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The Cultural History Of The Human Body

Human anatomy, 2013.  We take on the symbolism, meaning, and latest science on body parts, head to toe.

The human body is a living museum of cultural history.  Adam’s rib.  Rapunzel’s hair.  Gogol’s nose.  In history, science, myth, anthropology, literature, art – nearly every element of our anatomy has its moment, or many moments.

Medical science tells us more about more about function and genetic wiring.  But the stories and sayings that surround our anatomy are as powerful in their way as any science.  Pound of flesh.  Heart in our mouth.  Lily-livered.  Long in the tooth.

This hour, On Point:  we dive in to a new cultural history of the human body.  Our anatomies.

- Tom Ashbrook


Hugh Aldersey-Williams, author of “Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body.” (@hughalderseyw)

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times: Adam’s Rib, van Gogh’s Ear, Einstein’s Brain – “For a species so pleased with its own brain, we are surprisingly ambivalent about the rest of our body. We tend to admire other people’s bodies, especially if they’re Olympians or shirtless Russian presidents, but most of us are constantly seeking to improve our own by starving or stuffing, injecting, waxing, straightening, piercing, lifting and squeezing. In 2010 in the United States alone, we spent $10 billion on cosmetic surgery, and that’s not including Brazilian Blowouts.”

The Guardian: 20 amazing facts about the human body – “Goosepimples are a remnant of our evolutionary predecessors. They occur when tiny muscles around the base of each hair tense, pulling the hair more erect. With a decent covering of fur, this would fluff up the coat, getting more air into it, making it a better insulator. But with a human’s thin body hair, it just makes our skin look strange.”

Discovery News: Why Can’t Humans Regenerate Body Parts? – “So if a zebra fish can grow a new tail, why can’t we regenerate a new arm or leg — or a kidney or heart — whenever we need a new one? ‘Nobody really knows the answer,’ says David M. Gardiner, a professor of developmental and cell biology at the University of California-Irvine, who is a principal investigator in the UCI Limb Regeneration research program.”


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  • Shag_Wevera

    I sure am excited for my employer and my insurance company to have a copy of my genome once it becomes cheaply available. Think it won’t happen? It’ll just be a condition of employment with many private employers.

    • Emily4HL

      So happy IBM put genetics in their anti-discrimination clause in 2005.

  • Emily4HL

    I hope you mention the dissection theaters of the 17th century–exploring the human body as public entertainment in a particularly gruesome way.

  • Yar

    Take the brain out of the hormonal and sensory feedback of the body and we would have a computer, it would not be us. What we think changes the body as change in the body affects what we think.

  • Coastghost

    “Body: your only friend; your worst enemy.”

    Comments on plastination? More popular/accessible in Europe than in the US? What explains the variation of response?

    • J__o__h__n

      I thought the exhibit was fascinating.

  • Boca Ratso

    Regina Spektor singing at the break?

  • Jon

    silly age old obsession of achieving immortality

    • Taylor G

      What is wrong with the goal of immortality? Just because it is not an option for us now does not mean it is not a worthy use of resources in the future. To call the goal impossible is truly silly.

      There is nothing wrong with not dying as long as it does not keep others from being born.

      • Jon

        fascinating. why isn’t an option for you now?

        • Taylor G

          The technology isn’t there yet, apparently. Not sure I would pursue it personally if it was an option, but the only qualm I’d have morally is that death and illness are a couple of the few things that still humble humans. :)

          • Jon

            hesitating? skeptic? you’d not be human and not life if immortal.

  • GarretWoodward

    Fingertips Like Eager Spiders
    By Garret K. Woodward

    Your eyes bring forth notions
    Once forgotten or unseen by mine
    I sway to the sounds of melodies
    Our grandparents fell in step and in love with
    In their own time, on separate coasts
    Pushing forth with children and grandchildren
    That spilled into our existence
    And why we are here, swaying across the carpet
    Though musty, holds our feet comfortably
    I pull you closer, tighter to my intention
    A lone jazz clarinet echoes between white walls
    Dripping down onto the floor and to our toes
    Soaking into souls hoping the tune will last
    At least another minute
    Or however eternal those 60 seconds can be
    Fingertips move like eager spiders
    Up your lower back
    And down your shoulder
    Your palm is cold
    Let me warm that for you, darling
    No such problem I cannot fix
    As I pull your chin up with my nose
    And stare into the depths of the unknown
    Or perhaps the known assassin of my fear
    That is quickly cast away, pulling you nearer
    Your eyes bring forth notions
    Once forgotten or unseen by mine

  • John_Hamilton

    In the yoga system different energy centers are located in what is known as the subtle body, on a different level of vibration or function. The subtle body, like it sounds, is located in the physical body, but can’t be seen on a physcial level, hence the name subtle.
    The various energy centers, or chakras, closely parallel Abraham Masow’s Hierarchy of Needs, so the lowest level has to do with physical well-being, the level is sex and creativity, the third level, at the solar plexus, power and expansiveness, and the heart chakra, love, passion and devotion. The higher levels – the throat, “third eye,” and top of the head correspond to higher levels.
    In the Chinese medical system there is a network of meridians, with its own energy centers. This isn’t easily resolved with other systems, but what these alternate perspectives show is the narrow approach our Western system of reductionism and fragmentation provides.
    The physical body is the outward manifestation of deeper energies. Failure to understand this is one reason our medical system fails so often. By treating the outer reality as primary we tend to look at life backwards, relegating ourselves to a backward existence.

  • Asuka

    What an uninteresting hour. Sorry, but it generally seems the case that books written by experts have something that a book conceived by a writer as a project doesn’t. I was surprised the interviewee didn’t mention the Western history of dissection before the Scientific Revolution, performed by nuns among others.

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