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Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain--and How it Changed the World Hardcover – Deckle Edge, December 30, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0743230384 ISBN-10: 0743230388 Edition: First Edition

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Health Care in America by John C. Burnham
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Editorial Reviews Review

In Soul Made Flesh, Carl Zimmer reveals the strange and complicated history of the discovery of the human brain. Amid the turmoil of 17th century England, with religious leaders and monarchs battling for control of the country, an elite group of thinkers used every scientific means at their disposal to figure out that the unassuming putty in our heads was crucial to human health and wisdom. Primary among these Oxford scholars was Thomas Willis, whom the Royal Society affectionately called "our chymist." Soul Made Flesh is as much a biography of Willis and the men who shaped him as it is a medical history. Zimmer admirably sets the stage for what would become a metaphysical revolution and spark arguments that continue to this day about what the mind is and where, if anywhere, the human soul resides:
Thomas Willis... isolated the soul from stars and demons and made the chemical workings of the brain the key to sanity and happiness. Just as important, he helped make the brain a familiar thing.
Zimmer applies the same dedicated research and quietly sparkling style to this book as he did to Parasite Rex and At the Water's Edge, distilling reams of historical and scientific information into a concise yet comprehensive narrative. The book's chapters are accompanied by drawings by Willis' contemporary Christopher Wren, whose architectural sensibilities made the brain's structure beautiful to behold. --Therese Littleton

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (December 30, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743230388
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743230384
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.5 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,429,029 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I write books about science. Nature fascinates me, as does its history.

So far, I've written twelve books, including Parasite Rex and The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution. In addition to my books, I also write regularly about science for The New York Times, as well as for magazines including National Geographic and Wired. I've won awards for my work from the National Academies of Science and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. My blog, The Loom, is published by National Geographic Magazine (

Customer Reviews

Fascinating blend of scientific and historic insight.
virgnia townes
They saw deeply into the implications of the scientific method, yet were still much on the cusp of superstition and alchemy as well.
Tyler Volk
He communicates his own enthusiasm effortlessly, drawing the reader into the story.
Stephen A. Haines

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Marjorie Hutter on March 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Soul Made Flesh is a masterful blend of science, history and philosophy. Carl Zimmer weaves a fascinating narrative around an overlooked historical moment - the discovery of the brain - by looping back and forth through the centuries from ancient Greece to the new millennium while keeping his gaze fixed on 17th century England. As someone schooled in the classics, whose college curriculum consisted wholly of the Great Books, I found Zimmer's new book particularly satisfying to read. Soul Made Flesh is far more than a gallop through history. It goes well beyond identifying who was influenced by who, what I call the "connecting the dots through time" approach often conveyed in reverential tones by writers who have read only secondary sources of Aristotle, Descartes or Locke. Zimmer's book breathes life into the classics by allowing the reader to "overhear" Willis and his Oxford Circle peers examining, questioning and arguing about these texts even as they toil to expand anatomical knowledge beyond all previous bounds.
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.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By William Podmore on August 25, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The American writer Carl Zimmer has written a brilliant book on Thomas Willis (1621-75), the founder of neurology. Willis discovered the human brain's role and importance, and was the first to examine how it worked.

Willis was part of the remarkable generation of Britons who founded the Royal Society, aiming to understand the physical world: William Harvey, who by discovering the circulation of the blood had, as Willis said, created `a new foundation of medicine', Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle and William Petty, whom Karl Marx called the father of political economy.

To keep the Restoration Stuart state on side, they excluded from the Society the materialist Thomas Hobbes, who had said that the mind was `matter in motion'. As the Platonist Henry More realised, `No spirit, no God'.

Willis' book `The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves' mapped the brain, and was the first unified treatment of the brain and the nerves. The new science combined anatomical study of the human brain with comparisons to animal brains, experiments and medical observations. He identified the loop of arteries that supplies the brain, which became known as the Circle of Willis. The 20th century neurologist Lord Brain described Willis as `the Harvey of the nervous system'.

Willis "created a material explanation of the soul and its disorders. ... He had transformed the traditional three-part soul, which had existed since Plato, into the corpuscular chemistry of the nervous system. The soul was not just moved to the brain but limited to it, and only through the nerves could it experience the world."

But the idealist philosopher John Locke attacked Willis' materialist approach, holding back neurology's development.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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. Central to this revolutionary period is the Englishman Thomas Willis (1621-1675), a man of humble beginnings who rises by his own wits to become the most famous physician and scientist of his time.
During his life, Willis describes the brain and nervous system in an entirely new way and quite literally changes the way scientists approach disease, treatment, and research into the human body. It's an amazing accomplishment for someone so obscure to most modern readers. Zimmer has, perhaps, changed that for good, because he offers a wonderfully thoughtful examination of Willis the man, scientist, and physician that nearly anyone will find a pleasure to read.
Zimmer includes in early chapters a splendid primer on the state of medical/philosophical thought during Willis's formative years of education in Oxford. This gallop through history is often botched in science books, but Zimmer eases you along in an informed and even entertaining way from Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, Aquinas, Copernicus, Galileo, and Descartes up to Willis's contemporaries, such as Harvey. Zimmer knows his stuff and gets it all just right. Occasionally I wished he had written a bit more about a few of the more colorful figures, like the truly bizarre Descartes, but it's no flaw of the book.
Zimmer hits a stride when Willis and his circle at Oxford begin their regular meetings and examinations together. It's an exciting tale to tell and one feels drawn right into the era with wonderful descriptions of the sights and not so pleasant smells of 17th century England. He also profiles many of the famous and sometimes obscure characters of the period.
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