We found this book in a dump bin in a Dublin bookshop for just 2 euros, and snapped it up because it looked like it would relate tangentially to my history. At first glance it seemed disappointingly slight, but when I started reading it seriously I found that was far from being the case and it was in fact a fascinating book that I found difficult to stop reading.

Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer (Heinemann, 2004) appears to have two different different subtitles. On the cover it is: ‘Thomas Willis, the English Civil War and the Mapping of the Mind’; on the title page it is: ‘The Discovery of the Brain – and how it Changed the World’ (the paperback, which I’ve seen since buying this book, seems to have yet another subtitle). If the two subtitles seem to apply to two different books, that is part of the problem; most of the book relates to the first subtitle, but a final long chapter is all about the second.

Willis, essentially the subject of this book, was the first person to produce an accurate anatomy of the human brain. (The illustrations in his major work, The Anatomy of the Brain and Nerves, were drawn by Christopher Wren, and were so detailed that they continued to be used in text books into the 20th century.) But Zimmer isn’t interested in producing a biography of Willis so much as a group portrait of the scientific ferment going on at the time – roughly from the start of the Civil War to mid-way through Charles II’s reign – so Willis doesn’t even appear for the first two chapters, which roughly summarise ideas of the brain and the soul from ancient times to the Renaissance, and the scientific advances which started to establish a more mechanistic world view in the early years of the 17th century. Then the story gets going properly. Willis went to Oxford university to study medicine (we get a lot of tut-tutting about the state of medical education, which consisted entirely of lectures about Aristotle and Galen, with no disections and nothing so up to date as, say, Paracelsus), but his education was interrupted by the Civil War. Like many in Oxford, Willis was a royalist and fought on the King’s side, but he wasn’t prominent enough to suffer any retribution after the war. In purging the university of all Royalist influence, many of the leading scholars were summarily dismissed by Parliament and ideologically correct Puritans put in their place. Fortunately the ideologically correct Puritan installed as warden of Wadham College was John Wilkins. Wilkins was already famous for having written a book about the Moon, Discoverie of a Worlde in the Moone (1638) which included speculation about travel to the Moon. Now, at Wadham, Wilkins gathered around him a group of young scientists, including Willis, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and others. In this hothouse atmosphere, and inspired by increasingly mechanistic philosophies coming from first Descartes and later Thomas Hobbes, they concentrated on devising all manner of experiments. It was here that Willis began thoroughly dissecting the brain in a way that had never been done before, leading to major advances in our understanding of how the body works, but also seriously undermining existing notions of the soul, though Willis went through extraordinary contortions to keep the soul in his concept of how the brain operates.

In his final chapter, Zimmer creates a villain in the person of John Locke. Locke was once a student of Willis, but in his philosophy, especially in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he established a purely mechanistic view of how we perceive and operate within the world, a view that has no place for the soul so that moral judgements are purely based on reason, and a view which became so prominent that it overshadowed the more subtle views of Willis. Only now, says Zimmer, are philosophers whom he refers to as ‘social institutionists’, beginning to develop a moral theory which includes the emotions as well as reason, and so going back to something like the way Willis viewed the workings of the brain. I find this interesting but not yet convincing – I need to go away and find out something more about the social institutionists if I am to consider this anything other than a retreat from rationalism.

So, the main thrust of the story that Zimmer has to tell – or rather, a very interesting book on 17th century science and a somewhat more contentious essay on 20th century developments in our view of the brain. Even with that disruption, this is a good book with a good story. Unfortunately, what is problematic about the book is that Zimmer does not tell the story straightforwardly. He uses Willis as a basic line, but around this line he weaves a zigzag track that covers a great deal more ground but in a rather confusing manner. He will, for example, tell us about Willis’s youthful apprenticeship with a woman who was a country healer using recipes culled from Paracelsus – and as soon as he mentions the name Paracelsus he backtracks to tell us the whole story of Paracelsus and what his ideas were and how they were developed, and after a digression of many pages he will eventually get back to Willis. Then we will continue with the education until there is a reference to the circulation of the blood, whereupon we jump back in time once more for the life story of William Harvey. And so it goes on. Every single major scientist and philosopher of the age has their whole life story told as a digression the first time their name comes up in the text. And sometimes we don’t just jump back in time, but the digression takes us ahead of our story, so that when he has to pull us back to Willis once more we have to go back in time yet again. All of this makes for a disjointed story, and do not ask for any sense of the chronology of things because there is no hope of that. As a history it is ill structured and frustrating, but as a grab bag of stories about the most exciting period in the intellectual history of the country it is gripping and exciting.

First published at Livejournal, 29 November 2005.