The Curious History of the Heart

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in April 2023.

I am conflicted about this book. It has some really interesting points… but it also makes what I regard as some silly, and some egregious, historical mistakes. The author isn’t a trained historian but he is writing about history so it really needed to not have those problems.

So. Firstly, in the timeline at the start, it says that someone ‘discovered’ the stethoscope. Uh, no. Maybe this is something that will be corrected before publication, but my copy doesn’t say this is an uncorrected proof. Minor, I know, but annoying. Also minor but annoying is saying that the Greeks “began practising medicine around 700 BCE” (p47), because I’m pretty sure that people were medicating themselves and setting bones in the place we call Greece well before that date, even if they did see illness as divine punishment; Asclepius exists as a god before that time.

Less minor and more than annoying is Figueredo’s insistence on the term “the Dark Ages”, which he seems to use to cover the entirety of what is more usually called the Middle Ages. I reject the term ‘Dark Ages’ for any period – it’s completely outdated and ridiculous – and I don’t remember ever seeing it used to refer to Europe beyond about 1000 CE? Certainly not after the 1200s. But on p26 he says Europe “fell into the Dark Ages for a thousand years” and that there was “a prohibition on scientific discovery”. I’m not going to say that the Church was throwing its arms open to science in this time, but at the same time – it’s just wrong to say that ‘science’ (whatever we mean by that) was in abeyance for a millennium in Europe. He also talks about the fall of the Roman Empire being in 476 CE, which is one of those superbly Western-oriented statements that must make historians of Byzantium tear their hair out.

One of the good things about the history part of this book is that it is not entirely Euro-centric. There’s discussion about how Hindu writings viewed the heart (around whether the heart was the seat of the soul etc), and quite a lot about Islamic views too. This latter actually leads to one of the other annoying statements, which is that without Islamic translations of ancient texts “the Renaissance in Europe would have begun with no past knowledge to build upon” (p72). Which is hilarious because it’s horse/cart: without those texts there IS no Renaissance. ANYWAY. He does give credit to the Islamic scholars so that’s excellent. There’s also some discussion of Mesoamerican attitudes, too, although perhaps a little too much focus on human sacrifice (which I thought was a bit more doubted these days, but I am definitely not an expert in that area).

My final annoyance with the historical aspect of the book is a linguistic one. There’s not very much discussion – or even acknowledgement – of the difficulties of translation around such words as ‘soul’ or ‘mind’ (as distinct from ‘that lump of stuff in your head’). Again, not the author’s area, but when you’re discussing cultural differences between whether emotions are seated in the heart or the brain, these things matter. So I found that disappointing. And this was only made worse by the start of the chapter about the word itself (chapter 28), where he states that the Indo-European word itself derives from the Greek and the Latin… which is another horse/cart problem, given how much earlier the Indo-European is. Again, maybe that will be fixed before publication, because it’s pretty egregious.

All of this makes it sound like I didn’t like the book, which isn’t completely true. I do think it’s an interesting overview of the place of the heart in ancient societies, and coming into the European medieval period. I think that the modern sections are fascinating, which realistically makes sense given that the author is a surgeon and therefore the modern science of the heart is, actually, his area. He writes well, and in a manner that is accessible for the non-doctor. I had no idea about the modern understanding of the heart-brain connection, or that there are neurone in the heart, so all of that was fascinating – the idea that the heart is a little brain is wild!

Maybe it’s mean, but I think the historical aspect needed to be treated a bit more seriously. If you want the book to be seen as a significant contribution to understanding the place of the heart in human culture, it needs to be as faultless as possible. This could be that, but it’s not quite there.

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