Soul Made Flesh: A Tale of Neurology

I recently read Carl Zimmer’s book, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain – and How It Changed the World, and I found it fascinating. (It has only added to my intellectual crush on the thinkers of the early Enlightenment. *sigh*) It is, essentially, the story of how the study of neurology came into being. But it is also the tale of how the brain came to light, because before neurology could come into existence, the brain had to be “discovered” as more than just a useless tapioca-like substance. And so, it is a book about the history of the brain, as humans have understood it over time.

One of the interesting things is just how much of the book is also about medical and philosophical understandings of the heart. The title of “Soul Made Flesh” is very descriptive, (as one might expect,) because the whole journey of understanding started in an attempt to understand the soul. Where was it located? How did it work? What was it that made humans so special, above the other animals? What drove our moral actions? Naturally, it started out as a philosophical quest.

As you might imagine, the philosophical descriptions of the soul, its location, and how it worked were nicely explained, logically argued, and based on very little in the way of fact. In trying to localize the soul, the philosophers were trying to base their arguments on human anatomy, and so they also made up what today seem like extremely fanciful interpretations of how the imagined bodily systems all worked together. There were lots of descriptions of little spirits and humors running around to different locations of the body to influence different human functions. Eventually, the heart was settled upon as the home of the soul, as well as the home of thought.

Fortunately for us, in the 1600s, people, particularly young intellectuals, early natural philosophers, if you will, began to find fault with their Greek-based anatomy classes, and started to notice that what was actually being revealed of the human body in the dissection theater didn’t always tally with what was in the books. And so the revolution began, and the real story started.

A young man named Thomas Willis in England had intended to be a clergyman. The only problem was, his college years corresponded with the overthrow of the monarchy, which rather took the Church of England with it, so it wasn’t such a great time to be a royalist man of the cloth. So he became a physician instead, and fell in with that group of natural philosophers who would later become the Royal Society. Who better than a devoutly religious ex-ministerial-candidate turned physician, with a bunch of highly inquisitive friends interested in everything and quite willing to perform any experiment imaginable, anatomical to mechanical, to discover the true workings of the brain?

Willis was one of those not satisfied with the way anatomy stood. When William Harvey, a maverick anatomist who prefered to base his theories on observation, rather than tradition, proposed the idea that blood flowed in a continuous loop around the body, and was not in fact, replenished from the outside, he revolutionized all ideas about the heart. Harvey had no use for the brain, but the heart was now simply an organ. Willis was free to find a new home for the soul.

The book’s descriptions of the experiments Willis and his Royal Society friends thought of to test their hypotheses are amazing. When his friends helped him discover how to preserve brains as specimens, he and his assistants were then free to dissect them accurately and painstakingly. (Not to mention that along the way they discovered oxygen, redefined the respiratory system, and performed the first successful blood transfusion, as well.) No more assumptions based on the anatomy of cows, no more need to scrape away outer tissue as it became less stable during decomposition, thereby obscuring the true ways the brain’s structures connected. He was able to follow the branching pathways of nerves, to develop a whole new theory of the different kinds of thought, voluntary and involuntary. He tied the different kinds of thought to the different main areas of the brain, in ways that still hold true.

It’s breathtaking to think of living in a time when so many new discoveries were being made, though I have to admit it’s likely they didn’t realize it themselves at the time. But the truth is that Willis’s descriptions of the brain, and the nervous system that he discovered, along with the accompanying illustrations by Christopher Wren, remained quite accurate and relevant into the 20th century. There’s so much more to this story than what I’m able to encapsulate here, and I can’t recommend this book enough to anyone who has any interest in the brain, neurology, and/or philosophy of the soul. To see this history laid out so clearly is breathtaking. It’s like being able to witness the discovery of the very basis of our modern world, and yet, at the same time, reminds us of what there is still left to discover. The brain is still an amazingly unknown territory.


