I’ve known Carol Ann Rinzler for a long time, but as an advocate for community-based planning and for green space. It was only two years ago that I discovered her writing talents when I read Leonardo’s Foot – a book that is but one of more than twenty she’s written on the subject of human health (including Nutrition for Dummies).
This year she published Spare Parts , a look at several of so-called “vestigial” organs, along with many interesting detours along the way – from the Chinchorro of South America, who were mummifying their dead some 4,000 years before the Egyptians, to a romp through depictions of “future man” in film and literature, starting with Jules Verne’s 1865 novel, From the Earth to the Moon. After having read the book, I decided to interview Carol to find out more about her interest in this field and how she came to develop this specialty.
Liz: What drew you to medical topics?
Carol: Paul de Kruif, the 1930s/40s medical writer who covered such fascinating moments as the discovery of what caused pellagra. His books were on my parents’ bookshelves and in my hand every day after school. I had thought about medical school, which was why I went to Mt. Holyoke which, in my day, was the women’s science school. But I realized I was a better observer than an actor and chose to write about medicine rather than practice it.
Liz: Why the topic of vestigial organs?
Carol: I like writing about body parts (one of my books, Leonardo’s Foot, tells how the foot, not the brain, fueled our rise up the evolutionary ladder). The appendix was just starting to be recognized as part of the immune system, so I picked up on that right away.
Liz: How long did it take you to write this book?
Carol: Two years: one to think, one to write.
Liz: Tell me about how you researched it.
Carol: In my own library and on the Net, across borders – it is amazing to send a question to a professor in Italy and have an answer within hours.
Liz: In what way(s) is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
Carol: My editor encouraged me to expand it from a book on the appendix to a book on the Darwin Six: appendix, wisdom teeth, coccyx (tailbone), external ear muscles, body hair, and plica semilunaris conjunctive (third eyelid). He was right.
Liz: Was there anything you were surprised to learn as you researched this book?
Carol: That life may have originated on land, not in the sea, with the Ediacaran biota posited by University of Oregon paleontologist Greg Retallack.
Liz: Was there anything you were pretty sure of that was confirmed by your research?
Carol: That we are not unique. And that while Darwin was unquestionably a genius and clearly right on evolution, lacking our modern technology and biochemistry, he could not see inside the body nor could he truly evaluate processes such as immunology and the immune system. I have no doubt at all that, were he living today, he would agree that the “vestigals” are integral parts of a fully functional human body. Evolution deniers aside, as one of my favorite doctors says, “The human body is so marvelous that nothing is there by accident”.
Liz: Let’s talk for a second about your fascination with Leonardo and Darwin, and why you come back to them all the time.
Carol: The fact that you’re asking is interesting because you have just made me realize that there is a connection: Leonardo’s drawing of the Vitruvian Man showing a perfectly proportioned human male, along with his dissection of the body, done mostly in secret because the Church forbid it, led me to Darwin. Leonardo showed the body. Darwin took it apart and explained how we got here, how Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man evolved. So they were two sides of the same coin, and I hadn’t realized it until you asked it how connected they were. I have to find the third person in the triad because there must be someone who ties these two together. Leonardo was 15th century and Darwin was 19th century, so what we’re really looking for is someone at the end of the 20th or the beginning of the 21st century who’s gone a step further, and tied the multiple functions of the body together. And if you find him or her, you must call me and tell me.
Liz: What’s the next book going to be about?
Carol: Sorry, it’s a secret.