33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
on March 18, 2004
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. In Soul Made Flesh, a disillusioned old man hands over his research notes to a young passerby, scientific manuscripts are reworked to appease punitive church leaders, careers in medicine are interrupted by war, and cadavers eventually rot. Most everyone who reads Soul Made Flesh will feel a deep appreciation to Zimmer for persevering in his own research and writing to deliver a book that ensures Willis' founding contributions to neuroscience will be known, discussed and remembered.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2004
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. Zimmer explains, "Locke also influenced the way philosophers pondered the mind itself. He dismissed details of neurology and concerned himself with ideas and how they fit together, and generations of philosophers followed his lead. It would take neurologists 150 years to show that Willis was right, that studying the anatomy and chemistry of the brain can indeed reveal the workings of the mind, that they can map the geography of passion, reason, and memory."
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2004
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.
Amidst all the scientific chronicles of dissection, hangings, brain injuries, seizures, cholera, and other mostly horrible matters of the flesh, there are the constant metaphysical questions that arise about the soul. It is this balance of the physic and metaphysic that makes this book so satisfying. But I think the book's real triumph is the celebration of Willis's fine mind and accomplishment through so much adversity.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2004
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. It's the source of emotions, thoughts, and the self. The main character in this discovery, based on anatomy and experiments, was the Oxford physician Thomas Willis. Here we learn how the intricacies of an individual life lead to scientific studies of enormous import. What a life. What a time. Willis' friends and circle of colleagues included Hooke, Boyle, and Wren. They saw deeply into the implications of the scientific method, yet were still much on the cusp of superstition and alchemy as well. When they conducted science, almost everything they touched was a new discovery. This was the time when the basic paradigm of neuroscience began, a paradigm that continues to this day (which Zimmer brings us up to in a final chapter), a paradigm that is creating ever more difficult questions about who we are, what is free will, and what is consciousness. --Tyler Volk, author of "Metapatterns," "Gaia's Body," and "What is Death?"
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Debates about the "soul" have raged for millennia. Because we tend to think these debates are confined to the realms of philosophy and theology, we ignore the contribution medicine has made to our perception of the "self". Carl Zimmer's examination of the debate and its significant participants enlarges our outlook. His depiction of the life of Thomas Willis in tumultuous 17th Century Britain reveals the pioneering research that lead to a new view of the body's functions. The "soul", so long a mysterious concept, began to be exposed in the brain and its relation to the rest of the body. The study of illnesses, particularly those associated with behaviour, disclosed how false traditional views truly were.
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. He learned to dissect the brain, which decays faster than other organs, and initiated explanations of the nervous system. His illustrator was none other than Christopher Wren, famous Restoration architect. Together, they demonstrated the brain's arterial and nerve arrangement in what became known as the Circle of Willis - the entwined network of signal systems and energy resources. The collaboration was published as "The Anatomy of the Brain", the founding document of the science of neurology.
Willis established what Zimmer describes as the "four pillars of neurology". The first of these is the interaction of the body through the nerves to the brain. Second, the body's activities can be mapped in particular areas in the brain. Stimulation and response thus become predictable - showing the brain is structured, not merely an incohate melange of "grey porridge". Third, Willis and his followers demonstrated the similar structure of the brains of all animals. Tests showed clearly the body-brain interaction is common to all creatures. Finally, abnormal behaviour and many illnesses can be chemically treated. Although Zimmer describes today's world as "awash in brain drugs", benefits can be derived through proper therapy.
Although Zimmer covers a wealth of material, from the ancient Greeks through modern times, you aren't overwhelmed by this history. With an accessible prose style, he explains how growing knowledge of the body led to a new science. He communicates his own enthusiasm effortlessly, drawing the reader into the story. Each chapter is prefaced by an illustration of the material - all drawn from Wren's depictions. The only lack in these graphics is a modern diagram of the brain's anatomy. His concluding chapter on modern brain mapping details brain areas reflecting particular functions and emotions. The brain may be divided physcially, but the neural network is a highly integrated structure. Zimmer has produced a compelling study of the medical and the metaphysical. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2004
Carl Zimmer is one of the finest science writers of our generation. This is an amazing peek into the origins of modern science. It helps us see the shape of the lens through which we view reality today. It's also an astonishing story.
59 of 83 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2004
As a neuroscientist (someone who studies the brain but has a Ph.D., not an M.D.), I found this book disappointing. Zimmer's previous "Parasite Rex" about parasites (no? really??) and their role in evolution was excellent. But this book wasn't. The major player in the story Zimmer tells is Englishman Thomas Willis, the famous 17th century scientist. Trouble is, neither Willis nor the story of the "discovery of the brain" really appears in this 296 page book until page 175. (296 pages of text, that is). The first 174 pages is relatively interesting prologue describing the development of general medical thought up to Willis' time. But it has little to do with the "discovery of the brain".
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.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 6, 2006
This is the story of how we came to understand that life and thought are not beyond a naturalistic, material explanation. It centers on one seventeenth Englishman, Thomas Willis, around whom Zimmer assembles in Oxford a cast of early natural philosophers.
Zimmer begins in Greece with Aristotle and continues in Rome with Galen who while they did look at the human body, were too quick to come up with pet theories about biles and humors and present them as facts. For centuries their words ruled science.
Then comes Descartes with his mechanical view of the world, presenting a soul that ruled over the body. Descartes questioned the ancients and corrected some of their grosser factual mistakes but he made a few of his own and repeated their methodological error: he did not question his own pet theories enough.
The heroes of Zimmer's book are surgeons. Then, surgeons were simple menial workers with a gift for butchery and enough skill to allow their patients to survive their operations. The surgeons eventually gathered the courage to stand up to scholarly doctors and point out that Galen's descriptions were wrong. When challenged, they opened up cadavers and counterchallenged the doctors to show them Galen's fictional body systems.
The central hero is Thomas Willis, a country squire turned renowned doctor during the turbulent times of Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II. He had the luck to live near Oxford and displayed a keen interest in anatomy. Willis studied the brain and the nervous system with unprecedented precision. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society, meeting with the likes of Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren. Together, these men studied anatomy so that observations overruled theory whenever one did not agree with the other.
Willis's observations, descriptions, and case studies make him the first neurologist. Living in times of religious extremes, this devout man never swore off the primacy of a supernatural soul, but he saw the brain as a tool of the soul and his studies of this organ mechanized our model and led to today's materialistic explanations of consciousness.
Vincent Poirier, Tokyo
15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2005
For about a thousand years, the smartest people of every European generation tried to understand the world around them by reading texts based on scriptures and the works of ancient philosophers. At the end of the thousand years, the living conditions of the average person were the same as they were at the beginning of the thousand years. Life expectancy was around 40, and most people lived in fear of disease and starvation.
It's fascinating to read in "Soul Made Flesh" how completely the mind of the Middle Ages was infused with mysticism. People who were otherwise brilliant found it impossible to believe that any aspect of nature could operate in a purely mechanistic fashion, without spirit or purpose. In fact it was considered blasphemous to think otherwise. Human progress since the beginning of the Enlightenment is simply the adoption and development of a mechanistic understanding of the world, sometimes called "materialist" philosophy.
Zimmer's book provides a thoroughly enjoyable look at the transition between the mystical and mechanistic worldviews. Starting in the early 17th century, the coherent (and incorrect) set of doctrines sanctioned by church and state began to crumble: The Earth was found not to be the center of the universe, but one of several planets orbiting the sun. Matter was made not of Aristotle's four elements, but of atoms. Blood circulated through the body, rather than being absorbed by it. And crucially, the source of reason and consciousness was not a substanceless soul, but a gelatinous lump of biological tissue.
Interestingly, most of the men involved in these discoveries remained deeply religious, even though their findings contradicted what the church had been telling people for the previous 50 generations. And the ones that were physicans continued to rely on mysticism and alchemy to treat their patients. It would be centuries before people were able to talk candidly about a purely mechanistic account of the universe and its inhabitants. And we are only now beginning to enjoy the benefits -- life expectancy has doubled and formerly deadly diseases have been eradicated.
Remarkably, many people in the US have recently been calling for a return to the 17th century way of thinking. The problem is that mysticism didn't work out so well the first time, and now the stakes are much higher.
15 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2004
Ravaged by religious wars and capricious monarchs (sound familiar?), 17th century England was a kingdom in chaos. Against this bloody background, Carl Zimmer recounts the breakthroughs leading up to physician Thomas Willis's discovery that the brain - an organ previously dismissed as "a bowl of curds" -- is the seat of human consciousness and memory. Focusing on the activities of Willis's circle of "virtuosi" at Oxford, this gripping page-turner is a tribute to a group of heretical thinkers who decoded the book of Nature by relying on direct observation rather than received opinion.