Scientists, doctors, and all of us, are snake blind: it was true for Galen, Vesalius, and William Harvey, and it is true for today’s doctors & scientists.
If it’d been a snake it woulda bit ya.”
Traditional Appalachian adage
Galen of Pergamon & Human Dissection
As we have discussed, in the Medieval authority was everything, and people were actively discouraged from independent thought. In medicine, one of the undisputed – and indisputable – authorities was the Greek physician, Galen of Pergamon.1)He was also the first recorded sports physician, treating the Roman gladiators. Galen by himself produced almost half of all surviving ancient Greek texts; it is believed that he employed as many as 20 scribes simultaneously to record his investigations and opinions, and that he authored over 10M published words, the equivalent of about 100-200 modern books.
In the Renaissance, as physicians began dissections on human cadavers,2)When I was in a summer program at the University of Montpellier in France, we were told that Montpellier was the first medical school to officially perform human dissection. They gained the distinction when rumor reached the school that the University of Bologna had begun the practice. Montpellier raced to catch up, only to later discover that the rumor had been false. I have never verified that story, but it suggests that Renaissance physicians were feeling a growing need to investigate the true structure of the body. the standard reference on human anatomy was Galen’s De Anatomicis Administrationibus. That caused a problem; Galen never dissected human cadavers. His work focused on the dissection of apes, which he pointed out were similar enough to understand general principles.
So the modern reader will be surprised to find that when, in the 16th century, Andreas Vesalius started pointing out that the human cadavers really didn’t match Galen’s texts all that well, there was a furious academic outcry and a vicious backlash. Not against Galen, mind you.
Thousands of university students and faculty were dissecting cadavers, and they were all reading Galen. So why was it that only one of them, Vesalius, actually looked with his own eyes, and actually thought about the reality right in front of him?
And why did almost everyone attack Vesalius? They were snake blind, they couldn’t see the obvious right in front of them.
William Harvey on Blood Circulation
Not long after Vesalius fought his battles, William Harvey presented demonstrations and wrote a treatise proposing that – huge spoiler alert – the heart moves blood. Harvey was attacked from all quarters for reporting what every soldier and butcher could see. The problem was, Galen had also written about the heart and the blood, and claimed that blood was static. There was an entire theory of blood-letting at that time, specifying where and how much a patient should be bled, all of which depended on Galen’s opinion that the blood did not move.
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William Harvey was also viciously attacked for his work. Even more puzzling was the comment of one of Harvey’s contemporaries, he would “rather err with Galen than proclaim the truth with Harvey.”3)Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves (W.W. Norton, 2013). The anti-intellectualism and authoritarian submission reflected in these responses are reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s challenge, “Well who you gonna believe?! Me, or your own eyes?”4)Duck Soup, Paramount Pictures, 1933.
But as with Vesalius, we have the same problem: Out of all of the many thousands of physicians who had been working on the human body, why did only one of them, William Harvey, point out the obvious?
And why was he so roundly and soundly attacked?
Snake Blind Doctors
It may seem that these problems are limited to quaint antiquity, but right now there is someone out there telling pediatricians that childhood teething does not cause fever, runny noses and diarrhea. Meanwhile, every parent and ER doc just scratch our heads when the pediatricians say that. When I see a toddler with those symptoms, the first thing I ask whether he/she is teething.
Every doctor can tell you of many such ‘proven’ concepts that fly in the face of common experience, or that even change perennially. Or at least some doctors can; the rest of them dismiss all objections as foolishness, unable to distinguish heresy from hemlines. Too many doctors are also snake blind, even those who are experts on the Crotalinae and the Elapidae.
The Snake Blind Epidemic
We see this in scientific fundamentalism, where practitioners under one paradigm refuse new theories, even when the evidence is right in front of them, if it confounds what they prefer to believe.
And we see it in the political arena. We insist that our party’s elected officials have never done anything wrong, and that those on the other side have never done anything right. In the Beltway right now, we are suffering from an intellectual epidemic, the politicians and pundits are all snake blind.
Here’s what should give us pause: if all of these major thinkers miss the obvious right in front of them, if our best professors, pundits and politicians are snake-blind, then why should we expect that we are any different? We need to seriously consider that we are snake-blind, too.
Because we are. And as a result, we often make bad decisions. We won’t look, we won’t listen, we won’t think. As we angrily and excitedly buy the snake oil, we miss deadly snakes right in front of us, we are snake blind to obvious problems and pressing threats.
And then we can’t figure out why we keep getting bitten.
These ideas are incorporated into my book, Kings, Conquerors, Psychopaths: From Alexander to Hitler to the Corporation, available from the University of Louisiana Press, and Amazon.
Red Sided Garter Snake courtesy of Ximena Ramillete on Pinterest.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||He was also the first recorded sports physician, treating the Roman gladiators.|
|2.||↑||When I was in a summer program at the University of Montpellier in France, we were told that Montpellier was the first medical school to officially perform human dissection. They gained the distinction when rumor reached the school that the University of Bologna had begun the practice. Montpellier raced to catch up, only to later discover that the rumor had been false. I have never verified that story, but it suggests that Renaissance physicians were feeling a growing need to investigate the true structure of the body.|
|3.||↑||Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves (W.W. Norton, 2013).|
|4.||↑||Duck Soup, Paramount Pictures, 1933.|