A good friend, a distinguished biologist, asked me to read his cancer manuscript.
When I read science books (popularizations, for the most part), I usually do so with only half a brain. I'm lazy; I skip the hard parts. But because I was being asked for a serious opinion, I read this book closely. In all honesty, It hurt my head. The hardest chapters were those on the workings of the cell. I last studied cells in high school biology class with Miss Goetschius. It was 1957, before there was anything known about DNA. We copied elementary pictures of cells from the textbook. "You don't know how to stipple," Miss Goetschius complained. There's a thousand times more known about cells than back then in the dark ages, and I haven't gotten any smarter.
Cells are spectacularly complicated -- no wonder it took billions of years for them to evolve. Once the single cell had achieved a level of efficiency, the rest of evolution -- even including us -- was piece of cake.
Reading about the lives of cells and about cancer (which is what happens when cells go wrong) confirmed and strengthened my ideas about life and death. Life, our life, is almost entirely accident. It's an accident that cells incorporated pieces of bacteria to form mitochondria; it's an accident that they agglutinated in the way that they did to form multicellular creatures; it's an accident that we're here. But more than that: the success and the deterioriation of the cells that make us are part of the same process. The end of life is implicit in its inception. Cancer is exactly as natural as breathing.
It's trivial; it's what everyone knows, it's what we've always known. It's a cliche: "death is a natural part of life." And yet it's strangely comforting. Whatever comes next -- cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's -- is perfectly natural. Of course it will lead to death. But it's also life.