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Dissection is the purest form of self-understanding. These investigations we are about to undertake are not simple inquiries; little more than butchering with a book. Dissection is the process of intimately exploring the mechanisms which enable life to not only exist, but to maintain a perpetual application of design; while not unchanging in time, eternal in principal. We find more complexity in our tiny form than that which is in the stars. Such simple matter the universe is made up of. The sun’s nuclear reaction is focused on just two elements: The most basic: hydrogen, unifying into the second simplest element, helium. Other bodies in the universe interchange a greater number of things, and put forth spectacular shows with inconceivable energy, but how much of this is provided by the governance of physics? Are we not also just as quantum? Do we not share the same laws of gravity as the Orion nebula? It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer size and potential of it all, it can often times make us feel so insignificant. Our concept of time is rigid and short and physically linked to unchanging forces, our ideas of scale are based in mass and matter. Yet we are not locked in. Perhaps it’s the very vacancy of the complexity in regards to material organization in the universe that quiets our minds enough to focus on the subtle laws of nature. Such rare intricacy distilled and intensified we find in even the most common of earthly designs. The conduit of life, and the expression of mind; we truly are the unpredictable elements, the synthesis of order and chaos, the voice and passion of the universe. This requires us to treat the process of dissection with reverence and humility, and its somber importance has not gone unnoticed in our history.
Dissection is a highly provocative practice. Societies have developed a strong sense of aversion to this kind of body objectification; in fact, there isn’t a culture in time that has not grappled with this subject in a negative way. We must be very clear as to dissection’s taboo nature because it is entwined with its importance. Aversion is not brought on by a simple gut reaction to blood or muscle, as most of us are omnivores and are quite used to it. Rather it is often considered to be meddling with Nature; A transgressionary action that perhaps could also be an unpleasant reminder that “what we are now they once were, and what they are now we will be.” Our physical understanding of self is topographical for most of us. The things that happen underneath the skin are real, but often times not “who we are.” We would sooner identify with the amount of melanin in our skin, over our blood type. No one ever waged war on AB-. As we can see, the most violent of conflicts arise from completely arbitrary cultural classifications.
We compartmentalize our subsurface world in blatant ways. We see our aches and pains as things which happen to objects we possess. Even when it come to our very brains, the seat of consciousness, we use the adjective “my” which evinces a divorcement of the concept of self from the internal “machine” as we like to envision it. When our mirror shows a depth greater than we are used to seeing, we are likely to become uncomfortable, in fact we can’t help but associate sights of these internal structures with pain and death. Of course thoughts of death can throw many of us into a crisis of consciousness. Some say humanity invented God as a way to handle the biological drive for survival once we finally figured out that some things simply can’t be survived; Grandma is in a better place now. But if we should believe in the continuance of consciousness, and of its individual survival after death; how do we define the limits that grant these spiritual attributes? Is there a heaven for cats and dogs? What about fish, slugs, and pumpkins? Or perhaps the very organisms within our own bodies that help us digest other organisms? It is this question, amongst others, that have spearheaded the need to separate ourselves from the rest of Nature. The arguments are difficult and intertwined with many powerful players, not the least of which is consciousness, and will, but more principally the whole of philosophy and science. Two great pillars joined by an ever ascending succession of voussoirs bound by an indiscernible (and quite theoretical) key stone at its heart. Our need to be categorical has resulted in the subjugation of the “rest” of the animals outside our fuzzy borders. This is what makes it ok to see if Moroccan Red #5 lipstick will kill a chimpanzee before it makes an insurance adjuster’s lips look overly engorged with blood. We can admit that the stuff we are composed of is the same, but the stuff of consciousness is unique to us alone. Of course this old way of thinking has been shattered as of late with new research that challenges our understanding of what it means to be conscious, but we still might rather believe whatever makes it easiest to justify our actions for now at least. We have not yet even agreed by majority that the process of evolution exists.
While the argument can be made that humans are remarkably separate from animals, the same argument can be had for their similarity, especially in a mechanistic sense. For the purposes of dissection, animals have been relatively free from the same moral scrutiny that we have imposed on human cadavers. It is because of non-humans in-humanness, and the nature of our predatory impulses that allows for the dissection (and vivisection) of animals. It is interesting to note that until relatively recently has medical practice based its advancement on the findings from human cadavers.