22 Responses to Soul Made Flesh: A Tale of Neurology

  1. sparky23 says:

    So is the soul…

  2. Dana says:

    The immortal soul? Still don’t know for sure. I suppose that depends on how you define it. But given that the soul at the time was thought to be responsible for all thought, Willis at least placed the “rational” soul in the brain, along with involuntary control of the body’s natural functions. By doing so, he also brought into question whether humans were all that superior to animals, because they had similar brains. Their involuntary functions worked very much the same, but their rational brain bits were less developed, so perhaps humans were still superior? There were certainly still a lot of theological issues to be debated after Willis died, meaning some of his worry about his work challenging the church’s doctrine too much was unfounded.

  3. Mark says:


    I think the important difference here is that the soul is unknowable, where as the brain is simply unknown. The soul, to the extent that it is something more than a side-effect of the neuro-electrochemical reactions in the brain, is a matter of faith, and not a subject that leaves itself open to rational exploration. The brain, by contrast, is complex in lots of ways that we don’t understand, but it is at the end of the day a lump of matter, swapping chemicals and energy back and forth. It can be studied, poked, prodded, dissected, soaked in formaldehyde or scanned in an MRI.

    The brain is unknown territory, but the soul can never be otherwise. Unless, of course, the soul is just something that happens when all of those chemicals and energy go flinging around willy-nilly. The simple fact that you were willing to make a distinction as you did, however, suggests you wouldn’t find that to be a satisfying answer.

  4. sparky23 says:

    It is interesting to me that, to the modern audience, discussions of soul immediately entail faith. I think that’s what is so curious to us when we try and wrap out heads/brain/mind/soul (just words…) around the idea as understood in the 17th or 18th century. Our rationalized, discrete and orderly thought has trouble entertaining the totality of the science of this bygone age. A natural philosophic quest, it was. And Willis was hardly the first. The idea of progress in the history of medicine has always been predicated on breaking out of systems — in the case above, it was the Galenic anatomical system, primitive and quickly crumbling because of all the close and careful observation going on at this time. What would constitute a medical revolution in our time, dominated as it is by the idea that soul is just “chemicals and energy…flinging around willy-nilly”?

    First, I would ask, what kind of energy? Your whole cosmology (about brains…) is built on another set ideas. How sound are they?

    Truth be known, I don’t begrudge the search for knowledge…Whether in inner space or out, but that’s just the point — there are big holes, full of stuff like dark matter and energy (really just signs that neat, clear and simple equations are fudged and don’t all add up…) up there. And by up there, I mean in here. It’s amusing to me that we still write about the history of science as if it was all leading up to our brilliant accomplishments…Such that they are.

    So you can keep poking, proding, dissecting, soaking and scaning all you want…But consider that there may be other ways to understand it all. And they don’t have a damn thing to do with religion…

  5. Dana says:


    In this particular book, which is what I was addressing in my post, and continuing to address in my comment, religion and science were firmly intertwined. Because Willis was working in a time when the Church wielded considerable influence, and he himself was a religious person, he did worry about redefining the soul in a way that would anger the Church, especially since they had a great deal of control over whether his books could be published. As someone who is personally non-religious, I find the interplay between science and religion interesting to watch, if not always explicable.

    Zimmer never makes the claim that Willis was the first to break the mold. He gives a very comprehensive overview of past views of the soul and anatomy from a variety of pre-Christian cultures. I glossed that part because I was trying to get to the main meat of the story, and I do think people should read the book if they’re interested. There were also numerous other post-Christian anatomists and alchemists who broke Galen’s mold before Willis, and he based much of his observational techniques on their work. Galen himself was a departure from those who came before him, such as Aristotle. I think I even made the point that Willis was basing a lot of his work on that of Harvey, who in some ways broke the mold of Galenic anatomy much more radically than Willis.

    In this case, Zimmer was, yes, writing about the history of science as leading up to what we have today. I don’t find that at all strange, because “today” is the perspective we have at the moment, and he is, after all, a science writer writing for a lay audience who wants to engage people enough on common ground that they buy his book. However, he, and I, do not assume that we know everything about the brain. I still find it amazing that there is so much we don’t know. Not because I expect us to have figured it out yet because of course we are the pinnacle of scientific civilization, but because there is still room to make huge breakthroughs like Willis’s, and I kind of hope I’ll get to see it. If anyone ever claims we know everything there is to know in the scientific realm, they are certainly lying, and I don’t think anyone here is trying to say that at all.

    You invite us to “keep poking, proding [sic], dissecting, soaking and scaning [sic] all you want… But consider that there may be other way to understand it all,” which is not at all out of line with scientific inquiry, but you don’t indicate what you think these other ways might be. Do you have any particular ideas, or are you simply expressing a dissatisfaction with your perception of science’s mindset in general?

  6. Mark says:


    There are a wide variety of things that need have nothing at all to do with religion. Including, for a notable example, faith. The entire point I was attempting to make is that the soul, as most people understand it, requires more than just chemicals and energy. If it exists, it is something more than the sum of our brain patterns. However, it is, by definition (my definition, anyway, you might have a different one), those things that cannot be observed or even inferred. Instead, understanding the soul relies that you come to some conclusion based on what you feel about it, which is called faith.

    Faith and science are not mutually exclusive. They are very different ways of looking at things. There are some things which science is excluded from examining, and some things I might argue faith should be excluded from examining, but in most cases, they look at different aspects of the same questions, and they come to different but coexisting answers.

    Science is great for examining everything that happened starting a few nanoseconds after the big bang, when the physical constants all settled into their present values, and suddenly physics could actually work. Everything before that is firmly in the realm of faith, and I see no reason it shouldn’t belong there. Likewise, everything that goes on in the brain is a very reasonable venue for science. The soul, by contrast, is closed to science, and remains the exclusive purview of faith.

  7. Wow. Lots of good rhetoric flying my way…let’s see if I can return the favor. In regards to Zimmer’s book — I understand the constraints of his message and the need to consider an audience, but I don’t accept that this has to define his point of view. First of all, taking a presentist view of medical history is disastrous, since it focuses on a form of progress that is not sustainable through a judicious assessment of the actual record of medical practice. Why is Harvey (and by association, Willis) famous? Well, lots of reasons. But partly because a certain philosopher (we’ll call him Descartes) used Harvey’s description of the mechanical function of the heart (from De motu cordis [1628]) to help popularize mechanistic thinking about the body. And divide it from the mind…

    Mechanism has become the essential framework of scientific understanding, so I guess in so far as why I was writing, it was partly to suggest a “dissatisfaction with the scientific mindset.” Somebody’s gotta do it…

    As to faith…The set of criteria laid out there is pretty lame. Since when is it only about feeling (in contrast to science’s supposed “knowing”) — it also believing. You believe a whole set of ideas — about the “Big Bang” (a term of derision initially coined by the iconoclastic astronomer Fred Hoyle) and the origin of the universe and all that. Which is fine, but it’s belief…The only certain thing about science is uncertainty, but nobody is interested in that. We need answers…

    But we are not really interested in asking the widest possible questions. The soul is “closed to science” — i.e. not a purview of investigation. OK, fine, that just means you’ve decided to limit your range of inquiry, a major faux pas of “science”, broadly understood.

    I think the problem here is with word use…words evolve, and mean such different things in different contexts…especially words like “soul” and “science”…One could go on and on about this here, but what’s the point? All your discussions reflect such deep binaries — religion and science, faith and knowledge, down and up (i.e. progress) , and all this talk of the democratization of thought (who gives a damn about “most people” — do you think great scientists like Newton, who was perhaps the most misunderstood outsider of all time (and once thought it was a great idea to stick a pin in behind his eyeball to figure out its shape…), care about most people? No. Otherwise all his work would have been for the positive good, and he would not have spent countless hours producing thousands of pages of material on alchemy and Biblical exegesis.)

    I guess the point is we don’t live in a very scientific society — people have limited basic knowledge of its form and its history, are amazed and dazzled by its seeming complexity, and leave it to some of the most conformist and mediocre types possible. In this respect there seems to be little chance we will witness “huge breakthroughs” — besides, any “huge breakthrough” will probably be incomprehensible to anyone with a general knowledge for years to come…

    Anyway, all this to say that the neurosciences (and its history) is mired in a mechanistic paradigm that it can’t seem to get out of, and that really makes it pretty lame. More snazzy and high-tech than ever before (thank you, Steven Pinker), but still pretty lame…

  8. Sorry about the italics…forgot to close my tag… 😉

  9. Oh, and I meant “would not” have spent countless hours producing thousands of pages of material on alchemy and Biblical exegesis…Which in fact he did (hundred of thousands of pages, in fact). Imagine if he’d had a blog…

  10. Mark says:


    I went ahead and corrected the italics. You had the second tag, you’d just neglected the “/”, which rather deprived it of the status of a closing tag, and just turned it into a second orphaned opening tag. You had the same problem down at “and it’s history” in the last paragraph, which I’ve also fixed, though that issue was masked by the earlier one. I have likewise added the word “not” to your note about Newton’s prolific work, and adjusted the word “spend” to “spent” later in the same sentence in order to produce a grammatically correct result.

