The Skull beneath the Skin

By Harrigan, Anthony | Contemporary Review, July 1992 | Go to article overview

The Skull beneath the Skin


Harrigan, Anthony, Contemporary Review


THE novel Gorky Park written by Martin Cruz Smith contains a passage that sheds light on the way the human brain makes contact with the world through the orifices of the skull. |The head,' he wrote, |is a machine for nervous response, seeing, eating, hearing and smelling -- in that order. It is a machine with proportionally larger bones and less flesh than a hand. The face is only a thin mask of the skull.'

This observation brings to mind the limited attention devoted to the importance of the skull in human evolution. When human evolution is discussed, the hand receives much more attention than the brain case. Yet the skull is the most truly distinctive bone structure of the human body. It is the skull that enables us to identify with skeletons from thousands of years past. Skulls speak to us as to the humanity represented by the structures of bone. Leg, arm and chest bones don't have any psychological impact on us, but the skull 'testifies to the reality of a former life'. The skull is the base upon which the face is built and the face may be said to be the bow of the human personality, the instrument through which the human personality is projected.

Indeed, there is a power and authenticity in the human skull. It exists long after -- sometimes millennia after -- the inert mass or dead flesh returns to its constituent elements. The skull encloses the brain, protects it and makes it possible for the brain to deal with the surrounding world.

The brain and the brain case, which is a different structure, had to undergo simultaneous evolution, for the brain could not operate without its protective shell. It is interesting to consider that reproductive organs, for all their importance, are not shielded as the brain is shielded, and are vulnerable. The brain's wiring and blood vessels have been uniquely safeguarded by nature. The skull provides partial armoured protection for vision, hearing and smell, though not all mechanisms of speech.

Scientific studies sometimes proceed in strange ways. Enormous attention has been devoted to the movements of early peoples and to the tools developed. Yet relatively scanty attention has been paid to the bony structure that ensures the safety of neural and vascular components of the brain. To be sure, pondering the evolution of the brain and its protective shell is far more demanding than collecting and classifying bits of flint.

To date, science can't seem to address the question of why the Neanderthal brain had greater capacity than the brain of modern man. Everything in the human being arises from necessity. Then why did Neanderthal man develop a larger brain case? Was the protected brain within greater in cognitive capacity? It doesn't logically follow that the disappearance of Neanderthal man indicates a lesser breed, a non-competitive humanoid type. It may be that the Neanderthal groups became subject to a plague that swept them away or reduced their numbers to the point where the population could not be sustained. And why was the heavy protective ridge above the eyes discarded in the evolutionary process? There's nothing in the life experience of Homo Sapiens to suggest that the need for such protection, such bodily armour, diminished as Homo Sapiens emerged. Physical combat is a constant of Homo Sapiens' life experience down to our own day, with on-going brutalization in human contacts. Another question, albeit a much more basic one, is why the eye sockets of females are much larger than those of males? A larger eye socket suggests a much more powerful mechanism of vision.

Some of the questions regarding the human structure are at least quasi-metaphysical in character. For example, how did the skull come into being? Did the evolving brain will the skull and cause the constituent elements to fuse into a protective shell? That is a question as much for philosophers as scientists. It strikes this writer as inconceivable that the brain and its supporting structures and chemistry were the result of an accident. …

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