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The Scientific Poetics of Affection: Lewis Thomas on Altruism and Why We Are Wired for Friendship

“Left to ourselves, mechanistic and autonomic, we hanker for friends… Maybe altruism is our most primitive attribute, out of reach, beyond our control.”

The Scientific Poetics of Affection: Lewis Thomas on Altruism and Why We Are Wired for Friendship

“There is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity,” marine biologist Rachel Carson, who sparked the environmental movement with her epoch-making 1962 book Silent Spring, wrote in reflecting on science and our spiritual bond with nature. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” her contemporary and admirer Loren Eiseley wrote six years later in his beautiful meditation on what a muskrat taught him about reclaiming the miraculous in a mechanical age. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

In the same era, another splendid writer influenced by both Carson and Eiseley — the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) — explored this profoundly humanizing quality of the natural world in a short essay titled “The Tucson Zoo,” originally published in The New England Journal of Medicine and later included in his 1979 collection The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (public library).

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

Thomas recounts a spontaneous visit to the local zoo during a trip to Tucson, where he found himself walking a curious and magical path between two artificial ponds, one populated by a family of otters and the other by a family of beavers — a kind of open-top, glass-walled tunnel that allows visitors who stand at the center to view both the depths of each pond and its surface. In a passage evocative of Eiseley’s transcendent encounter with the muskrat, Thomas writes:

I was transfixed. As I now recall it, there was only one sensation in my head: pure elation mixed with amazement at such perfection. Swept off my feet, I floated from one side to the other, swiveling my brain, staring astounded at the beavers, then at the otters. I could hear shouts across my corpus callosum, from one hemisphere to the other. I remember thinking, with what was left in charge of my consciousness, that I wanted no part of the science of beavers and otters; I wanted never to know how they performed their marvels; I wished for no news about the physiology of their breathing, the coordination of their muscles, their vision, their endocrine systems, their digestive tracts. I hoped never to have to think of them as collections of cells. All I asked for was the full hairy complexity, then in front of my eyes, of whole, intact beavers and otters in motion.

But unlike Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who spoke so poetically about how knowledge amplifies mystery rather than detracting from it, Thomas finds himself quickly slipping into a kind of habitual reductionism:

Something worth remembering had happened in my mind, I was certain of that; I would have put it somewhere in the brain stem; maybe this was my limbic system at work. I became a behavioral scientist, an experimental psychologist, an ethologist, and in the instant I lost all the wonder and the sense of being overwhelmed. I was flattened.

But I came away from the zoo with something, a piece of news about myself: I am coded, somehow, for otters and beavers. I exhibit instinctive behavior in their presence, when they are displayed close at hand behind glass, simultaneously below water and at the surface. I have receptors for this display. Beavers and otters possess a “releaser” for me, in the terminology of ethology, and the releasing was my experience. What was released? Behavior. What behavior? Standing, swiveling flabbergasted, feeling exultation and a rush of friendship. I could not, as the result of the transaction, tell you anything more about beavers and otters than you already know. I learned nothing new about them. Only about me, and I suspect also about you, maybe about human beings at large: we are endowed with genes which code out our reaction to beavers and otters, maybe our reaction to each other as well. We are stamped with stereotyped, unalterable patterns of response, ready to be released. And the behavior released in us, by such confrontations, is, essentially, a surprised affection. It is compulsory behavior and we can avoid it only by straining with the full power of our conscious minds, making up conscious excuses all the way. Left to ourselves, mechanistic and autonomic, we hanker for friends.

Illustration by Japanese artist Komako Sakai for a special edition of The Velveteen Rabbit

As a scientist thus moored in the poetic and the philosophical, Thomas seeks to bridge this beautiful creaturely awareness with the scientific understanding of the world. With an eye to ant colonies, where cooperation between individuals builds a magnificent cohesive whole — a superorganism governed by hard-coded selflessness — he reflects again on that deep response to the beavers and the otters and, by extension, to his fellow human beings:

Maybe altruism is our most primitive attribute, out of reach, beyond our control. Or perhaps it is immediately at hand, waiting to be released, disguised now, in our kind of civilization, as affection or friendship or attachment. I don’t see why it should be unreasonable for all human beings to have strands of DNA coiled up in chromosomes, coding out instincts for usefulness and helpfulness. Usefulness may turn out to be the hardest test of fitness for survival, more important than aggression, more effective, in the long run, than grabbiness. If this is the sort of information biological science holds for the future, applying to us as well as to ants, then I am all for science.

One thing I’d like to know most of all: when those ants have made the Hill, and are all there, touching and exchanging, and the whole mass begins to behave like a single huge creature, and thinks, what on earth is that thought? And while you’re at it, I’d like to know a second thing: when it happens, does any single ant know about it? Does his hair stand on end?

In another piece in the book — a commencement address at a medical school — he offers a complementary sentiment we would be well advised to encode into every piece of policy and personal conduct as we wade deeper and deeper into the increasingly turbid estuary of twenty-first century humanity on this increasingly fragile planet:

We are by all odds the most persistently and obsessively social of all species, more dependent on each other than the famous social insects, and really, when you look at us, infinitely more imaginative and deft at social living. We are good at this; it is the way we have built all our cultures and the literature of our civilizations. We have high expectations and set high standards for our social behavior, and when we fail at it and endanger the species — as we have done several times in this century — the strongest words we can find to condemn ourselves and our behavior are the telling words “inhuman” and “inhumane.”

There is nothing at all absurd about the human condition. We matter. It seems to me a good guess, hazarded by a good many people who have thought about it, that we may be engaged in the formation of something like a mind for the life of this planet.

The Medusa and the Snail is an uncommonly wonderful read in its entirety — a gift from one of those rare science writers whose work rises to the level of enchantment. Complement this particular portion with Lucille Clifton’s spare and stunning ode to our kinship with all life-forms and pioneering naturalist John Muir on the interconnectedness of the universe, then revisit Lewis Thomas on our human potential and our cosmic responsibility.

Published September 27, 2018




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