  11. Mark says:


    Now then, with the administrivia out of the way, on to the meat of your comment. You say:

    Mechanism has become the essential framework of scientific understanding, so I guess in so far as why I was writing, it was partly to suggest a “dissatisfaction with the scientific mindset.” Somebody’s gotta do it…

    To which I reply “Well, yes.” Science is deeply interested in the study of mechanism. The scientific method, as it is now understood, is inherently a devolutional approach. Problems are solved by breaking them down, one step at a time. Preferably, each step is understood, independent of the others. This atomic understanding is then applied in order to understand the larger topic. You can be dissatisfied with this if you want. Certainly, the devolutional approach is not the only one, but it is the one that we describe as science. If the goal is to understand mechanism, it is a highly appropriate technique. That you don’t find it fulfilling is hardly a failing of the technique to find the answers it seeks.

    In addition, you say:

    As to faith… The set of criteria laid out there is pretty lame. Since when is it only about feeling (in contrast to science’s supposed “knowing”) — it [sic]also believing.

    Perhaps you use “feeling” in a different sense than I do, but I stand by my point. Faith, by its very definition (see, in particular, definition 2b1), is that which we believe even in the absence of evidence. Both science and faith deal in belief. What differs between them is not uncertainty (there is room for plenty of uncertainty in both), but evidence. Yes, I believe in, for example, the force of gravity. I can point to hundreds of years of careful experimentation, hypothesis backed up by repeatable results, which suggest that I am right.

    By contrast, you could believe in, say, reincarnation. I defy you to offer me any way of determining, by repeatable means, that reincarnation happens, other than “Die. Take notes.” Thus, reincarnation is faith. It might well be true, but if you believe it without evidence, you have faith. The sensation you have that something is true when you lack evidence is what I called a “feeling.” You might have some other word for it, but it’s the same thing. It is also about knowing, but that doesn’t change its source.


    The soul is “closed to science” — i.e. not a purview of investigation. OK, fine, that just means you’ve decided to limit your range of inquiry, a major faux pas of “science”, broadly understood.

    Here, you take a statement and extrapolate, driving it well past the point of reasonable conclusion. The soul is closed to science. Yes. However, that does not make it ineligible as a subject about which I might seek answers. What it means is that I can’t expect to use the scientific method to find those answers. The soul is in the realm of faith. It can’t be tested or experimented on. The limitation I place here is nothing more than “Science cannot be used to study those things that cannot be studied by science.” This is not a limitation, it is a tautology.

    Many people find a wide variety of answers to these questions. They have faith. This is not a condemnation of science. It is simply two separate things operating at the same time. As I said in the very beginning, these are two things which can and do coexist. That you don’t find one or the other satisfying for any particular question does not make it invalid as a whole, any more than the fact that you need to drive a nail makes your screwdriver a worthless tool. It is a perfectly valuable tool, it just doesn’t happen to be ideal for the task at hand. Set it down for the moment, find a hammer, and pick it up again later when you come across a screw.

    You are right that often we don’t seek to ask the broadest questions. Sometimes we ask narrow ones. This, to use your term, is also a “binary” which can coexist. I might want to know what type of food I most enjoy, on some kind of broad, life-long level. I might also want to decide what I’m going to make myself for dinner tonight. Both are valuable things for me to wonder about. It is my hope I might be able to answer both of these questions, but it is absurd to condemn me for being narrow-minded because I’d like to know what groceries I might need to pick up on the way home.

    Finally, you close with:

    Anyway, all this to say that the neurosciences (and its [sic] history) is [sic] mired in a mechanistic paradigm that it can’t seem to get out of, and that really makes it pretty lame. More snazzy and high-tech than ever before (thank you, Steven Pinker), but still pretty lame…

    The study is, by its nature, a mechanistic one. That it can’t “get itself out” might be true, but it begs the question of why it would need to. Were it not for the careful mechanistic study of the brain, we’d still be drilling holes in people’s heads to “let the demons out”. Yet you have the impression that it is lame because… why? Because it is understood, at least in part? I’m sorry if it’s not good enough for you to demystify something, but that doesn’t make it lame. Fifty years ago, computers were semi-magical devices that did staggering sums of math in ways that only a handful of people understood. Today, most people have at least a vague understanding of how they work, but I’d argue that they are less lame than ever. That they allow this conversation to happen at all is its own sort of magic.

  12. It would be magic if this was a conversation, but it feels more like an argument. We just operate in different modes, I think…What you call “devolutional” thinking is reductionism to me. It is necessary to science…It is also the greatest impediment to free and innovative thought (which is, in spite of the vast monolithic techno-scientific enterprise of our time, in rare supply). In essence, you think the answers the scientific society you live in have found are good and productive. You are a positivist…Everybody these days who is “rational” is a positivist. I’m not a positivist. I don’t understand reason that way, for starters.

    And I don’t mean that you’re just “positive” (i.e. proactive) about science, I mean you’re a positivist. You want, like Comte, to understand the world in certain way and think that this is the best (maybe only) way. What happens when everything is understood? Besides, I’m not sure that’s even a proper definition for how things become “true” or “scientific” — it has little to do with the fact that they are “truly science”. But I feel like we’ve gotten so far away from some of the things I’m arguing for that I sound like an obsolete contrarian for trying. Maybe I’m crazy. Thankfully, instead of trepanation (holes in the head) I have phamaceuticals. But hey, it’s a “better living through chemistry” world.

    You can use all the old logical positivist conceits to defend your conception of science, dredging up the same arguments the Vienna school made 100 years ago, and you have popular opnion on your side too, but I have a set of understandings which I suggest defies you deification of physics and science…Unfortunately, it is about 20 years in the making and not relayed simply. That’s a cop out, I know, but so is the claim that this technological medium is somehow magical (or even, properly speaking, science). We could have had this conversation through letters, or even telegrams — it would just take longer. Is that a bad thing? Well, yes…In the world we live in efficiency is the watchword. But does that make us better? healthier? happier? smarter? Again, a question of values.

    See what I’m getting at. There is no “science” in the sense you see it. It’s just a convenient and discrete category for a whole host of enterprises, some brilliant and revelatory, some lame…

  13. Mark says:


    You have hit the nail upon the head. You have cut to the very heart and soul (the brain, even) of the matter. Yes, we are operating in different modes. The difference, I think, is that I seem to be more comfortable with that truth than you have, up to this point, presented yourself as being. I don’t have any problem with the idea that answers can be sought by different means, at the same time, often even by the same people.

    You substitute the word “reductionism” for my “devolution”, and I’m happy to agree with your choice. Science, as it is now understood, is a reductionist process, at least for most of its work. It attempts to flense out individual elements which can be more easily studied in isolation. There is an important component of attempting to re-integrate those individual discoveries into a more holistic view, though. Research is all about reductionism, while conclusions are more holistic. Again, a binary that is able to peacefully co-exist with itself.

    You say:

    You want… to understand the world in [sic] certain way and think that this is the best (maybe only) way.

    This is directly counter to the entire point I’ve been flogging since my very first comment. I hold that there are many ways to understand the world, and that each of them has its own merits. Science is not the only path to answers, and there are some questions it has no means to address in the first place. So be it. I do find science to be a valuable tool, but I object in the strongest possible terms to your suggestion that I think it is the only tool.

    What happens when everything is understood?

    I firmly believe that this will never come to pass. Each new understanding opens up whole new realms of questions. There will always be something over the next hill, in the heart of the next quasar, or folded into the next seventy-nine dimension pocket universe to explore. I am certain of it, though I can’t prove it. I don’t need to. I have faith.

