The Wonders of Possibility: Lewis Thomas on Our Human Potential and Our Cosmic Responsibility to the Planet and to Ourselves
By Maria Popova
“Our origins are of the earth,” Rachel Carson wrote in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature. “And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” By channeling this elemental human response in immensely lyrical prose about the science of the natural world — a testament to Susan Sontag’s assertion that “information will never replace illumination” — Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience and pioneered a new aesthetic of writing and thinking about the poetic truths radiating from the facts of physical reality.
Few science writers in the decades since have ascended to the top of the hierarchy of explanation, elucidation, and enchantment, which Carson crowned. Among them was the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993), who explores that delicate relationship between humanity and the rest of nature in a splendid essay titled “Seven Wonders,” found in his timelessly rewarding 1983 collection Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (public library).
With an eye to the consciousness-reconfiguring cosmic perspective which twentieth-century space exploration unlatched, Thomas writes:
We named the place we live in the world long ago, from the Indo-European root wiros, which meant man. We now live in the whole universe, that stupefying piece of expanding geometry. Our suburbs are the local solar system, into which, sooner or later, we will spread life, and then, likely, beyond into the galaxy. Of all celestial bodies within reach or view, as far as we can see, out to the edge, the most wonderful and marvelous and mysterious is turning out to be our own planet earth. There is nothing to match it anywhere, not yet anyway.
Building on Carson’s far-reaching ecological legacy, Thomas adds:
[Earth] is a living system, an immense organism, still developing, regulating itself, making its own oxygen, maintaining its own temperature, keeping all its infinite living parts connected and interdependent, including us. It is the strangest of all places, and there is everything in the world to learn about it. It can keep us awake and jubilant with questions for millennia ahead, if we can learn not to meddle and not to destroy. Our great hope is in being such a young species, thinking in language only a short while, still learning, still growing up.
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. We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before.
In a lovely counterpoint to today’s fashionably glib view of our potential and our shared future, Thomas echoes John Cage’s insistence that “it is essential that we be convinced of the goodness of human nature” and concludes:
Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.
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.
Complement this particular portion of Thomas’s wholly magnificent Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with Rachel Carson’s courageous letter of dissent against the destruction of nature and Henry Beston — who influenced Carson — on relearning to be nurtured by nature and how our relationship to the Earth reveals us to ourselves, then revisit Lewis Thomas on how we grow from ignorance to knowledge.
Published January 4, 2018