earth in just a few thousand years, no time at all as evolution clocks time, covering all livable parts of the planet, endangering other forms of life, and now threatening ourselves.

Tags: Life, Time, Young

At this early stage in our evolution, now through our infancy and into our childhood and then, with luck, our growing up, what our species needs most of all, right now, is simply a future.

Tags: Future, Growing, Luck

Of all celestial bodies within reach or view, as far as we can see, out to the edge, the most wonderful and marvellous and mysterious is turning out to be our own planet earth. There is nothing to match it anywhere, not yet anyway.

Tags: Earth, Far, Wonderful

Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you'd think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise.

Tags: Here, Keep, Small

The earliest sensation at the onset of illness, often preceding the recognition of identifiable symptoms, is apprehension. Something has gone wrong, and a glimpse of mortality shifts somewhere deep in the mind. It is the most ancient of our fears.

Tags: Deep, Mind, Wrong