A Cultural History of the Human Body



Hugh Aldersey-Williams


W. W. Norton & Company, First American edition, 2013


ISBN: 978-0-393-23988-1

I didn't know what to expect with this book, but I found it to be a highly original take on human anatomy. Although the reader will not learn any significant anatomy (but that is not the point of this book), s/he will find very interesting stories about how different parts of the human body have been perceived by human society over the ages. As an anatomy instructor I found this to be a refreshing look at the human body from an outsider's perspective. That said, and at the risk of sounding pedantic, it immediately becomes clear that the author is not well versed in anatomy, or science for that matter. Not only are there occasional mistakes throughout, but also plenty of ambiguously written facts that expose the author's lack of scientific knowledge. More than once I found myself thinking "wait, is that true?" only to slowly realize that due to the cursory explanation the fact was barely true as stated.  Last, the introduction panders to the lay readership by pointing out that anatomy is unduly difficult due to the use of Latin and Greek roots, which he finds superfluous. That is like saying that a foreign language is unduly difficult because it uses foreign vocabulary. Well yes, but that is no excuse to conclude that a foreign language is superfluous. I was quite surprised that someone who is interested in cultural history of anatomy so blatantly disregarded its language, which is, well, part of the cultural history. In conclusion, I still think this book is worth a read, especially to those who are scared of anatomy and want to dip their toes in the water. If you notice them, just disregard the occasional faux pas. My favorite: "...the exact sequence of billions of amino acids that comprise the human DNA..." Ouch!