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.