Even Galen, regarded as the father of dissection and physical anatomical study, was not allowed to open the human dead, in fact his medical texts and surgical insights came solely from the dissection of “analogues” such as monkeys, pigs, and dogs. A point that delivers even more puzzlement by the readiness of western civilization to leave his findings unchallenged for no less than 1500 years.Of course not all of this was a just a study in blinded comparative anatomy. Early in his career, Galen was an active surgeon to some very active gladiators, and one can imagine the sorts of treatments required by his hands. Of course the spraying of blood, sand, and roaring crowds is not an environment for the kind of study needed to develop a “De usu partium.” (Or a mechanical theory of the body, as Galen would call it). Nonetheless it did prove the point to Galen in his early life that there was much more to Hippocratic medicine than the medico-philosophic texts which addressed only external observations and spiritual understanding related to the Demiurge, or divine architect. We understand this concept as a sort of Artisan God responsible for the setting in motion all that is and all that will be.
At the end of the day, Galen was required to do what all scientists do, make predictions based off of available data often times from memory and without benefit of the same careful analysis he performed on his pigs. He just never really bothered to mention that his experiential knowledge regarding human anatomy was not necessarily living up to the standards of examination that he so rightly pontificated. It was up to Vesalius to bring that embarrassing skeleton out of the closet, complete with a fused mandible. But we can forgive Galen, for even though he did suggest that he “did all the work so you didn’t have to.”
“Whoever seeks fame by deeds, not alone by learned speech, need only become familiar, at small cost of trouble, with all that I have achieved by active research during the course of my entire life.”
Galen maintained a strict belief that these observations were self-evident and attainable by you so long as you don’t mind getting your hands a little bloody. In fact one of the core beliefs of Galen, and nearly every anatomist that followed him, has been “Look with your own eyes, and touch with your own hands.” And that is why we are really here today. To talk about the act of dissection throughout history without participating in a dissection at the same time limits our potential understanding of a subject that is so very experientially based. To do otherwise would be like talking about your friends behind their backs. But why would someone so incredibly precise claim to have unified all teachings of Hippocrates without having ever once dissected a human being? Perhaps this becomes clear when we are reminded of the state of things pre-Galen and the total absence of influence from the body anatomy itself.
Galen had one very important goal in mind; the codification and unification of Hippocratic medicine. He sought to be the one and only authority in medicine and the rightful heir to the entirety of the Hippocratic Corpus (which was a substantial one.) At the time of Galen, an overwhelming number of sects had developed, each one having their own particular perspective. If we should care to look at this from a religious perspective, Galen can be seen as a sort of Christ figure for medicine, and he most assuredly thought of himself in that way. (these are not compliments by the way.) He did this as a sort of self-sacrifice to humanity, to carry the burden of cleaning up history’s mess and misinterpretation of Hippocrates. He was careful not to attempt to invalidate Hippocrates himself, but rather focused on the degradation and corruption done to this work by his students, and subsequent followers.
While Galen was directly basing his writing on that which he was seeing, (with extrapolation) the founding of Galenic medicine soon departed observation and only an ethereal conceptual redesigned Hippocratic philosophy remained, which went running the way of religion at a remarkably fast pace. Civilization requires a save button for ideas it considers critical in the same way that we as individuals enshrine objects of great importance. The “important” becomes precious, the precious becomes sacred, and the sacred becomes untouchable. Once codified, investigation and the act of questioning becomes heresy. We still see this today, and write it off as some expression of complexity, but we at least have a lot of additional modalities now that protect us from the magnitude of challenges faced by the foetal sciences even 200 years ago.
“The fact is, that those who are enslaved to their sects are not merely devoid of all sound knowledge, but will not even stop to learn!” -Galen
Of course, making science sacrosanct can be found in more than just Galen’s anatomical arena, but there is something obviously personal about medicine and anatomy; it is an exposed nerve, a science that addresses the whole of human life and death. Throw on a little God gasoline and how much more potentially religious could you get?
As we began to grow up the age of reason western civilization began to relax the constraints placed on Galen. Renaissance masters began to push the envelope as culture begrudgingly allowed itself to be dragged into a different mindset. Good art and science comes with good understanding and practice, and it was this very idea that allowed the issuance of a papal bull that allowed artists and anatomists to begin a much more public work on the human species. The door opened, but there was an ironic twist down the hall. Ideas that were at times thousands of years old became even more sacred but for very different reasons. Ancient wisdom, exotic cures, classical ideals (though pagan) became high fashion. The re-birth was upon us. The procession of the material sciences began to oppositely orient itself to the nostalgia driven populous. There was real controversy here, an allowance of previously forbidden actions but an expectation that the physical proof would support the classical ideal. We see this tendency today as we search through the internet hoping to find some ancient cure that contradicts the million other search results that don’t provide us the answer we hope to find. We look at the “fathers” of one thing or another expecting to revive some mishandled truth or secret that the rest of the world just couldn’t understand at the time in much the same way Galen did. Perhaps we will even adopt a name here and there to lend a bit of ancient credibility to our own theories.
