Contemplating the Skeletal Self

The Loom
By Carl Zimmer
Feb 26, 2008 10:07 PMMay 21, 2019 4:32 PM
skeletal self


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

"Original art by Vesalius, the founder of modern anatomy. Taken from Carl Sagan's The Dragons of Eden. As student of social science, I find the concept of man studying himself awesome."

Carl: A skeleton gazes at a skull, its hand draped lazily over the cranial vault. This image signifies more than just an anatomy lesson. Andreas Vesalius, the anatomist who drew it and many others, created a visual fault line that divided the ancient and the modern. Medieval European anatomists looked back to ancient authorities such as Galen for enlightenment. Anything they saw for themselves that did not seem to fit into the ancient systems must be their own errors, to be resolved by more careful reading of the Greeks and Romans. After all, God had given Adam perfect knowledge of nature, and human understanding had declined ever since his fall. Galen and the other classical writers were closer to creation, and thus further uphill on the downward slope of knowing.

Galen certainly was a brilliant anatomist, but his limitations were forgotten during the Dark Ages. He never even dissected a human cadaver, for example, contenting himself with pigs and other animals. It was not until the sixteenth century that someone noticed these shortcomings for what they were. Vesalius created an original anatomical guide, filled with drawings of his own, made from his own observations. He also helped spur a new approach to the human body (and the bodies of other animals): to challenge old beliefs and to learn with one's own eyes.

Some may see this image as a morbid reminder of death, a skinned "Alas poor Yorick." But I see it more as an embodiment of science, of one skull (and its resident brain) learning from another.

Original flickr source

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.