APART from the ill, the hypochondriacs and those whose jobs depend on it, most people don’t really know how their bodies work. Until something goes wrong, we tend not to think about this complex organism that lugs us about, how efficiently it operates, and the remarkable cultural history of its working parts.
by Hugh Aldersley-Williams
Viking, £292pp, £18.99
Take, for example, that sung prayer known as the Sarum Primer from the 1514 book in which it makes its first appearance. “God be in my head, and in my understanding,” it begins. No problem there. But what about “God be in my heart, and in my thinking”? The heart as a source of thinking? Did they really believe that? Yes, a hundred years before William Harvey worked out that the heart was just a pump to circulate blood round the body, they actually did.
But thanks to people like Harvey – a man whose scientific objectivity was so engrained that he dissected his own father and sister after their deaths – science moves on. We learn more about our bodies. Taboos shrink.
Or at least that’s the theory. In practice, even though we’re quite good at understanding the details of human biology, we are increasingly hopeless at the bigger picture. Even those who are meant to study how the body works as a whole are doing less of it than they used to: today’s medical students tend to be quite sniffy about anatomy and spend only about a third of the time studying it. Art students are just as bad. Only at one art school in the country do they still draw from anatomy – once standard practice.
That’s only one of the reasons Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s latest book deserves all the success that came the way of his last one, Periodic Tales. A multi-disciplinary dissection of the human body through art, science, literature and history, it not only fills a need but does so with engaging style.
Books about science for the general reader can be problematic. In trying to communicate the excitement of discovery, some science writers downplay intellectual rigour and overindulge the authorial ego. Even though Aldersey-Williams often writes himself in the picture – following Descartes’ dissection of an ox’s eye, for example, with the help of a razor-blade and a pig’s eye from a friendly butcher, or joining in those anatomy drawing classes – these personal digressions are subtle and downplayed.
Yet even Aldersey-Williams’s quiet, holistic approach to studying the human body throws up facts that are so bizarre that they scream to be put in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Here’s three at random. How about Vesalius, the greatest Renaissance anatomist, thinking that only women hermaphrodites had a clitoris? Or that children’s arms are strong enough to support the weight of the average family car? Or Darwin going to his grave without working out why we find blushing so attractive (tricky: no-one’s worked that one out even now).
There is, however, more to this book than the gee-whizz factor. Any cultural history of the body must also examine whether we are still in thrall to any particular taboos. The one against fat, he shows – obviously, perhaps, but I had never thought about it – is partly linked to the Victorian invention of the bathroom scales and the ascetic reaction among some of the middle-classes to the greater abundance of food. Within a few years of that, we are finding new words to describe plumpness: the adjective “Rubenesque” dates from 1913.
Here’s another taboo: harvesting blood from dead bodies, maybe even those killed on the battlefield. As Aldersey-Williams points out, the idea might be regarded as no more objectionable in principle than harvesting organs from certified donors.
In practice, though, we remain superstitious about so much. Eyes, for example, are among the organs most excluded from donation. Hearts too – for the very reason Mary Shelley kept her husband’s heart wrapped in a sheet of poetry for nearly 30 years until her death in 1851, that in some ways, they represent our very essence. But we don’t really believe this. Or do we?
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