Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of The Human Form

Sims, Michael

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

  • Date of entry: Dec-06-2006
  • Last revised: Dec-05-2006


Sims sees his book in the tradition of blazons anatomiques, “poetic tributes to the individual parts of the female body” originating in France in the mid-sixteeenth century. He adds, of course, men, including Adam. Working from head to toe, Sims assembles a very wide variety of scientific facts, cultural perceptions, and representations of the human body by artists, writers, and scientists.

Sims sticks to the outside of the body—no internal organs, nor, it follows, no sense of the integrated body. After a brief Overture (on skin), Part One, Headquarters, treats hair, face, eye, ear, nose, and smile (mouth). Part Two, The Weight of the World, discusses arms, hands, breasts, and the navel. Part Three, “A Leg to Stand On” (but no mention of Oliver Sacks), deals with “Privy Members” (the genitals), the buttocks, legs, and feet. There is no concluding chapter.

Sims draws on sources as diverse as Greek myth, Darwin, Lombroso, French painters, movies, popular culture, Jane Goodall’s chimps, the Bible, feminist writers, William Blake, etymologies, anthropologists, and modern science writers. There are some references to Native American cultures, Africa, and the East, but he stays mostly in the Western tradition.

Chapter 8, “The Monkey’s Paw,” is a good example of Sims's method. He discusses (in this order) handshakes, carpal tunnel problems, Michelangelo’s God and Adam on the Sistine ceiling, the “phalangeal formula” of handbones in mammals, Jesus’s crucifixion, Robert Schumann’s hand troubles, the importance of the thumb for humans, fingerprints, palmistry, and handedness (Ben Franklin was left-handed) and more in 40 pages. The interesting facts keep coming, but there is no basic theme or concluding overview.


The range of information and insights is both impressive and pleasurable. This is an enjoyable and informative book.

The subtitle “A Natural and Cultural History” over-reaches itself, however, since the book doesn’t provide histories of either sort, rather a large number of facts and observations collected around each topic. While there is plenty of interesting data, the narrative, development, and causation we find in histories is not here. There is a lack of overview, synthesis, and interpretation that would make each section an essay or give the book as a whole a thesis.

Since the book stays with parts of the body, especially as externally viewed or as operationally used, there is a somewhat mechanical sense of the parts, as if Descartes’ mind/body dualism were a given. Indeed the notion of the “Human Form” in the subtitle is indicative, since we don’t find the biochemistry, the neurology, the psychology, in short, the energies that give human life to the form.


There are additional pages of index and acknowledgments.



Place Published

New York



Page Count