Nonfiction | December 01, 1992

Winner of the 1992 Editors’ Prize for Essay.

Lewis Thomas, winner of the first annual Missouri Review Editors’ Prize in the essay, has a reputation for asking questions as large as a child might ask and having the most amazingly good time trying to answer them.  His “Song of the Canary” asks how human language began.  While he calls on several learned disciplines in pursuit of an answer, he finally rests his case on the far side of science, somewhere between the plains of common human experience and the mountains of intuition.

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Other creatures, most conspicuously from our point of view the social insects, live together in dense communities in such interdependence that it is hard to imagine the existence of anything like an individual.  They are arranged in swarms by various genetic manipulations, they emerge in foreordained castles, some serving as soldiers for defending the anthill or beehive, some as workers, bringing in twigs of exactly the right size needed for whatever the stage of construction of the nest, some as the food gatherers tugging along the dead moth toward the hill, some solely as reproductive units for the replication of the community, even some specialized for ventilating and cleaning the nest and disposing of the dead.

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