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How to Summarize

How do you prepare to summarize?

  1. Ask yourself what the topic of the text is. The topic is a word or phrase that says what the text is about. Try to be as specific as possible about the topic.
  2. Ask yourself the purpose of the text. Does it tell a story (narrate)? Inform? Persuade or raise readers' awareness of an issue?
  3. Look for the thesis (what the author is saying about the topic). Look first in the introduction, then in the conclusion to see if the author has written an explicit statement of thesis. Write the thesis in your own words (and make sure it matches your sense of the author's purpose). The thesis must be a complete sentence - it is impossible to write a thesis in a phrase alone.
  4. Look for the major divisions of the text. In your own words, summarize each division in one sentence. (That may mean summarizing each paragraph, but often several paragraphs go together).
  5. Work with the sentences you have created (you may leave some out) to produce a summary. Make sure you reveal the relationships between the ideas. For example, are some of the ideas reasons for a result stated in the thesis? Or vice versa? Are there contrasts or comparisons between some of the ideas?


The Tucson Zoo

Para 1.

Science gets most of its information by taking things apart.

Para 2.  

The author has some doubts about this, thinking we become preoccupied by parts and never see the whole. 

Para 3.

When he watched some beavers and otters at the Tucson Zoo, he was elated and didn't want to dissect them in any way.

Para 4.   

After a few minutes, he lost this wonder and began to analyze, not the beavers and otters, but himself. 

Para 5.  

He found out that he seems to be genetically encoded to feel friendship for beavers and otters. He generalizes that all human beings are, like him, coded for friendship and affection for others. 

Para 6,7. 

Some people argue that to be like ants, who work together as a single entity, is a "violation of human nature". They say people should be individual, solitary and selfish. He refutes this by saying that people argue this by using language and gathering people together.

Para 8. 

(He argues that) altruism, disguised as "affection or friendship or attachment" may be "our most primitive attribute".

Para 9. 

He wonders if ants feel and know when they are altogether, acting as one, and what does it feel like?


In "The Tucson Zoo", Lewis Thomas describes an experience of "wholeness" that made him question the scientific preoccupation with parts. When confronted with beavers and otters, in their wholeness, he had no desire to think of the parts that made them up. Instead he felt elation and friendship. From this experience he concludes first that people instinctively respond to other beings with feelings of affection. Separated from each other, we want friendship. He further concludes that the feelings that draw humans together into a whole -- love, altruism, helpfulness -- may be our most basic attributes. He disagrees with those who deny this impulse in favour of the ideal of solitary independence, and suggests that altruism may be the most necessary factor for our continued survival.