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.
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*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 ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved