Anatomies: The Human Body, Its Parts and the Stories They Tell

Viking Penguin, 2013

‘He writes like a latter-day Montaigne. ... Anatomies is one long, inspired and idiosyncratic meditation ... a pleasure, as well as an education, to read.’ Daily Telegraph

Why do we talk so much about body parts - faces, hands, feet, heart and brain - and so little about what goes in between them and how they connect to make a functioning whole? Are these parts really discrete entities, like the parts of a kit? Why do some parts have significance for us when others don’t? Why do we prioritize certain parts over others, always searching for the most important spot of all - the location of the soul? Above all, why do we know so little about this subject, our own human bodies?

The thrust of biological research is to understand the body at the smallest scale, in terms of protein molecules and gene sequences. But this is not the body we have lived with for thousands of years, the body of organs and parts. It is still this quite different body that informs our cultural sense of our selves.

At a time when there is wild talk of uploading human consciousness into a computer ‘cloud’, and leaving the body behind altogether, when cosmetic surgery, animal transplants and synthetic biology promise to transform our physical selves in frightening new ways, it is more important than ever that we learn to appreciate the bodies we inhabit.

Anatomies proceeds part by part on an entertaining journey of cultural dissection, from the stomach of the French gourmand to facial beauty, and from Einstein’s brain to the dancer’s leg. With cultural references from Rembrandt’s anatomy paintings to Shakespeare’s lily-livered Macbeth and the footprint in Robinson Crusoe, Anatomies shows how we’ve really understood the human body. The final section examines hopes for human extension of both life and limb, ranging from Methuselah’s great age to Paralympic prostheses.

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