Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
by Russell Shorto
Russell Shorto has taken a unique approach to the conflict between science and religion; he has traced it to its origin in the philosophy of Rene Descartes, and using Descartes’ corpse followed the repercussions of the dead man’s ideas on Western civilization. The book is a history of the evolution of philosophy and the emergence of the idea that reason and religious faith were separate entities, a concept Descartes did not come up with, but without his groundwork someone else may never have come to that conclusion.
I had expected this book to be a bit of a mystery, a bit of adventure as Shorto hunted for the remains of Descartes and traced the bones through the years that they were moved by governments, disassembled by relic seekers, interred in monuments and displayed in museums. No such luck. Descartes’ remains have crumbled to powder and disappeared, leaving only his skull behind. Instead the book is a history of Descartes’ ideas. It follows his philosophy through the genesis, rise and fall of Cartesianism, the Enlightenment, and on through the modern era. In a way, the book is a history of the rise of science as an entity unique unto itself, and discusses some of the ‘failed’ sciences like phrenology, which used Descartes’ skull to prove and disprove its theories. The creation of scientific societies, autopsies, and even the evolution of forensics are also covered in detail.
As a history of the conflict between science and evolution, Descartes’ Bones was quite interesting. But it’s not what I was expecting from the book at all. So I did feel quite disappointed, and to be honest I’m not sure it’s a book I would have picked up. The writing style is rather dry, and it reminded me of reading drafts of term papers in my English classes.
I don’t regret reading it though, and there are several readers that I know would be interested. So if it sounds appealing, go for it. Just keep in mind that the blurb on the back of the cover is rather deceptive:
In 1666, sixteen years after his death, the bones of Rene Descartes were dug up in the middle of the night and transported from Sweden to France under the watchful eye of the French ambassador. This was only the beginning of the journey for Descartes' bones, which, over the next 250 years, were fought over, stolen, sold, revered as relics, studied by scientists, used in séances and passed surreptitiously from hand to hand.
The bones are not the main focus of the book, only a thread used sporadically to tie Shorto’s ideas together.