I received Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer for Christmas. After reading and enjoying A Perfect Union I thought I would take a break from reading history. Not because I am bored with history… the more history I read the more I want to read – but I am interested in lots of things including science and Soul Made Flesh is about the brain. But it turns out Soul Made Flesh is about history – the history of science and medicine. This shouldn't have been a surprise to me since the subtitle of the book is The Discovery of the Brain — and How it Changed the World. I devoured this book and I learned a whole bunch of stuff I knew nothing about.
I learned about Aristotle, Plato and Galen and their theories of the soul and the body, I especially enjoyed learning about the English Civil war and the late 1600's when people were leaving England to settle in North America. The scientific discoveries during this period were extensive. It is fascinating to see how the civil war opened up the possibility of doing experiments to prove theories.
The central story of Soul Made Flesh is the story of Thomas Willis and his contemporaries in the Oxford Circle, Boyle, Wren and Petty. As England got rid of King Charles and as Oliver Cromwell took power Willis and friends developed the technology to study the brain – preservatives, microscopes and injections. I always think of Sir Christopher Wren as the architect of St Paul's cathedral but he performed the first successful injection. I knew about Boyle's law (P1*V1*T1=P2*V2*T2) from physics class but I had no idea that his experiments led to an understanding of the function of the lungs.
In 1660 when Charles II was restored to the throne Willis who was a royalist was able to complete his study of the brain and publish his book "The Anatomy of the Brain and the Nerves". It went through 23 editions and "well into the nineteenth century it would be required reading for anyone who would call himself an expert on the brain." Amazingly the illustrations were all done by Christopher Wren.
Surprisingly (to me) Soul Made Flesh also gave insight into the seeds that were being planted for the American revolution. Cromwell's New Model Army was " a new experiment in democracy". Thomas Locke was a student of Willis. He is also the reason so few people today know about Willis. Although Willis completely revolutionized and corrected man's understanding of the brain he still used completely ineffectual treatments on his patients. He based his description of the brain on observations but it was Locke and his friend Sydenham who based their practice of medicine on what they could prove through experiment worked. "Anatomy, Locke and Sydenham declared, "will be no more able to direct a physician how to cure a disease than how to make a man". It is really only recently that we have come back to a belief that understanding the anatomy of the brain can help us understand how to cure it's diseases. "Thanks to Locke philosophers stopped looking to the physical world to understand morality"
Thomas Locke went on to publish and become famous for his book "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" which made the argument that people were entitled to overthrow a leader who violated their natural rights. His writings and especially this principal greatly influenced Thomas Jefferson and our other founding fathers.
I really enjoyed this book. Carl Zimmer is a great author. He makes complicated and diverse subjects fascinating.