When Andreas Vesalius was permitted to “cross the species line” during the late renaissance, he had a Paganini like effect. The tempting of God and Nature and his perceived sacrifice of morals must have likened Vesalius to Prometheus; a fire bearing Titan for humanity, but certainly doomed to be punished or afflicted in some similar way. Dissection and inquiries into the inner workings of the body is even still seen as a sort of guilty pleasure at its best by most, and often times as a sort of sublimation at its worst. We still insist on shuffling our feet, holding back disgust, and giggling nervously when confronted by the exposed gross anatomy of these specimens. There are still those that directly correlate practices such as these with violent tendencies, and mal adaptive social behavior, as though dissection is some gateway to the gratification of causing pain and implementing sadistic torture. But Vesalius didn’t have many friends on either of the aisle. Vesalius was a performer in a lot of ways, he developed a type of flourish not seen since the time of Galen, and it was the work of Galen and its promulgation that Vesalius had issues with. At the time in the late 1500’s, going to a dissection was a bit like going to mass on a high holy day. The Professor sat aloft a tall chair above the congregation; he was never to allow the ground to soil his educated stockings. From here the Professor would quote passages from Galen in sermon style as the Anatomist stood below awaiting the moment in which the dissection would commence at which point he would begin interpreting the scripture and directing the surgeon. (The one actually doing the dissection.) Most often the dissection and the sermon were not directly related as there was no need to provide verification for Galen’s work, the dissection was supplemental. It was almost a sort of side show to get students in the door, like wine at church.
There were locations in which the demand for dissection over lecture was a bit more prevalent, and this is exactly where Vesalius would find himself. Vesalius was more of a sole demonstrator, and his reputation for this was known throughout Europe. It was likely because of this “does not play well with others” tag that earned him a degree and post at the Padua University. This highly effective and progressive university likely thought a little shakeup in the routine might benefit the students. (who were at that time in a much more powerful state to make decisions regarding faculty than is the case in our modern system). There is some evidence to suggest that the whole affair was a set up to oust the sitting Professor, who was known for his ridged presentation of material.
“[At Padua] and at Bologna I performed dissections rather more often, and, having exploded the ridiculous custom of the schools, I taught in such a way that in anatomy we might want nothing which has been handed down to us by the ancients.”
From the preface of: On the Fabric of the Human Body
Vesalius, as respectful of Galen and Hippocrates as he was, discovered (not surprisingly) many falsities in ancient work. Even with physical proof on the slab, people still were unwilling to believe that the Word was perhaps not always enough.
“And so, with their teeth set, the principal followers of Galen put their trust in some kind of talking, and relying upon the inertia of others in dissecting, they shamelessly abridge Galen into elaborate compendia. They do not depart from him a hair’s breadth while they are following his sense; but to the front of their books they add writings of their own, stitched together completely from the opinions of Galen—and all of theirs is from him. The whole lot of them have placed their faith in him, with the result that you cannot find a doctor who has thought that even the slightest slip has ever been detected in the anatomical volumes of Galen, much less could be found (now).
Meanwhile (especially since Galen corrects himself frequently, and in later works written when he became better informed he points out his own slips perpetrated in certain books, and teaches the contrary) it now becomes obvious to us from the reborn art of dissection, from diligent reading of the books of Galen, and from impeccable restoration in numerous places of (the text of) these books, that he himself never dissected the body of a man who had recently died. Although the dried cadavers of men prepared, so to speak, for the inspections of the bones were available to him, he was misled by his apes, and he undeservedly censures the ancient doctors who had busied themselves with the dissection of men. Nay, you may even find a great many things in his writings which he has not followed correctly in the apes; not to mention the fact that in the manifold and infinite difference between the organs of the human body and the body of apes, Galen noticed almost none, except in the fingers and in the bending of the knee. This difference he doubtless would have omitted too, if it had not been obvious to him without the dissection of man.”
