Three New Pop Science Releases Around What it Means to Be Alive

Interestingly, three new books are out this month addressing scientific definitions of life and its hazy boundaries in some way. I’ve read them all. (What a contemplative time it’s been, for better or worse.) Let’s discuss!

Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher: A Monkey’s Head, the Pope’s Neuroscientist, and the Quest to Transplant the Soul, by Brandy Schillace

Out of a midcentury spirit of desperate scientific rivalry, came an impossible dream: not a head transplant (per se), but a full-body transplant — lungs, heart, kidneys, and all the wrappings. It sounds too much like Frankenstein. It sounds like the fever dream of B-movie scientists in frightful labs. But in the end, this isn’t a Frankenstein story at all; it’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde story of a doctor with two selves, two impulses, and even two names.

Brandy Schillace, editor of the journal Medical Humanities, tells the odd(ly) compelling story of doctor Robert J. White, who, starting in the 1950s, became obsessed with advancing medicine through organ transplantation, namely, head transplants.

Preserving the life of the human brain was the end goal of everything White did in the lab — every surgery, every experiment.

It’s part biography of White and his work, and part exploration of the ideas around what constituted being alive during this period in time, including where the soul dwelled, i.e., in the head or heart. The Jekyll and Hyde metaphor stretches a bit ; White comes across as quite typical, that is, a flawed but decent person who holds some opposing ideas and has a humbler family-man side and a daring career side that believes life could be saved by transplanting living heads onto healthy, albeit otherwise dead, bodies. Extreme, but not really the drama the title and setup would indicate. Still, the story is interesting enough that it’s forgivable.

The bigger dramas are around the animal rights activists who protested his experimental surgeries, including on monkeys, and the pushback against what the general public, and some medical colleagues, considered steps too far into playing God. This is where interesting debates around life’s boundaries come into play. Even the pope gets involved.

Some of White’s work does come across as pretty extreme and Frankenstein-ian, but Schillace shows that it wasn’t for glory, fame, or even to beat the Soviets; rather:

Preserving the life of the human brain was the end goal of everything White did in the lab — every surgery, every experiment.

One of the most interesting stories here is of the Cold War-era competition fueling so much of this medical advancement. White was inspired by a Soviet scientist’s head transplants among dogs, but the Soviets remained his greatest rivals in a time when information sharing was frowned upon. Still, after White assisted in the evacuation of an American soldier injured in Moscow, he sent a collection of microsurgical textbooks and journals, then banned from being imported by the Communist government, as a gift of thanks: “He saw those textbooks in a Russian library years later.” So he rebelled against convention in many ways, and pioneered no small share of developments in surgery and theory about life and neuroscience, even if much about White and his experiments is now largely forgotten, and still a bit stomach-turning. An interesting if slightly uneven biography of a man and a development that wasn’t to be. March 2, Simon & Schuster

After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond, by Bruce Greyson, M.D.

Psychiatrist Bruce Greyson was shaken by an incident early in his career. Working in a hospital, he was called to speak with the roommate of a young woman who survived a suicide attempt, and the next day with the woman herself. She described perfectly the scene of him speaking to her roommate, even mentioning a detail impossible to know: he’d been called away mid-lunch, resulting in a spaghetti stain on his tie.

This incident, which he tried from every angle to explain away or make sense of, led Greyson into decades of research to apply rigorous scientific logic to near-death experiences, or NDEs: when a person brushes close to death and experiences certain seemingly-impossible events, like being able to watch a scene including their physical body from above, or the stereotypical playback of their life. He identifies a number of such things that appear repeatedly among experiencers.

He thoroughly breaks down his research and any testing methods, but mainly shares a number of stories in NDE experiencers’ own words, as they relate what happened, what they witnessed, and how it changed them. Then Greyson provides some analysis about what may have been happening and what he’s analyzed from it. I really appreciated that he establishes his own background firmly: he was never taken by the woo-woo, has a solid scientific education, and isn’t religious, which all felt like important points to be clarified as they’ve colored other writers.

The biggest takeaway is quite a reassuring, consoling one: death isn’t to be feared. Those who have come close aren’t scared or traumatized, or even if they did see imagery that alarmed them, they were reaffirmed about life afterwards. As Greyson himself emphasizes, “if you take only one thing from this book, I would want you to appreciate the transformative power of these experiences to change people’s lives.”

I’ve long wanted to find a book that gives this kind of scientific look at life after death, the best I’ve read being Mary Roach’s Spook. This is definitely the book I was searching for, and maybe the only disappointment is how uncertain so much remains. I mean, what can you really expect, to be fair. But in terms of rigorous scientific analysis, as far as that’s possible, After is it.

Greyson shows so well how difficult this research is, but how scientific principles can be applied in some areas and how even if we don’t have definitive answers, it can tell us a lot that’s applicable to the living. He shows how culture and preexisting religious belief can influence what people say they saw, but science lacks the ability to test the accuracy of it. They also frequently experience life reviews, in which they not only see their own behavior in situations, but can feel what those they interacted with were experiencing. Again, the takeaway is how this can influence our behavior going forward.

It’s interesting how much is the same across reported NDEs. It’s undeniable that there’s something going on, but science hasn’t pinpointed the particulars yet. Greyson has done an incredible lifetime of work in cataloging, listening, and analyzing these stories as far as possible. March 2, St. Martin’s

Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, by Carl Zimmer

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague.” Poe wrote. “Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”

In his latest book, popular science writer Carl Zimmer undertakes the monumental task of looking at how the quality of being alive is defined. This is trickier than it may first appear.

He tells stories both from scientists working now on various undertakings that touch on what it means for something to live — from snakes to bacteria and all manner of life in between — and looks at people and moments from biology’s history. Although he does tell parts of well-known stories, like Watson, Crick, and Rosalind Franklin (who deserves more credit than she’s usually given), there were so many stories here of people who were wrong, mistaken or off track in some way, and others whose contributions, like White’s, have been largely lost to history.

Querying biologists, Zimmer says we can pick out a set of hallmarks that reappear: metabolism, information gathering, homeostasis, reproduction, and evolution. Beyond that, it gets complicated quick.

This book had one of the best arguments for pro-choice as a matter of inarguable logic I’ve ever read. He even shows how the definition of life varies across cultures, citing a rural Ivory Coast village where babies aren’t considered as “truly belong[ing] to this world” until they lose the stump of the umbilical cord. If it dies before that falls off, “there is no death to observe.”

Here’s my favorite bit of that, and an example of why Zimmer is such an exceptional writer, as he describes how the fusion of egg and sperm isn’t at all a straightforward beginning of life:

The flow of life arrives unbroken from the previous generation, and from generations back through the ages. You’d have to canoe up life’s river for billions of years before reaching its headwaters.

“Life begins at conception” is a simple slogan, easy to remember, easy to shout. Taken literally, though, it’s false on its face.

He also has a sense of humor that makes this eminently readable and at times really delightful. Zimmer’s storytelling in general is wonderful — easy to see why he’s such a popular and accessible writer in this field. This is actually one of those books I’d gladly read again, as despite being approachable for the layperson, it’s almost deceptively information-packed and I know I didn’t get everything on a first pass.

Plus sometimes I was just distracted by how much I liked traveling with him, as it were, and reading his often-lyrical writing. A chapter addressing viruses, those notoriously not-dead-but-not-really-alive things, includes this vivid imagery: “It’s strange that people can push viruses out of the house of life and leave them hanging around the doorstep.”

There was so much more to these ideas than I’d naively imagined. Zimmer is the ideal companion to explore such a complex topic with, as he breaks concepts down understandably, compellingly, even pretty thrillingly. March 9, Dutton

I received advance copies of all titles from their respective publishers for unbiased review.


