We are all in the same family—grasses, seagulls, fish, fleas, and voting citizens of the republic…. the life of the Earth is more intimately connected than we might ever think.
—Donald Trump, August 11, 2015
No, the Donald didn’t say this. But what if he had? Wouldn’t that have been great? Wouldn’t that have shaken things up? And after all, isn’t that what he most likes to do, shake things up, épater la bourgeoisie?
Who is the real author of this wonderful line that places all of us, fish, fleas and every living thing, in the same family? Well it’s Lewis Thomas, not the Donald.
The passage that follows below, which contains this line, is from Thomas’s 1974 book, The Fragile Species.
I was at one time, at my outset, a single cell…. There was of course a sort of half-life before that, literally half, when the two half-endowed, haploid gametes, each carrying half my chromosomes, were off on their own looking to bump into each other and did so, by random chance,… and I got under way.
I do not remember this, but I know that I began dividing…. I count myself lucky that I was not in charge at the time…. By the time I was born, more of me had died than survived (billions of my embryonic cells being killed off systematically to make room for their more senior successors).
It is because of language that I am able now to think farther back into my lineage. By myself, I can only remember two parents, one grandmother and the family stories of Welshmen… Texts instruct me that I go back to the first of my immediate line, the beginner, the earliest Homo sapiens, human all the way through, or not quite human if you measure humanness as I do by the property of language and its property, the consciousness of an indisputably singular, unique self.
What sticks in the top of my mind is another, unavoidable aspect of my genealogy, far beyond my memory, but remembered still, I suspect, by all my cells…. I come from a line that can be traced straight back, with some accuracy, into a near-infinity of years before my first humanoid ancestors turned up. I go back, and so do you, like it or not, to a single Ur-ancestor whose remains are on display in rocks dated approximately 3-5 thousand million years ago…. That first of the line was unmistakably a bacterial cell.
I cannot get this out of my head. It has become, for the moment, the most important thing I know, the obligatory beginning of any memoir, the long-buried source of language. We derive from a lineage of bacteria, and a very long line at that…. Humble origins indeed…. Where did that first microorganism, parent of us all, come from? … all the cells that came later, right up to our modern brain cells, carry the same strings of DNA and work by essentially the same genetic code. It is the plainest evidence of direct inheritance from a single parent. We are all in the same family—grasses, seagulls, fish, fleas, and voting citizens of the republic…. the life of the Earth is more intimately connected than we might ever think.