Monday, November 14, 2005

Books (Science): Soul Made Flesh

Carl Zimmer's Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain -- And How It Changed The World tells the story of Thomas Willis, a physician and anatomist in 17th Century England and the first scientist to study the brain systematically. Willis was largely responsible for doing in the Aristotelian notion of multiple kinds of souls living in various organs (the liver, the heart, etc), and was the first to demonstrate that the mind's experiences are mediated completely by the brain. He was known as the "William Harvey of the Brain" (Harvey, a friend, colleague, and inspiration of Willis's, discovered the circulation of the blood), though he faded from history compared to some of his famous philosophical contemporaries, such as Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Thomas Hobbes, and Rene Descartes (how do I get an e-acute on this thing?), who all appear and participate in Soul Made Flesh.

Zimmer writes science history the way I enjoy reading it: with lots of historical context and insights into thepersonalitiess of the people involved. All too often, science histories amount to lists of experiments, publications, and discoveries, but with little comment given to how political or social forces -- either large-scale or small -- affected the work. Zimmer does an excellent job of putting the reader into Willis's time. One of the biggest non-scientific influences on Willis's work was the Civil War and thesuppressionn of the Church of England by Oliver Cromwell, who pushed for a degree of freedom of religionunprecedentedd in England, which allowed Willis (for all he was a Loyalist) much more leeway in his research than he might have had otherwise.

Zimmer also does a great job of covering the outdated knowledge that Willis's work grew out of. At the time the idea of a gas as a state of matter was not well understood. It was Robert Boyle who discovered that there was something in air that was necessary for life (up until that point, the whole purpose of breathing was not understood), though Willis missed out on a chance to prove that air changes blood -- he did anexperimentt which showed this, but misinterpreted the results.

One of the down sides of this excellent insight into the science of the 17th Century is that you get to read about all the fun researchers had vivisecting animals. Zimmer has a detailed description of an experiment Robert Boyle and Christopher Wren did on a dog, to try to find out what the spleen is for. Not something PETA would approve of, to be sure.

The last chapter of Soul Made Flesh relates Willis's work to more modern research on how the brain functions --specificallyy, Joshua Greene's MRI research at Princeton into how the brain behaves when given moral quandaries to sort out. Reading about using the MRI to trace what parts of the brain are activated by different concepts made had me curious about what the machine would have seen while I was reading the book -- one of the problems with a good memory for comedy is that certain words and names will trigger memories of skits and sketches, and all through Soul Made Flesh I was beset by repetitions of Monty Python's Philosopher Song and Oliver Cromwell. Funny, but very distracting.

The last book on the brain that I started was Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error, which I bogged down in because Damasio's writing gets very dry and jargon-heavy at times. Soul Made Flesh is much more enjoyable to read, largely because of how Zimmer personifies the people he's writing about. A common problem with science writing is that authors don't want go deeper into the personalities or motivations of the scientists they are writing about than they can strictly justify. Zimmer, however, dives right in -- though he does have a note at the end about the limitations of the sources he had to work from, and how new historical research is always turning up more insight into these people.

Another nice touch of Zimmer's is that he includes a Dramatis Personae at the end, so that you don't get too lost trying to keep track of the many people involved in the discovery of the brain.

Given how enjoyable this book was, I'm going to have to grab a copy of Zimmer's Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea and go through that very soon.

No comments: