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Soul Made Flesh: Humanizing the Sciences

hmarcia's picture
Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer retells the story about the discovery of how the human brain works. Using historical events as his background, Zimmer provides a detail explanation of how this discovery led to a philosophical revolution that led to the creation of new ideas about Man, the soul, and God. By humanizing the people involved in the discovery, such as Thomas Willis (the founder of modern neurology) and William Harvey (the discoverer of the circulation of blood), he recreates the personal dramas and experiments of these men, which changed the way science worked and the views about our humanity. By solely focusing on England during the 17th century, Zimmer examines how the scientific world in Europe had common misconceptions and incorrect philosophies about man and God. By the end of the century, and thanks to the effort of the men he writes about, intellectuals begin to question these incorrect philosophies and misconceptions and give rise to new ideas. By combining these personal dramas and history, Zimmer explains why these advancements occurred during this particular period and not before.
The most interesting aspect of the book was the intertwining of history and science. For each introduction of a new person, Zimmer provides their detailed personal history. This personal history may not have anything to do with the scientific experiments they might have conducted, but it suggests that without it, there would have never been an experiment in the first place. The way Zimmer proceeds in his book suggests that without ‘their’ history, they would have never been able to discover what they did and change intellectualism in Europe. This history is often lost in today, especially when analyzing experiments. People today, including me, often do not think that history would have led to advancements in the science. That the sciences would have eventual found out the truth, but as the Soul Made Flesh that this is not true and that discovery often depends on being at the right place and at the right time. Zimmer illustrates this with one of his principal characters, Thomas Willis, the father of modern neurology.
Thomas Willis was born in 1621 and lived during a period of peace until 1641 when the English Civil War began. Zimmer constructs this period of peace as a time when people generally accepted the societal norms and beliefs. Those that wrote or publicly introduced something new or different the government authorities often arrested, placed under house arrest, and prevented from writing anything again. Galileo Gallei lived during this period of peace and is a well-known example of how this period reacted with change. During the English Civil War, all of this changed. The Civil War occurred over a struggle of power between the English king, Charles I, and the English Parliament. King Charles I claimed that as king, God gave him the divine right to England as he wished. This refers to a belief from the Middle Ages that the Parliament have never questioned until now because of Charles I attempt to tax the nobles. The Parliament’s declaration of war against the king questioned this ancient belief on the power of the king, and this led to a social and intellectual revolution in England. 
Zimmer presents the English Civil War as the war between the old beliefs (represented by the Royalists) and the new ideas (represented by the Parliamentarians). He describes the Parliament’s army as having men with revolutionary ideas along its ranks. Many of the soldiers in the Parliament’s army called themselves ‘levelers’, which indicted that they believed in a set of ideas that were far ahead of their time. The ‘levelers’ believed that all men were created equally, and that the social class system that exist in England should be abolished. These ‘levelers’ also believed that education should be something provided to all people, and not only provided for the wealth or those associated with the church. In opposition of the Parliamentarians existed the Royalists, who believed in maintain the status quo. The Royalists did not support any sort of change, and were the ones who supported the condemnation of those who challenged the norms. The English Civil War ended in victory for the Parliamentarian forces, and with victory England became a space where new ideas and practices emerge. This chaotic time affected Thomas Willis and led to his major discovery.
During the period of peace (before the English Civil War), Willis attended Oxford University in hopes of becoming a physician. During this period, the education provided for these medical students have not evolved since the Middle Ages. The typical medical student attended weekly lectures on Aristotle and Galen (important medical doctor in the Roman Empire) for six years until being able to lead his own lecture. After this lecture, Oxford University granted a medical degree to the student. Oxford University never provided lectures that taught newer theories about the body or the soul that circulated in Europe at the time because of the general negativity that society had towards new developments during the period. Willis finished his second year before the commencing of hostiles between the king and the Parliament. Becoming a physician at Oxford took about six years, thus Willis only learned a little about Aristotle and Galen and with King Charles I declaring Oxford his new capital, soon learned about other news ideas.
King Charles I brought along with him his main physician, William Harvey who discovered blood circulation. This discovery challenged theories developed by Galen concerning the blood, and critics soon attacked Harvey on his discovery. Fortunately, King Charles I enjoyed Harvey’s theories and protected him from any punishment that might have arose from his theories about the body. In Oxford, Harvey immediately became a lecturer at the University and soon exposed an entire generation of intellectuals and scientists to new medical ideas. He created a space at Oxford University where experiments answered questions, and there was no fear of the government arresting the experimenters as a result. This exposure led students such as Willis to question the old theories and to create newer ones without fear.
