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A scientific and cultural history of blood.
on 16 June 2014
Unlike the organs of the body, heart, liver, etc., blood, the fluid that all these organs need to function, so guaranteeing our continued life, always had an air of mystery about it. This was true even after William Harvey's classic brutal experiment on a live dog in the seventeenth century showed the circulation of the blood around the body. We now know a huge amount about blood and the vast amount of important information about our bodies that can be obtained from it. Nevertheless, contrary to unambiguous scientific evidence, blood has continued to be ascribed almost mystical properties, which have been used to define important cultural concepts such as race and nationality, leading to definitions of kinship and citizenship. In extreme cases decisions about who lives and who dies have rested on such spurious blood distinctions. It is a supreme irony that the substance that unites everyone on the planet has been, and often still does, divide us in ways that often have tragic consequences.
In this excellent book, Lawrence Hill provides a scientific and social history of blood, a biography as he calls it, and discusses many areas where blood has played a central role in determining our actions and shaping our ideas about who we are. These range from discriminatory racial laws and customs based on mistaken beliefs about the nature of blood, to more mundane topics such as the use of `blood doping' to improve the performance of athletes. Examples both from real life and fiction are drawn from history as far back as the Old Testament all the way to modern times. The author himself is of `mixed race' and sometimes gives moving examples from his own experience.
This is a brilliant, original, provocative book full of interesting facts and ideas that along the way forces us to examine our own prejudices, particularly about the question of race. It is superbly written and well worth reading.