Anatomies: The Human Body

Its parts, and the stories they tell

Favorite Parts

On the cultural habit of picking and choosing among parts of the body

One of the things that happens when I appear to talk about my book Anatomies: A Cultural History of the Human Body is that somebody in the audience usually seeks to enliven the Q&A afterwards by demanding to know: “What’s your favorite organ?”

I haven’t got a pat response to this, and it’s difficult to know what to say for several reasons. The questioner is perhaps expecting me to add a frisson of sexual innuendo to the proceedings. Yet if I say “the penis,” I may elicit knowing nods from any Freudians present, but a vague “Ew” of disapproval from the rest of the room. If I say the vagina, never mind the clitoris, I will shock them. I could say “the heart” and expect to get back an empathetic warm “Aah.” I could say “the brain” and people would understand, because such a response is only what you would expect of a science writer, self-consciously standing on a podium, showing off his latest work. If I say most other internal organs, then I am faced with some explaining to do, because they seldom arise in normal conversation, and to have any opinion about them at all would seem to presuppose specialist medical knowledge. I sometimes deflect the question by replying “the stomach,” which is a little unexpected, yet which all can agree is one body part we are likely to hold dear, especially as the hunger pangs set in at the end of an hour’s lecture.

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The question bothers me for another reason, which is that it clearly demonstrates the way in which modern science has encouraged us to think about the body – as a kind of kit of parts, an assemblage in which it seems to make sense to rank parts in some imagined order of importance even though all the parts (or almost all of them) are required to be present in order to create a functional organism. It is not just the calling of favorites, it is also seen in the pecking order of medical specialists. The neurologist ranks higher than the cardiologist who ranks higher than the gastroenterologist. 

It’s perhaps useful to be aware that this hierarchy of body parts is a cultural phenomenon. It is only in the era of modern science that we have come to regard the brain as the most important organ. Before that, in medieval times, it was the heart, which was the seat not only of love, as we know, but also of reason. And before that, in some cultures, it was the liver that was regarded as central. The parts may have fixed locations within our bodies, but they have shifting positions in our affections.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams is the author of several books exploring science, design and architecture.

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