Saturday, October 24, 2009

Descartes' Bones

A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason

Descartes is:

a) the father of modern philosophy
b) the intellectual father of modern France
c) the author of one of the most influential books of all time
d) as peripatetic after death as before

Who would have guessed the last point? In 1650 Descartes died in Sweden, where his remains stayed for 16 years until exhumed and returned to France. But upon opening the casket, the skull was discovered missing and the rest of the skeleton to be in poor condition. Many of the bones had dissolved into dust.

The unravelling of this mystery spans several centuries, and sounds as fantastic as a Dan Brown novel. When the skull was finally located, it was covered with graffiti -- a poem in Latin and the signatures of successive owners.

This part of the story reminded me of the bizarre travels of Einstein's brain, and the stuffing and mounting of Jeremy Bentham's body topped off with a wax head, which itself has wandered off on more than one occasion.

But no less fascinating is the role that Descartes' bones continued to play in advancing science. In telling this part of the tale, the author elucidates some aspects of the Enlightenment, drops in on the French Revolution, and spends time with Broca, Cuvier, and other famous figures. Phrenology, the Society of Mutual Autopsy, and the weight of Byron's brain are just some of the odder corners of science visited.

The world's greatest assembly of scientists had reached a conclusion, one that rested not on an ideal of certainty but on the modern notion of probability. They had applied their doubts to the very head that had introduced doubt as a tool for advancing knowledge. And in the end they gave the head a nod.

This is a great book. Check out its website.