    [reductionism] is also the greatest impediment to free and innovative thought (which is, in spite of the vast monolithic techno-scientific enterprise of our time, in rare supply)

    I cannot accept this argument. Reductionism is a path to understanding. As I have often repeated in this conversation, it is one of many. As reductive science has explored our world, our understanding of it, as a group and as individuals, has expanded. Understanding is not, and has never been, an impediment to free and innovative thought. It is quite the opposite.

    In your second comment in this thread, you lament how “modern” science has eroded the holistic understanding of the discipline enjoyed by 17th and 18th century thinkers. Reductionism might have countered a tendency towards holistic answers to questions, but it has not dampened original thought. The world has changed more, and at a faster pace, in the last fifty years than it did in any equivalent span previous, and certainly including during the Industrial Revolution. One could quite reasonably argue that not all of these changes have been for the good, but to suggest that new thinking has slowed as the result of the underlying shift in the way that the study of science is approached is not a theory that stands up to examination. Thus, as a scientific hypothesis, we must discard it.

    …I’m not sure that’s even a proper definition of how things become “true” or “scientific”…

    The two are not the same. “Truth” is a difficult word, but it might be defined as what really is. Science, by contrast, is just a means of seeking answers. It is a way of approaching problems, and arguably a way of thinking about them. Science seeks truth, but even scientists will admit that they rarely find it. Science relies on evidence, and proving something in absolute terms is very difficult to do. As such, science is really just a collection of increasingly well-informed guesses, backed up by demonstrations that the things those guesses imply turn out to happen when you try them.

    Some, including you, it would seem, don’t find this to be satisfying. Other sources of answers, like faith, among others, do provide “Truth”. In the process, they give up proof. This is a trade-off that some people are willing to make, and others are not. In general, most people are willing to make this trade-off in their search for the answers to some questions, and not to others. This is normal. This is human. It might even be universal. It is, in any case, OK.

    …I have a set of understanding which I suggest defies you [sic] deification of physics and science…

    Once again, I reject utterly your suggestion that I hold science in general, or physics in particular, to some higher standard than some other source of answers on general terms. Science is a tool. Tools are good for some jobs, and bad for others. For the jobs which suit it, science is a valuable tool, but it is not sacred. You will note I have not, at any point, suggested that your view that other means of gaining understanding are likewise valuable to you was flawed.

    What I objected to, and continue to object to, is the implication that a willingness to consider the use of science among the other tools in my toolbox for understanding reflects some flaw in my character, or in that of the others associated with this blog. You have, several times now, declined to define what your beliefs actually are. That is your right. However, to simply declare the thoughts of others to be “lame”, as you have done several times now, is the rhetorical tactic of a third-grader.

    And last, I return to the beginning:

    It would be magic if this was a conversation, but it feels more like an argument.

    What is an argument but a conversation in which not all of the participants agree? Can the magic of conversation only occur when there is no difference in the opinions being stated? I can’t imagine a less satisfying conversation than one in which no new view was expressed, or no two views were compared against one another. Such a conversation is nothing more than an exercise in paraphrase, or worse, outright echo. If such a thing appealed to me, I would hire sycophants. As it stands, I’d rather have a thoughtful debate.

    This is, after all, Geek Buffet. The entire concept is to provide a forum in which people may present interesting ideas, and we can all discuss them. We here have an acknowledged bias towards science as a means of approaching these issues. If you are interested in offering insights on these matters gained from a different perspective, we warmly encourage you to do so. We ask only that you be respectful of us, as we have been respectful of you.

  14. Respectful. OK. But this remains a “conversation”, right? So on to that…

    On the subject of character and science…If both are culturally constructed, then they are in a sense related. Maybe your approach to science defines an aspect of your character, as my approach defines mine. Though there’s no way to prove this “scientifically”…it’s a qualitative assessment, after all. Having said this, I accept that my tone is somewhat harsh and brazen. So what…

    Let’s talk brass tacks…the subtitle of the book reviewed is “the discovery of the brain — and how it changed the world”. Funny that word “discovery”…Have we discovered it in the same we’ve discovered the universe, or maybe in the way Columbus “discovered” America? Oh no, wait, that was the Vikings…Oh, no, wait, there was already somebody there…

    Ah, history, such an evolving “science”. See, I can play too. Just a like a third grader…

    Maybe the essence of our differences is in our language — built in, so to speak. You say “reductionism is a path to understanding”. I think it represents the dissolution of the human will into a series of increasingly disparate realms, a veritable orgy of journal breeding and subspecialization, and, really, a totally unmanageable pile of random facts. In short, the entropy of the mind…collectively speaking. A zany zeitgeist. You know?

