Soul Made Flesh – The Discovery of the Brain and How it Changed the World (2004)
by Carl Zimmer

For various unsavory reasons, I'm a bit of a medical history buff. I've collected a number of books on topics ranging from medical curiosities, anatomy, dissection, surgery, and disease through the ages. Ah, what a happy, happy home I've built, filled also with jars of formaldehyde containing everything from Isaac Newton's left third molar to "Pope Joan's" uterus. And under the floorboards, the ever-beating heart of the man I murdered for sport.

Yes, a happy home. So I was a bit disappointed by Soul Made Flesh, which is far less about the soul, beliefs about the soul, and how that relates to the function of the brain, than it is about the political history of the 1660s and the effect that a single man had on the science of the brain.

Granted, that one man, Thomas Willis, was a pioneer of brain science. He invented the term "neurology," and discovered that the brain controls the body through the nerves. That his terminology was "animal and rational spirits" as opposed to "sympathetic and parasympathetic impulses" speaks only to the moronic, throw-your-shit-in-the-street times he lived in. Had he lived to today, he'd be a regular "Nutty Professor."

The problem with the book is not that it's not interesting – because it is, and the 1660s happened to be a time of great social, religious, and political upheaval in England. But the author spends so much of the book placing every new persona into context, detailing their complete lives up to and including various birthmarks, scars, and fingerprint variations. At least, that's what it starts to feel like. At just under 300 pages, the book reads like a 400-pager. After a while, you get the feeling that Zimmer just didn't want to waste any of his valuable research, so he just threw it all in.

Lucky us. Or rather, lucky me, since no one else within two degrees of separation will read this book.

The most engaging parts delve into the sick, sometimes hilariously cruel experiments Willis and his circle of like-minded Oxford scientists and philosophers. Like how they inject dogs with milk, beer, wine, broth, and other non-blood fluids – just to see what happens. Or the servant who faints before they can inject him with similar substances. The frogs that hop around for hours after their hearts have been extracted. Or the vacuum chamber that proves breathing is necessary for life … by suffocating a bunch of animals.

You gotta hand it to them for acting on their curiosity. I'd love to send a bunch of PETA activists back to the 1660s and see what happens. Chances are, the ones who survived the plagues and fires would soon find their severed heads lined up in a row outside the Tower of London. Man, PETA activists are such a bunch of pussies.

Still, much like the bloodthirsty experimenters of Willis's day, I often wanted to inject the author's blood with some kind of excitatory elixir, just to get the prose moving.

A final present-day coda hints at what the book could have been, cementing the book's usefulness for academics but total marginality for normal folk. While describing a newfangled series of scans that can reveal brain function without having to slowly dissect a living person's throbbing brain, Zimmer fails to give any credence to the one core idea that Willis and all his philosophical forebears, peers and enemies alike, agreed on: that there is an immaterial soul unbound by the confines of the body. Zimmer simply dismisses the concept as out of science's realm … which it very well may be, but then why the fuck did he put the word "soul" in the title of the book? It's almost as though the book is in part Zimmer's attempt to marginalize the soul to a quaint, outdated notion that only survived thanks to religious terror. But given how many people continue to believe in an immaterial soul, he could have at least contemplated the obvious questions: Is it possible to find evidence for the soul within the body? Is it possible to look at a digital, real-time map of a conscious brain and see the soul in action? And what happens to all that brain activity when the body dies?

Five minutes before … one second after, five minutes after … an hour after. For all his exhaustive research, Zimmer waves away the soul as if, in today's world, it's meaningless and useless. But until I get proof, I will press on to find ways to suck the souls from children, so that I may live forever.

Review by Crimedog