18 thoughts on “Three New Pop Science Releases Around What it Means to Be Alive

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  1. I love these! I’ve been looking at books on this topic recently so thank you for sharing these books. The third, Life’s Edge, especially sounds good. Thanks for sharing these good reviews!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooh good timing then! So glad I could introduce you to them 🙂 Life’s Edge was really my favorite, he just made every story so interesting and underscored the relevance of each really well too. And I fell in love with his writing, I want to read through his back catalog now. Excited to hear your thoughts if you get to any of these 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It sounds it – especially from his scientific perspective. I think it’s never been more relevant! I am excited to delve into them! 🙂


  2. These all sound so fascinating – especially the one about NDEs. That kind of thing is so fascinating to me. I feel like it’s such a difficult conversation to have as well, because thinking about death too much still feels kind of taboo. I like that there is a writer tackling it from the perspective of science rather than woo woo, it feels like a much more accessible way into an important conversation.


  3. Each one of these sounds phenomenal. Humble/Butcher sounds like something out of X-Files.

    Since you enjoyed After so much, I have to recommend Glimpsing Heaven by Judy Bachrach. It also looks at NDE’s and it was a great comfort to me as I had read it the week before my FiL died after having been unconscious in hospice for 9 days. Here’s the link:

    Awesome reviews as always, Rennie!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s SO funny you mention that because it WAS an X-Files episode!!! He consulted on it!! That was such an interesting little side story here, this book is just full of them. I think you’d like it.

      That’s so good to know about the other book! I’m always especially interested in books that have helped other people through those kind of tough times. The other one I read some years ago was Surviving Death, I think it’s the one that they’ve done a Netflix series around now, but I didn’t much like it. Thanks for the recommendation!!


  4. Thank you for reviewing these. They certainly sound like they offer plenty to think about.

    (You might want to double-check the hyperlink on the title of After.)

    White may prove to have been a man ahead of his time. Full-body transplants will probably never be practical as a solution to the problem of biological death, simply due to the great rarity of viable but “empty” bodies, but sufficiently-advanced mechanical bodies may someday serve the purpose. We know from things like the implants used to treat Parkinson’s disease that the brain can interface with artificial components. The deeper problem, of course, is that the brain itself ages.

    I’m not an expert on NDEs, but I’ve read elsewhere that pretty much all the phenomena reported by people who had them fit pretty well with the expected effects of oxygen deprivation. And of course, even if science has not yet come up with an explanation for something, that isn’t evidence of anything supernatural. Many things that couldn’t be explained centuries ago (and were taken as evidence of the supernatural at the time) are now well understood, and the process of discovery will continue.

    death isn’t to be feared. Those who have come close aren’t scared or traumatized

    I don’t necessarily fear the process of death itself. Death can happen painlessly, or can even come so fast that the victim doesn’t realize it’s happening. I fear the state of not being alive — of never again being able to know or learn or experience anything. The fight against involuntary death is well worth waging.

    As to the definition of life, it may well be that such categories break down and cease to be meaningful in cases which could not have been imagined by the people in ancient times who originated them. They didn’t know anything about viruses, for example, nor did they realize how complex and ambiguous the process of death is. If and when we can upload a human mind into a computer, we’ll have cases of conscious, self-aware, identifiable persons, perhaps with a much richer sensory experience than humans normally have, who are nevertheless no longer organic life forms. Is the alive/not-alive dichotomy even meaningful in such a case? (The ancients would probably put such people in the same category as ghosts.) Yet the law will have to address the problem, if only because of the conflicting claimed property rights of uploaded people and their “heirs”.


  5. Perfect timing. Today is my husband’s birthday and I hadn’t yet purchased a gift. Just called the local bookstore and they have Life’s Edge in stock so at least he’ll one present to open today. Your reviews are priceless. I don’t know how you manage to get through so many titles but it sure is fun seeing what you’ve been up to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yay!! I’m so glad I could help in that way, and happy birthday to your husband! (So he’s one of those lucky ones getting a second birthday-in-quarantine already, a friend who has one coming up was just discussing this with me the other day. Hope you can find a way to make it special!) Thrilled you could get that for him to open up, I promise it’s such a fun and engaging read. I loved it and learned a lot from it.

      I think it’s about creating the time,, I’m more likely to pick a book than Netflix, for example…it’s writing the reviews that I struggle to find time for, reading is the easier part 😂 Thank you for that very kind compliment, it means so much to me that you get so much out of them!

      Liked by 1 person

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