Thursday, February 11, 2010

Human Vivisection and Dissection

If you enjoy a good argument and you’re at all interested in the history of science and religion, have a look at the post and discussion over at Richard Carrier’s blog on medieval science. It started when Mike Flynn corrected a really quite stupid piece of anti-Christian polemic. Richard found the polemic quite stupid too but was more interested in correcting Mike. The debate continued happily below the line and showed how good the internet can be at linking people who share interests but not points of view.

I’m not going to comment on the debate for the moment as Richard has kindly promised to say something about my book. It seems appropriate that I shouldn’t write anything much until then.

But I’d like to flag two related issues that Richard raises on which I happen to have reviewed some of the literature. The first is the question of whether or not the Hellenic physicians Herophilus and Erasistratus carried out human vivisections in Alexandria. Richard says not and claims that this is a “slander”. I expect he has in mind a remark made by Tertullian (On the Soul 10) who accuses Herophilus of being a "butcher". The Latin for butcher, lanius, can also mean executioner, so it is by no means clear whether Tertullian is accusing the Alexandrians of dissecting humans or vivisecting them. Either way, he doesn’t like it at all. If this was the only evidence, Richard would be quite right to dismiss it – it is ambiguous and hostile. But the key text is neither of these things.

Writing about 30AD, the Roman medical author Celsus made a statement of a quite different character in the prologue to his book On Medicine. It is worth quoting in full:

Consequently, it is necessary to dissect dead bodies and examine their viscera and intestines. Herophilus and Erasistratus adopted the best method. They dissected criminals, received from the kings out of prison, and contemplated even while the breath still remained those things that nature had before concealed.

Now this statement is not only as clear as daylight, it is also approving of the practice (at least from a scientific point of view). The doyen of scholars on Herophilus, Heinrich von Staten, states that “the ancient evidence may be trusted” (p. 139, Herophilus (Cambridge, 1989)) and he should know given that his mammoth edition and commentary of Herophilus fragments and sources covers all the ground. Von Staten notes Richard’s objection that Galen is silent on the matter in his extant works. The trouble is that this is an argument from silence one hundred and fifty years after the positive and unambivalent statement by Celsus. Von Staten also notes that Galen refers to a lost treatise that he wrote specifically on vivisection (p. 151, Herophilus). If Galen did discuss whether the Alexandrians vivisected humans, we might expect it to be in this lost work. In any case, Galen’s lack of comment in no way cancels out Celsus. Richard also suggests vivisection would be against the Hippocratic Oath, but who knows what they actual swore. The linked version appears to apply only to patients, not criminals. So, however distasteful, we must face the fact that they probably did carry out anatomies on live victims.

And why shouldn’t they? Torturing people to death was no big deal in the ancient world. Indeed, cutting open live people may have been less offensive to social mores than waiting until they were dead. They were convicting criminals after all. Our own squeamishness may be what leads us to discount the clear evidence. It seems similar to the way humanists would avoid facing up to the blatant homoeroticism in Plato’s Symposium and elsewhere.

I think Richard also errs in his statement that Galen carried out human dissections himself. He clearly has the advantage over me in that he has gone over all the relevant passages in the Galenic corpus. But still the scholarly consensus is against him. As Von Staten notes, Galen’s anatomy is that of a simian overlaid onto a human skeleton. (It is a bit odd that Richard cited Von Staten in his case that Galen did perform human dissections where von Staten actually thinks the opposite, but doubtless we are referring to different works of his.)

The error is systematic and not amendable by adopting a particular reading of passages that mention human dissection. Galen never says he has done it and makes it very clear that he’d like to. This is a good argument from silence since it is not contradicted elsewhere and is consistent with the clear pattern of his anatomical observations.

But I haven’t seen Richard’s own detailed work on this topic. If feels he is successful in overturning the scholarly consensus, he should publish as soon as possible (although the delays in getting material accepted by journals are now nothing short of scandalous). Let’s hope an article sees the light of day soon.

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Humphrey said...

Or as Lois N Magner says in ‘ A History of the Life Sciences’:

‘Those who argue that it is inconceivable that Greek physicians would have performed human vivisections should reconsider the not uncommon reference to the mutilation of bodies in Greek Literature, as well as the public torture of slaves in the law courts to extract evidence and the use of convicts in tests of poisons and their putative antidotes. Of course, the evidence from well documented twentieth century history suggests there is no limit to possible human cruelty – individual or state organised.’

Von Staden makes the point that 'Herophilus’ differentiation of sensory nerves from motor nerves also points to the use of vivisection for heuristic purposes; dissection alone would not have made this discovery possible’

Herophilus: the art of medicine in early Alexandria’ p153 (13-16)

deef said...

Interesting read.

Alphonsus said...

Richard Carrier continues the debate about Christianity and modern science (while promoting a new book) here:

Anonymous said...

You got to give Carrier credit:

The man makes no bones about trying to shill his book.