Sunday, June 23, 2013

Broca’s Brain


“They were apes only yesterday. Give them time. Once an ape--always an ape. No, it will be different...Come back here in an age or so and you shall see...” -- THE GODS, DISCUSSING THE EARTH, IN THE MOTION PICTURE VERSION OF H.G. WELLS’ ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)

If we think we are a gift to mankind because we possess extra-ordinary geniuses, would we allow our brains to be stored in formalin to retard spoilage and display in museum after we die?

Many of us today probably possess brains that are qualified to be preserved for purposes of research and benefit of science, like Broca’s brain.

In his book, Broca’s Brain, reflections on the romance of science, the late astrophysicist Carl Sagan discussed the exploration of the universe; that is, it is about science. Sagan analyzed diverse topics--from a crystal of salt to the structure of the cosmos, myth and legend, birth and death, robots and climates, the exploration of the planets, the nature of intelligence, the search for life beyond the Earth.

“But I hope will emerge, these topics are connected because the world is connected, and also human beings perceive the world through similar sense organs and brains and experiences that may not reflect the external realities with absolute fidelity,” explained Sagan. 

In all of our four-billion-year history of life in our planet, in all of our four-million-year history of the human family, Sagan said, “there is only one generation privileged to live through that unique transitional moment: that generation is ours.”


During his visit at Musee de l’Homme or Museum of Man in Paris in the 1970’s, Sagan saw a container from the shelf which he closely examined. The label reads: P. Broca. “In my hands was Broca’s brain,” quipped Sagan.

P. Broca was Paul Broca, a surgeon, a neurologist and an anthropologist. He was a major figure in the development of both medicine and anthropology in the mid-19th century. Sagan said, Broca performed distinguished work on cancer pathology and the treatment of aneurysms. He made a landmark contribution to understanding the origin of aphasia--an impairment of the ability to articulate ideas.

Sagan described Broca as “a brilliant and compassionate man” who was concerned with medical care for the poor. 

“Under cover of darkness, at the risk of his own life, he successfully smuggled out of Paris in a horse-drawn cart 73 million francs, stuffed into carpetbags and hidden under potatoes, the treasury of the Assistance Publique which--he believed, at any rate--he was saving from pillage. He was the founder of modern brain surgery. He studied infant mortality. Toward the end of his career, he was created a senator,” Sagan disclosed.

Broca founded a society of “freethinkers” in 1848. Almost along among French servants of the time, narrated Sagan, “he was sympathetic to Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection.”


T.H. Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” remarked that the mere mention of Broca’s name filled him with a sense of gratitude, and Broca was quoted as saying, “I would rather be a transformed ape than a degenerate son of Adam.” For these and other views he was publicly denounced for “materialism” and, like Socrates, for corrupting the young.

Broca died in 1880, perhaps of the very sort of aneurysm that he had studied so brilliantly, disclosed Sagan. At the moment of his death he was working on a comprehensive study of brain anatomy. He had established the first professional societies, schools of research, and scientific journals of modern anthropology in France. His laboratory specimens became incorporated into what for many years was called the Musee Broca. Later it merged to become a part of the Musee de l’Homme.

“It was Broca himself, whose brain I was cradling, who had established the macabre collection I had been contemplating,” recalled Sagan. “He had studied embryos and apes, and people of all races, measuring like mad in an effort to understand the nature of human being. And despite the present appearance of the collection and my suspicions, he was not, at least by the standards of his time, more of a jingoist or a racist than most, and certainly not that cold, uncaring, dispassionate scientist, heedless of the human consequences of what he did. Broca very much cared.” /MP

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