Thursday, October 9, 2008


Mary Roach, author of “Stiff,” one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time, has fairly recently come out with “Spook,” in which she reviews what science thinks about an afterlife. While not as funny as her first book, nevertheless it had my jaw dropping open about every third page. Here’s a sample of her illustrations.

Famous philosopher Rene Descartes had a sideline of trying to discover the seat of the “soul” and to that end he bought carcasses of animals and minutely dissected them, trying to discover where the soul resided. He eventually nominated the pineal gland, as it was one of the few brain structures that didn’t come in pairs. (We now know the pineal gland regulates melatonin production). He didn’t think the gland itself was the soul, but that it was “a sort of a hub, a meeting point for sensory information and the flowing streams of ‘spiritus’ that carried the self’s higher functions.

Roach admits she did a Google search for other scientists who rummaged around in corpses looking for souls. She found one link that referred to the Midrash (a collection of ancient rabbinical commentaries on the Torah) wherein a single indestructible “soul bone,” called the “luz” was discussed. Her description of attempting to get a present day Rabbi to respond to her questions about the luz was enough to make me howl with laughter.

At an earlier juncture in the book, she discusses how scientists went about discovering that sperms and eggs made a baby. Of course without a microscope to see sperms most ideas were simply conjectures, but once Antoni van Leeuwenhoek developed a microscope, things began to take shape. However, based on information he received from a French aristocrat named Francois de Plantade, he accepted de Plantade’s drawing of sperm as containing miniature people. “In this case, they were depicted outside their sperm hulls, standing with their hands crossed demurely over their little private parts.” Van Leeuwenhoek came to believe that “each sperm held a soul with the potential to become a human life, and that the woman’s role in reproduction was merely to receive and nourish the perfectly formed miniature human.” He became what was referred to as a “spermist,” and of course science being what it is, a class of scientists developed who were called “ovists” – and Mary Roach speculated that a dinner that include guests from both persuasions might have been very interesting to attend.

All this is contained in the first two chapters of her book. Luckily her writing is so good that the scientific stuff becomes wonderful reading. After reading “Stiff” I had to go buy that book. I already suspect that I shall need to do the same with “Spook.”

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