Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, Dec 30 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
The subtitle doesn't do justice to this illuminating book, which transcends the "history of X and how X changed the world" genre with a deep and contextualized exploration of two millennia's worth of human theories about consciousness and the soul. Zimmer, a columnist for Natural History and author of the highly praised Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, is interested in how philosophers and scientists moved from a view of the human soul as immaterial and residing in the heart to the common explanation of thought as having a material grounding in the brain and nervous system. His wide-ranging narrative reaches from the days of Aristotle to a 21st-century lab in the basement of a Princeton University building. The central figure in Zimmer's tale is the oft-overlooked 17th-century scientist Thomas Willis, a member of the British Royal Society and colleague of Boyle and Hooke. Willis, a figure of fascinating contradictions, was a conservative, religious royalist raised on a farm outside Oxford, who wound up working on the frontiers of science, as physician to the highest strata of London society and as an experimenter who helped found a new science of the brain. In the end, however, this book is less about Willis in particular than about the evolving metaphysics of the soul in general, and the reader is left with a better picture of the roots of the modern understanding of the self as well as a familiarity with one of the unsung heroes of the scientific revolution.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* Every Renaissance history tells how seventeenth-century pioneer William Harvey finally solved the riddle of the heart. Yet even among anatomists, few know how one of Harvey's students--Thomas Willis--first systematically dissected an even more mysterious human organ: the brain. A gifted science writer, Zimmer recounts Willis' singular achievement in a narrative that illuminates not only the scientific revolution in medicine but also the cross-grained personality of one of the chief revolutionaries. Readers may marvel that Willis learned enough science to lead a revolution during an Oxford education disrupted by civil war and religious zealotry. But Zimmer recognizes how a few Oxfordians (including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke) instilled in Willis a deep skepticism toward inherited dogmas and a lively receptivity toward new ideas. Eventually, Willis turned one of those new ideas (a mere glimmer in the rationalist philosophy of Rene Descartes) into a fledgling new science: neurology. In language accessible to general readers (supplemented with illustrator Wren's wonderful drawings from Willis' original work), Zimmer details the groundbreaking research through which Willis mapped the brain and diagnosed its disorders. And beyond Willis' science, Zimmer adumbrates its radical metaphysical implications, which undercut moral and religious doctrines tied to the immaterial soul (doctrines in which, ironically, Willis himself fervently believed). A remarkable fusion of scientific history and cultural analysis. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
As I neared the end of Soul Made Flesh, I happened to read a Boston Globe Magazine interview with Andrea Barrett, author of The Voyage of the Narwhal and, like Zimmer, a gifted science essayist. I was struck by a passage in which Barrett talks about "the unspoken disappointment of science" - research stolen or lost, specimens left in sunken ships, a life's worth of work made irrelevant by changing times. "I think about [loss] a lot. It's a very, very real part of science, but it's not the part that gets passed down," says Barrett. "We know the stories of famous scientists, but we don't hear the stories of people working hard and passionately half a tier down." Barrett could have been talking about Zimmer's book as much as her own.Read more ›
When Zimmer finally does get around to Willis and the history of his discoveries, he's pretty good. But he still goes on way too many historical and medical tangents not really relevant to the topic of the book. Time and again, a topic that could have been delt with in a few sentences is given a page or so.
In the final chapter Zimmer argues that funtional magnetic resonance imaging is "the soul's microscope". This is a good analogy in a book on Willis. Unfortunately, throughout this final chapter, Zimmer uses "magnetic resonance imagery" (MRI) when he means funtional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRI). There is a huge difference between the two - MRI shows tissue density while fMRI (of the brain) shows which brains areas are more or less active at a given time. In addition, there are several technical errors in Zimmer's description of how fMR imaging works.
The ancients, Zimmer explains, had varying ideas about the body's workings. He summarises the many views, noting how certain ancient thinkers, particularly Galen, came to be adopted by Christianity. Once admitted within the Church's fold, their teachings became part of the established dogma. Orthodoxy substituted for observation, inhibiting learning. The number of lives lost is incalcuable, but dissent through evidence was perilous. Even the Greeks, Zimmer reminds us, considered dismembering cadavers distasteful. Real medicine was thus kept in check for centuries.
While Protestantism overthrew many dogmas, medicine remained a restrained science. The issue of the "soul", where it resided and how it functioned, remained an enigma. The stomach, liver and heart were all candidates for the home of the "soul". The brain was viewed as a "useless mass of grey porridge". Zimmer's illuminating study depicts the revolution Willis wrought in explaining the brain's central role.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
Zimmer makes history lively and science understandable. It's incredible how much of our current understanding of ourselves was first proposed by Dr. Willis and his colleagues. Read morePublished on March 11 2004 by Katherine Hamilton
I couldn't put the book down; once begun it captured my reading time. The book covers the era when Oxford scientists truly realized that the brain was where we are at. Read morePublished on Feb. 20 2004 by Tyler Volk
Carl Zimmer is one of the finest science writers of our generation. This is an amazing peek into the origins of modern science. Read morePublished on Feb. 17 2004 by Howard Bloom
Soul Made Flesh is a marvelously nuanced and accessible work about a little-known moment in the history of science--the birth of modern neurology. Read morePublished on Feb. 17 2004
I am sorry that you recommended this book to me. it is way off the mark of The Discovery of the brain. Read morePublished on Feb. 16 2004 by Martin Steele
This is a fun quick read, and the last chapter really makes you realize just how far we've come in the last few hundred years. Read morePublished on Feb. 9 2004 by amazon buyer