From the preface of: On the Fabric of the Human Body
These problems Vesalius refers to here are not simple arguments of misplaced arteries, but incorrect muscle attachments, organ alignment, non-existent bones, and (in one of the stranger examples,) invincible ones. We can understand how some of these mistakes could have been advanced by followers by looking at our own tendency of exaggerating certain facts to make them appear more legitimate. These are also stark examples of how highly the mind was regarded and how vulgar physical was deemed during this transitional period. For example, Aristotle might suggest that a 10 pound weight will find its way to earth faster than a 1 pound weight, however when this was actually tested 1500 years later, we find that this was not at all the case. Yet many, even after seeing it with their own eyes, would dismiss the event. They looked on experiments like this in the same way we watch a magic show in Vegas, but there are reasons as to why this occurred.
Many ancients believed that the purity of Thought trumped the gross observance of things in motion in this corrupted and unclean world. When we think of such a contrary practice to our scientific method as sign of respect for Mind, we can come to a more forgiving understanding for our ancestors. Death was the pervertor of Life. In thinking so, the renaissance mind can conclude that Evil corrupts the understanding of the Good. This made a reasonable case for thinking rather than doing. In effect, the physical world was indeed perceived as much more of a parlor trick of existence than we might understand today. As we drew closer to our own era, we began to understand that the world was not sleight of hand at all, and that one unified perfection born of thought was, well… Utopian. Static became the unnatural quality as we began to favor the dynamic. Our new circumstances opened the door for us to experiment, something that had not really been thought of before as a cornerstone for understanding. We began to question, invent, create, and explore. And yes, sometimes with devastating consequences. And this shift in perception is a potent reminder that we do in fact stand on the shoulders of giants, but we must keep watch on those lumbering and wide steps to ensure that our giants have their shoes tied. Now we prepare to follow through with this advice, we touch with our own hands and see with our own eyes, but we do so not so much to fine the divinity, discover the template of life, or philosopher’s stone; we endeavor to discover for its own sake, because it makes us better, and informs the directions in which we might go. We relieve ourselves of the limitations that were so debilitating in our past by only looking to that which could provide a complete truth.
We understand now that the physical world is made up of interpretable truth that can be formed and altered into similar or radically different truths about what and who we are. Of course this manner of fracturing relies not on singular discoverers, but entire conference centers full of “Hello my name is:” badged specialists who can barely talk to one another about each other’s work due to the complexity of it all. The giant may takes two steps forward and perhaps just as many back, but the way in which it pirouettes while doing so is really quite something.
But now we perform this ceremony, we look at ourselves in the mirror, the reflection nothing more than a platonic shadow on the wall. The now darkened corpse serves us as an illuminating conductor of those elemental things that make us animated. We look into the unlit folds of this tapestry to find its base canvas, naked and without familiar boundaries apparent. We are able to lose ourselves in a singular expression of creation, whole and self contained. It is as a planet with an atmosphere of skin. We see the body’s great cities. We see the brain, the capital in our world; rivers, roads, and their tributaries running forth to other metropolitan giants each serving some function independently yet coexisting off the trades of others. And further explorations reveal other smaller independent lives, whether they be specialized cells, or bacterial travelers foreign to the body. The government and public consensus of this world are provided by the very neurons and their collective actions that act on a macroscopic level in the same way. All these great and wonderful things are provided here, in the 8 cubic feet we are composed of in much the same manner as the 3 cubic feet of a coyote.
All is knowable here; it is not restricted by the intelligence of a professor, philosopher, or physicist. It is not a functional model with elegant descriptors meant to teach or replicate analogous reactions like a pocket watch simulates time. It is the beginning and source of it. Clarity, discovery, and understanding just depend on our ability to perceive and connect. This feeds our work here, not only by the information gleaned, but by the process to harvest it. We also take care to marvel in the comparisons, but respect the unique qualities of every specimen whether human or canine. And perhaps we can appreciate the work of the anatomists before us and see a tantalizing glimpse into the design of Demiurge they worked so hard to find, though maybe we can restrain ourselves from the requirement to define it. Perhaps we will have a better appreciation for the unmistakable similarities between muscle attachments and venous paths that will serve to not only facilitate a bridge between species, but to become more self aware. Touch this specimens palm, and feel your own. Rotate the arm and do the same with yours.
Before us is one final photograph of a life lived, the only truly finite moment in any of our lives. Through this last record we see all that came before if we know where to look. It is written on every bone and within each fiber of muscle. We are not just looking at cause of death, but cumulative action of life, not just “a” life, but of Life. And if we add a bit of our own inquisition and spirit we become that much closer to meaning.
We begin with a ventral incision…
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