COLUMN – Anatomy destroys more than you like – EN


Anatomy has become a dominant mindset, which has already provided us with much insight and convenience, but which is now breaking down and undermining our life, living together and letting the planet live .

Jaap van der Wal, anatomist (so he should know …!)

Help, everything anatomizes, including our society.

Anatomy destroys more than you love. For more than 20 years this has been a slogan with which I address researchers of human posture and movement and fascia on behalf of my former colleagues at Maastricht University. Because especially in circles of fascia research, surely (hopefully) it is becoming more and more clear that the anatomical approach of the human body in general and of the human posture and movement apparatus in particular is absolutely inadequate. The muscle man, as Vesalius showed us at the time as the first modern anatomist, is in fact an artifact. The differentiation of muscles and also of other structures and organs in the human body too often rests on an artificial and literal separation from each other. Indeed, that is the core of the anatomist’s method, namely dissection, that is dissecting, taking apart, to make the distinction. How often did I also encourage my students in the (para)medical schools where I served as a teacher of anatomy, during the many dissection practicals I led, to “clean” the organs and muscles above all. Cleaning, that meant in the case of muscles, for example, that they were stripped or to be stripped of their connective tissue envelope. Connective tissue that connected certain muscles (for example, so-called intramuscular baffles) was also prepared away so that the muscles were made visible as individual anatomical parts. And will they continue to be represented in anatomical atlases, as discrete separate units. Essentially, this is the core of the anatomical method, separating them from each other to distinguish. This also ignores any continuity in between muscles and organs. And on this basis, it also created the misconception that I, as an anatomy teacher, then had to teach students that the body is made up of the parts in which the anatomist with the knife just so briefly analyzed the body. Anatomizing as a mindset. The first modern anatomists started it in the 16th and 17th centuries. But the method of breaking down a whole into its parts in order to then be able to construct a whole again from the parts per the approach in many more branches of science. And so the anatomical mindset that has in fact become the most basic fundamental attitude in science does much more harm.

For what disappears before the anatomist’s knife is coherence. And coherence is the whole. Now there is nothing against that, if in a human body, for example, one wants to distinguish parts from each other. This is actually a healthy form of reductionism. To cut and differentiate the large object or problem to be studied into smaller units, and to finalize the large problem subproblem by subproblem and then explain the whole from those parts. The recently deceased philosopher Daniel Dennet called this “good reductionism.” A problem can be too big in its entirety to grasp and understand, and so one reduces the problem to parts and partial problems. And we as modern humans have become so familiar with this approach that for decades as that same anatomy teacher, I never got any comments from the students as I and then learned that an organism, they also the human body, is made up of parts. Because a musculoskeletal system consists of bones, joints with ligaments and muscles. Of course, a more functional approach to the movement system added the nervous system: no movements act without control from the nervous system or brain. And yet that propagated idea that the body is the product of its parts, and once was neither correct nor true. I have been “fortunate,” so to speak, to have also been trained as an embryologist. Any embryo of any organism, makes it abundantly clear that the notion that organisms are composed of their parts (including their cells!) is absolutely not an observation but a thought realized in anatomical dissection. The fundamental reality of all living organisms is that the body (i.e., the actual organism) is the whole (and thus the fundamental unity of living nature. And therefore not cells or organs!) that “then” series for practical reasons of organization differentiates into parts. And embryo is not composed of cells and embryo differentiates itself will orchestrate cells into tissues and organs. But in the applied anatomy of movement, for example, the anatomical mindset has become dominant. In fact, in science, and not just biology, we fall every time into the wrong mindset so into Dennet’s, in my opinion, wrong reductionism.

However, the mindset of anatomical analysis proved successful because that way we can gain insight into sub-problems and along that path we can try to explain the whole from parts. Breaking matter apart into molecules, Anatoms, electrons and so on and so forth down to the very smallest quarks yields understanding and explanation and even applications. And if it works, surely the reflex with many people is, then it must be true. Yet at all levels of science (from quantum physics and microbiology to biology and sociology) we are confronted with the question of coherence. So what holds it together, what takes charge and orchestrates? Over the last 25 years, I think I have seen all around me, at every possible level and domain of science and society and nature, that the anatomical mindset is doing a lot of harm. The atomizing, the anatomizing the thinking of whole into parts has simply become second nature to almost all of us. But that does mean the creation of a second (secondary) reality, which, however, is corrupt relative to the primary reality in which the undivided, the wholeness of the organism, for example, is the primary fact. What then is it that brings those parts together or holds them together into a whole? In the field of fascia that I have also been a part of for the last 15 years, really my the connection at the fascia: that is the organ, the tissue, that “holds everything together.” In physics, because of the absence, at this super-nanon level, of something as connective to us as gravity, note was postulated a field and an associated particle (Higs boson) that extended mass to all other particles.

And so I see this “anatomical view,” this analytical mindset now doing damage everywhere and creating incoherence. Everywhere the whole, the coherence, is disappearing. Anatomizing is taking hold in the social as well. The excessive egoism and self-centeredness that is undermining our social structure these days anyway is another painful example that the whole does not function by the grace of its parts but that the parts when you let them take on a life of their own , always undermine the whole. In society, perceiving that as the ever-increasing disintegration of our society into sub-sub-groups, niches of like-minded people and ultimately on the individual ego and it becomes harder and harder to be community anymore. And so “anatomy destroys more than you love.” It is always the whole that ruins the anatomical-analytical approach. The only answer in the sense of restoration is, of course, wholeness. The holistic view is the mindset that can heal the fragmented reality again.

Once you catch sight of the ubiquitous atomizing and anatomizing of reality, there seems to be a pandemic in our thinking. It strikes everywhere. For example, I read reports in a Dutch newspaper about the mental health of young people. Some conclusions: social media are often precisely an anti-social and divisive trend, are precisely not connecting, the terror of hyperindividualism. What seriously shocked me was the following (note, it’s about the situation in the Netherlands. Thanks to columnist Aleid Truijens of De Volkskrant, May 6, 2024). Among young people under 30, suicide is now the most common cause of death. Among those in their twenties who died from 2020 through 2023, 31 percent died by suicide. In 1970, the figure was 9 percent. Suicide is also now more often the cause of death among teenagers. Of teens who died in 2022, 20 percent died of suicide; more often than from traffic accidents or illness. Of teens who died in 1970, suicide was the cause of death in less than 3 percent.

“Youth suicide. The tragedy of an atomized-and-anatomized society? These are frightening statistics. A teenager or young person ending their own life, it couldn’t be sadder. Did they think it was better that they weren’t there? That no one was waiting for them. No one could convince them otherwise. To their parents they dared not tell how lonely they were. Those friends, they weren’t there. In a period that is talked about as “the best of your life,” everything is inky black. That makes it worse, that duty to pursue carefree pleasure. Whoever does not spontaneously enjoy and have a top life fails. Nowadays everything is possible, but you run the risk of always choosing the wrong thing. You don’t eat together in the mensa, but a takeaway by yourself. You are not in a sports club but have a gym membership. You don’t live in a student flat but in a studio, or with your parents. You rarely flirt in the pub, you swipe photos. You have hundreds of friends online and you rarely see any of them”.

Loneliness is the one of the main manifestations of social anatomizing and, atomizing. It is the pathology of self-centeredness. Never thought that what I started observing in the cutting room would become another insight with which I can at least make sense of a lot of what goes wrong in our nature and society today. Whether that is enough to prevent it remains to be seen. In a subsequent essay, I will talk about how, at the time, I discovered with my students in that same cutting room what you need to supplement to heal from anatomical part-thinking.