Friday, July 6, 2018

A Tour Through the Human Body and the World It Creates For Us




Adam’s Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form – Michael Sims (2003)

      While I am a huge fanatic of reference books, and of highly detailed and deep dives into very specific topics, there is another type of book I find very entertaining.  Those would be the books that aggregate data from widely ranging fields, but which all serve to shed light on a specific subject.  This book, Adam’s Navel, is a great example.  It explores the visible human form from head to toe, and draws from the obvious sciences, biology, anthropology, anatomy, as well as the humanities.  This helps to paint a much greater picture of the history of how humans have seen their body and how they have used the parts of that body to develop their view of the Universe at large.
      I found out about this book while perusing the bibliography of a different book I recently read.  Luckily the amazing M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston always hooks me up.  The author, Michael Sims, developed the core of this book while he was incapacitated due to a serious medical procedure.  His inability to move left him alone with his thoughts, and he began to write about the various things he associated with the currently not working parts of his body.  Those original thoughts informed this work.
      Starting at the top of the head, Michael Sims describes not only the biological nature of hair, the various types, and the hair of our closest primate relatives, but he discusses several of the rules, myths and legends humanity has created in regards to hair.  From Samson in the bible, whose power came from his uncut locks, to the attitudes of certain christian fundamentalists who believe that they must collect their life’s hair to be “complete” upon the resurrection, to the hairlessness of certain ascetic monk groups worldwide, humans have assigned so much meaning to hair, a substance made from keratin, the same material our fingernails, and certain animal horns are made of.  Every single visible part of the body is explored in this manner.
      This was a very fun book to read, and helped me better understand the way in which our corporeal form is used as a prism by which we analyze the entire Universe around us.  Our ten fingers inspired our decimal system of mathematics.  The size of past ruler’s body parts determined measurements. The eyes, by virtue of their power to see the world around us, have always been treated as gateways to see the inner self.  Even something as simple as the shape of the ear has been conflated by desperate, or deluded, people into providing intimate details about that ear-owner’s personality traits.  We live our lives in these ever changing bodies.  It is understandable that our bodies helped shape our ideas about the world around us.  For anyone who is interested, this is a great resource and a really fun read.

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