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May 30, 1977

Mythical Monsters

JAMA. 1977;237(22):2414. doi:10.1001/jama.1977.03270490054032

In his essay on biomythology, Lewis Thomas1 infuses a new meaning into mythical creatures that abound in primitive lore. The ganesha possessing a human body and the head of an elephant; the sphinx with the head of a woman and the body of a lion; the manticore with a lion's body, a man's face, and a snake's head; and many other creatures of myth—all share one attribute in common. They are consortia, fusions of man, beast, bird, or fish. To Thomas, this hybrid quality symbolizes nature's symbiotic combinations, unexpected unions of diverse species—a countertrend to speciation. As a prime example of such a union, he cites the ingress of oxygen-utilizing bacteria a billion or so years ago into the larger nucleated animal cells to become incorporated as mitochondria.

Any cell—man, animal, fish, fowl, or insect—given the chance and under the right conditions, brought into contact with any other cell,