    But you say science is just “a tool” — are you? Be serious. We live in a world where science as a form of understanding reigns over us like an absolute monarch. The question is whether to be a courtier or a revolutionary. It’s about the rhetorical stance, the criticality, the skepticism. That’s really science. I don’t know, maybe the impasse has something to do with levels of analysis. An epistemology/ontology schism. Whatever.

    If I can venture forth one more criticism (another one, man you are a jerk…); your approach to me seems to reflect your proclivities…to the reductionistic, I mean. Why are you breaking down my arguments all the time, while my response are more free-flowing, holistic. See, it’s a language thing.

    But language is all in the brain, right?

  15. Dana says:


    Re: reductionism as a mindset and the enculturation of thought

    I too have had cause to lament our society’s ever increasing trend toward more and more specialization, with less holistic views. This is not only a “scientific” malady, though, but one that seems to come from being raised in the Western tradition of thought in general. I’d say you were correct in thinking that people are taught to think in certain patterns, and these can be hard molds to break out of. For more in-depth analysis of exactly what the differences are between at least two cultural modes of thinking, I highly recommend Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought. However, even though his book does point out the ways Eastern (holistic) and Western (reductionist) thought patterns and approaches to life differ, he most definitely points out that both modes have strengths and weaknesses. (I even got to once witness the two modes of thought crash into each other during a debate amongst Chinese doctors while I was teaching in hospital there. Quite entertaining for all, and there was no conclusion. Of course.)

    Re: the subtitle of Zimmer’s book

    I did have to smile at the “discovery of — and how it changed the world!” part of the title, because that is increasingly becoming a genre in and of itself. Other books with a similar theme that I’ve seen include salt, wine, cod, longitude, America, US women’s soccer, the light bulb, the clock, and the computer chip. And that’s a short list. I suppose, in one way or another, everything in the world impacts everything else, so all things, from food to inanimate objects to new branches of (dare I say it?) science, are all fair game.

  16. Interesting. The acculturation of thought perhaps cuts to the heart of what I was getting at. The Nisbett source sounds pretty intriguing — I’ll be sure to check it out. I’m suspect some of what he says would be quite familiar to me…this schism in the Western mind, and its close association to the development of scientific thought, has been an essential trope in my work on the history of medicine and biology. I think this whole debate can be safely dropped now…we appear to have come around to balance, so that works for me. Everybody else cool?

  17. Kevin says:

    Cheese is awesome. I mean, I really, really like cheese. I’ve had at least three different kinds of cheese today. In fact, I had three different kinds of cheese yesterday, too. That’s pretty freakin’ awesome.

  18. Mark says:


    You know I’ve got nothing but love for you, man, but what in the world? Where did that come from? Did you comment on the wrong post or something?

    Besides, now you’ve made me hungry. If you’re going to go on about cheese like that, the least you could do is have some for me to eat, too. That’s just heartless. Or, perhaps on this post, I should say brainless.

  19. Kevin says:


    Oh, no. That’s exactly where I meant to post the comment about cheese. Maybe it makes sense only to me, but I’m quite certain it fits into the discussion perfectly.

    To correct the hunger-inducing issue, next time we hang out, I’ll buy you something involving cheese. Maybe that’s a little later than you’re hoping for, but it’s all I’ve got right now.

    Wait, don’t I still owe you a meal from the Marlins winning the World Series a few years back? I seem to remember something like that. We really need to hang out more often than .75 times a year, or whatever the actual number is.

  20. […] Daughter by Dava Sobel. I seem to be on a bit of a scientific history kick this year, since my last book review was along similar lines. In any case, I thoroughly enjoyed this book as well. Despite the title, […]

  21. […] on evolutionary biology. He is the author of Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, Parasite Rex, Soul Made Flesh, At the Water’s Edge, and The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins. He also writes for […]

  22. […] 4/2/2007: Soul Made Flesh: A Tale of Neurology […]

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