The Parliamentarians conquered Oxford by 1651, signaling the end of the English Civil War and the beginning of a different England. Armed with the knowledge imparted by Harvey, Willis experienced a world where war destroyed the status quo and there was suddenly an interest in newer ideas about the soul and the body. All of these historical facts lead to a situation where someone such as Willis would have been able to explore the body and develop theories without interference from anyone. Factors that Willis could not control lead to multiple discovery during this period and lead to the Enlightenment Age. Zimmer does an excellent work present this to the reader with this focus on the history and less on the scientific facts concerning the experiments themselves. As Zimmer presents science and history in his book, one would not be able to advance without the other. Without the developments that occurred historical, which had little to do with science, there would have never been any advancement. At the same time, as Zimmer introduces at the end of Soul Made Flesh, without these advancements in science, history would have never advance. Zimmer shows this demonstrating how scientific developments have led to the creation of MCAT machines, which can led to an even greater understanding of the mind. 
I think that Zimmer combination of history and science will make people see that it is important that a certain type of environment must exist in order for science to advance. He does not give one precedent over the other and instead focuses on how the two complement each other. By bringing the end of the book to today’s world, he reinforces the importance of the works that Willis and Harvey did, but also how we have a created a space where scientists work without fear of being persecuted for their ideas. If Zimmer had not done this, the reader would have has problems connect and understanding the book. This connection between the past and the present and between science and history lead to new issues concerning the two fields.
For the last couple of years, there is a growing debate on the importance of the humanities departments in many parts of the country. Universities, such as Haverford, have subtly reflected their opinions by placing the largest amount of funding in one field over the other. At Haverford, the college has visible invested more money in the hard sciences (biology, chemistry, ect) than in the humanities; the new multi-million dollar INSC[1] building is an example of such visible investment. Neither Zimmer nor I question the merits of such investments, but for me, this book raises the issue about how we are forgetting the humanities important role in the sciences. The ‘levelers’ during the English Civil War composed mostly of people well-versed in the humanities. Little did they know that by fighting the king and promoting equally, they created an England that did not oppress thinking. This England allowed for the discovery of the Brain, which in turn changed the world. Forgetting how important the humanities are for the sciences threats science. Without the basic understanding of what science needs in order to be ‘effective’ and ‘good’, there is no science. This book brings the debate between the humanities and the sciences to the forefront, and offers the balance view that one is not important over the other, and that in fact they need each other.
This book ties into an important discussion we had as a class at the very beginning of the school year. We discussed the role that science serves as a story. This idea that science can be a story often contradicts the idea that most people have about the sciences. For most people, the sciences simply establish facts, or ‘truths’, and is seen as journey heading toward a universal ‘Truth.’ These ideas about science allow people to see science as an authority on everything. I must admit that this was the perspective that I had about the sciences. Our class discussion suggested that there was other ways to view science and the one viewing discussed in class was viewing science as ‘a loopy story-telling.’ Under this perspective, one views the sciences with more skepticism and questions its results. Science becomes less about reaching the ‘Truth’ and more about the observation and interpreting these observations. Soul Made Flesh agrees with the ‘loopy story-telling’ perspective for the sciences. The scientists the Zimmer writes about all follow the ‘loopy story-telling’ perspective by questioning the older scientific observations. By doing this, and not simply accepting the old observations as ‘truths’, they advance science. Soul Made Flesh demonstrates the positive results that emerge with the ‘loopy story-telling’ perspective.
I suggest this book for anyone to read. It is highly entertaining along with interesting themes that Zimmer applies to our world today. As the debate between the sciences and the humanities grow, Zimmer shows us that we need to look at the past to find answers for our present. By doing this, we are able to answer our own problems. From an historical point of view, Zimmer even shows that the ‘loopy story-telling’ perspective for the sciences might be the most effective for the sciences. Soul Made Flesh was the prefect companion book to the class. 
Work Cited
Zimmer, Carl. Soul Made Flesh. New York: Free Press, 2004. Print. 
Grobstein, Paul. Biology 103 Fall 2009 (Serendip.) Bryn Mawr College, 2009. Web.       12/13/2009.

[1] Integrated Natural Science Center 


Paul Grobstein's picture

Science, history, and "Truth"

"The scientists that Zimmer writes about all follow the ‘loopy story-telling’ perspective by questioning the older scientific observations. By doing this, and not simply accepting the old observations as ‘truths’, they advance science." 

If scientists don't take science as "Truth," where does that idea come from?  And how does that relate to the value of seeing science and humanities/history as complementary?