Anatomies, By Hugh Aldersey-Williams

 

Many people have experienced the odd feeling that although we are our body's "owner-operator", as Hugh Aldersey-Williams puts it, the body is actually a strange appendage: not really us at all, more like one of our plug-ins – a car or computer. Cultures have veered wildly in their attitude to the body. Aldersey-Williams, an excellent, versatile science writer, pitches his book at just the right level of amused and curious enquiry.

Anatomies – a follow-up to Periodic Tales, which managed to turn the chemical elements into companionable creatures – is an amiable ramble through the oddities of the body. There is much about dissection and the dubious means by which cadavers were once procured for the process. Aldersey-Williams goes to Oxford University's Medical Science Teaching Centre to see how it's done these days. Internally, it seems, we are as variable as we are externally.

Aldersey-Williams is equally happy to talk about painting and the gamut of science, and anatomy is the perfect territory, because artists such as Leonardo have been important in its depiction. He writes brilliantly about Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp.

In Aldersey-Williams's account, it is striking that the organs we actually experience – ears, eyes, hands, brain, sex – excite greater interest than those, such as the kidneys, that work away unnoticed. Even the heart is hardly ever noticed by us. Aldersey-Williams deftly compares its plumbing to the Underground – think of a diagram of the Camden Town tunnels and you've got it.

Aldersey-Williams dissects some pig's eyeballs at home to probe the mysteries of the eye. He is utterly unsqeamish and wise on ancient mysteries; on gender, he reminds us that all of us possess both the male hormone testosterone and the female oestrogen – it's just a matter of relative concentrations. Some conundrums, however, remain. The default human is female, so males are modified females; in which case why is the clitoris always described as a reduced penis?

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