cover image SOUL MADE FLESH: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World

SOUL MADE FLESH: The Discovery of the Brain—and How It Changed the World

Carl Zimmer, . . Free Press, $26 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-7432-3038-4

The subtitle doesn't do justice to this illuminating book, which transcends the "history of X and how X changed the world" genre with a deep and contextualized exploration of two millennia's worth of human theories about consciousness and the soul. Zimmer, a columnist for Natural History and author of the highly praised Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea , is interested in how philosophers and scientists moved from a view of the human soul as immaterial and residing in the heart to the common explanation of thought as having a material grounding in the brain and nervous system. His wide-ranging narrative reaches from the days of Aristotle to a 21st-century lab in the basement of a Princeton University building. The central figure in Zimmer's tale is the oft-overlooked 17th-century scientist Thomas Willis, a member of the British Royal Society and colleague of Boyle and Hooke. Willis, a figure of fascinating contradictions, was a conservative, religious royalist raised on a farm outside Oxford, who wound up working on the frontiers of science, as physician to the highest strata of London society and as an experimenter who helped found a new science of the brain. In the end, however, this book is less about Willis in particular than about the evolving metaphysics of the soul in general, and the reader is left with a better picture of the roots of the modern understanding of the self as well as a familiarity with one of the unsung heroes of the scientific revolution. (Jan.)