Your Inner Thoreau

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 “Wildness is the preservation of the world.” —H.D. Thoreau

Reading Henry David Thoreau, I feel a moral and spiritual kinship with him and with all of life. Of course, that was his intent in sharing his experiences at Walden Pond, on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in the Maine Woods, and on Cape Cod. He was the first nature journalist to “mind nature.” He did all of that so he could live his life deliberately, transcending man’s law to discover natural law, encouraging us to do the same. He was also a mystic—for example, referring to a river in Maine being “peopled” with fish.

Thoreau’s intentions and aspirations are all noble ones that I support and uphold. However, as a working scientist for the last fifty years, I find it awkward to think in terms of metaphors instead of facts. Ironically, Thoreau was also a scientist of sorts, systematically measuring the height of the Concord River, counting annular rings on tree stumps, or doing seed dispersal surveys in order to fathom nature’s ways and determine her laws. He had a hypothesis, but he was not able to adequately test it scientifically, resorting to philosophy and speculation instead. He did not have the scientific knowledge needed to see the arc from the physical to the biological, a connection many have attempted but have failed to make—neither the Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine, in Order Out of Chaos, nor the polymath Michael Polanyi, in his essay “Life’s Irreducible Structure” in the journal Science, was able to show a direct relationship between physics and biology, concluding that the latter was too complicated. The essential data integrating biology and nature would not be available for another one hundred years, with the advent of molecular embryology. But we now have the scientific wherewithal to draw such conclusions.

I also tend to be philosophical, but prefer using the scientific method to support my epistemological claims about natural phenomena. I have spent decades trying to understand the principles behind human development as a basic scientist working in the field of neonatology, the clinical practice for taking care of pre-term newborns. My particular area of interest is in the development of the lung, because that is the “weakest link” in infant survival at birth. For example, in a case that received widespread public attention at the time, lung immaturity, originally known as hyaline membrane disease (now called respiratory distress syndrome), caused the death of the Kennedy baby, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, in 1963. Just five years later, an observant obstetrician named G.C. Liggins was studying what triggers the birthing process; he thought that the hormone cortisol initiated labor, so he treated pregnant sheep with the hormone well before they would have given birth, discovering to his surprise that the resulting newborn lambs were able to breathe spontaneously despite being born prematurely. Liggins failed to determine how cortisol induced labor, but in the process he discovered that he could effectively accelerate fetal lung maturation. The use of cortisol to accelerate lung maturation in pre-term pregnancy marked a sea change in the practice of obstetrics and neonatology.

I have studied how cortisol affects lung development for my entire career because of the fundamental importance of such knowledge for both developmental biology and for human health. Finally, a decade ago, my colleagues and I had amassed enough information to formulate a working model of lung development down to its cellular-molecular components. It turns out that this process is determined by reciprocal leap-frogging interactions between cells from two different germlines, generating all forty cell types of the lung. When I stepped back and considered the biologic “histories” of these two cell types in forming the lung, I calculated the probability that this process occurred by chance—it would have taken longer than the existence of the universe, which was nonsensical. Alternatively, there was evidence that these cell–cell interactions had been caused by physical factors in the environment like gravity, oxygen, and ions that have also fashioned the lung and all of the other organs of the body.

That thought brought me back to Thoreau’s imaginings about his intimate, ancient relationship with the earth. His intent was to encourage us to reconnect mind and body, which had been philosophically separated by Descartes in the seventeenthcentury. Thoreau felt strongly that such dualistic thinking interfered with our ability to perceive ourselves as integral beings, at one with nature. So he went to Walden Pond to live his life “deliberately,” demonstrating by his actions that we humans have free will. We do not have to be condemned to “lives of quiet desperation” once we get in touch with our transcendent selves.

In a similar vein, my insights to human evolution stem from the work of others showing that life on earth began with snowball-like asteroids striking the earth in the absence of an oxidative atmosphere. Those snowballs formed the earth’s oceans, and contained lipids that coalesced as fat globules. Lipids immersed in water can form primitive cells, providing the origins of life, particularly when the moon started generating tides only 100 million years after the formation of the earth. It is well known that when lipids are wetted and dried they spontaneously form semi-permeable membrane spheres; imagine such lipids lying on the primordial shore, drying out at low tide and being wetted at high tide recurrently—life! It is thought that energy was eventually produced within such simple cells, in defiance of the second law of thermodynamics, by the process of chemiosmosis, which is sustained by homeostatic servo-regulation, the mechanistic basis for physiology. This unitary cell structure formed the basis for all of life on earth. The fact that it occurred spontaneously through self-referential, self-organizational principles is the biological origin and determinant of free will; the higher consciousness that characterizes intentional freewill is an epiphenomenon of this vertically integrated process. So, like Thoreau beseeching us to take personal responsibility for ourselves, I would argue that the possibility of freedom is in our DNA.

The main reason why I have been encouraged to amplify my cellular understanding of evolution is because it is predictive, which is the benchmark of science. The principles at work in the evolution of the cell and the cell membrane are the foundations of life that have been used recurrently in vertebrate evolution, most recently in the adaptation of fish to land, forced to do so because rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused a greenhouse effect, drying up the oceans. The weakest link in this chain of adaptive events was the lung, which evolved from the swim bladder of fish. But during this process there were periods when the evolving lung was inefficient, causing oxygen deficiency, or hypoxia, the most potent physiologic stressor known. This triggered the “fight-or-flight” mechanism by which the pituitary in the brain stimulates cortisol production by the adrenal gland, triggering adrenaline production. The adrenaline relieved the stress on the lung, and also stimulated metabolism by releasing fatty acids from fat cells, raising body temperature. The elevated body temperature on land was more efficient than being cold blooded, resulting in the evolution of warm-blooded mammals and birds. Importantly, hibernation has the opposite effect, reducing stress, cortisol, adrenaline, and body temperature, placing the organism in a trance-like meditative state.

In Walden, Thoreau describes his “morning work,” measuring the dispersal of seeds, the depth of Walden Pond, recording the first appearance of the local plant life, and the behaviors of animals and birds. But these activities are his entrée to the other-worldly, transcendent mysteries of his surroundings. He often finds himself in such a meditative state, allowing him to envision his place in nature and the universe. As a result, Thoreau’s experience at Walden Pond has a mystical quality to it:

Once, a few weeks after I came to the woods, for an hour I doubted whether the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was somewhat unpleasant. But in the midst of a gentle rain, while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sight and sound around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once, like an atmosphere, sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.[1]

This spiritualism in nature raises the question as to whether there may be scientific evidence for such phenomena. In support of that notion, it has recently been found that the microbiome—the bacteria that inhabit our bodies—enters the soil and water when we are buried, forming the necrobiome. The necrobiome is predominantly composed of proteobacteria, which are present in plants, and animals, and in the gut, skin, lungs, and eyes of humans. In fact, the microbiome of the uterus is the source for the microbiome of the newborn, suggesting that there may be a path from one generation to the next via the bacteria that co-habit with us. How Zen. I think Thoreau would have liked the idea of going back to nature as a means of immortalization.

[1]. H.D. Thoreau, Walden: Life in the Woods (1854; repr., New York: Houghton Mifflin Riverside Press, 1938), 206.

  • John S. Torday

    John S. Torday, MSc, PhD, is a Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is the author of Evolutionary Biology: Cell–Cell Communication and Complex Disease (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

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