Discussion of the History of Neurobiology

In PZ’s class we’re reading and discussing Soul Made Flesh by Carl Zimmer. This non-fiction book follows the journey that neurobiology has made throughout its history. The details of this history that most prominently catch my attention are the logic, methods, and observations upon which early discoveries were built.

Plato got the ball rolling with his theory that the body consists of three souls. The human soul resides in the head where it can sense surroundings and and divinely reason about their meaning. The vegetative soul resides in the abdomen where it initiates growth, lustful desires, and so forth; and the vital soul resides in the heart where it radiates love and compassion. (Zimmer, 2004) Plato’s theory of souls was based primarily on thought and reason but is well considered and worthy of being scribed into one of the first pages of history.

Aristotle (Plato’s student) dissected a vast array of animals, most likely seeing the importance of taking it apart to see what’s inside in understanding how they work. If I myself were, for example, asked to draw a diagram of the inner workings of a wrist watch, I would fail miserably. A few centuries after the time of Plato, Galen gained a further understanding of anatomy by studying the massive wounds sustained by gladiators. The works of Aristotle and Galen remained the dominant teachings for well over a thousand years.

Gradually, around the 17th century, new ideologies began to refute the traditional teachings on human anatomy and the mind. Descartes published Discourse on Method which presented philosophical arguments about thought and human existence. William Harvey introduced the controversial idea that blood circulates through vessels. Thomas Willis, Robert Boyle, and other members of the Oxford Circle began laying the foundations of modern neurobiology by carrying out progressive experiments that no one had ever thought of before. (Zimmer, 2004)

How exciting it must have been to watch, first hand, the beginnings of this intricate science unfold. I sometimes think about what sort of contribution, if any at all, I could have made if I could somehow have been a student at Oxford hundreds of years ago, bringing with me my limited sophomore understanding of chemistry and biology. I’m excited to continue reading Soul Made Flesh to see where history goes from here. If you haven’t read this book, it provides an excellently thorough account of neurobiology from the very beginning. I will be sure revisit this subject as I continue to read and as we continue to discuss it in class.


Zimmer, Carl. 2004. Soul Made Flesh. Free Press, New York, NY.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    You could go all the way back to the Ebers papyrus (circa 1550 BCE) and the Edwin Smith papyrus of perhaps a half-century earlier. Egyptian medicine of the era was clearly founded on some amount of real-life observation. When you cut corpses up to take out their organs and make mummies, you have to be learning something about human innards.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    Carl Zimmer:

    The Egyptians did see the brain when they embalmed the dead, but they just ripped it out of the skull with a hook jammed into the nose. They preserved other organs in jars. They particularly prized the heart, which they thought would be put in a balance to determine the fate of the soul.

    I had a serious Egypt fixation in fourth and fifth grade, so that’s hardly news to me! :-)

    Of course Egyptian medicine was limited and their biological discoveries error-prone; that’s not much of a surprise. What I find more interesting is the question (probably unresolvable, but what the heck) of why it took so long for civilization to come up with a Thales, an Aristotle or a Galen. The Egyptians certainly had no compunctions about cutting up dead bodies, so what about them prevented them from gaining a knowledge of anatomy as good or better than the dissectors of Hellenistic times? Were they just too concerned with preparing the body in the proper way, and had no interest in figuring out what the different pieces did?

    Thanks for the book recommendations, by the way — I really enjoyed Soul Made Flesh!

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    September 21, 2007

    I suppose I should have made more clear that I was talking more about the origins of evidence-based investigation, rather than the study of the brain specifically. Since lots of people early on argued that the “seat of reasoning” or of the emotions was in the heart or in the liver, I don’t want to get too neurocentric.

  4. #4 Efendi
    February 11, 2008

    Thank you for this interessting post

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