REVIEW: Bones: Inside and Out by Roy A. Meals, MD
A lively, illustrated exploration of the 500-million-year history of bone, a touchstone for understanding vertebrate life and human culture.
Human bone is versatile and entirely unique: it repairs itself without scarring, it’s lightweight but responds to stresses, and it’s durable enough to survive for millennia. In Bones, orthopedic surgeon Roy A. Meals explores and extols this amazing material that both supports and records vertebrate life.
Inside the body, bone proves itself the world’s best building material. Meals examines the biological makeup of bones; demystifies how they grow, break, and heal; and compares the particulars of human bone to variations throughout the animal kingdom. In engaging and clear prose, he debunks familiar myths—humans don’t have exactly 206 bones—and illustrates common bone diseases, like osteoporosis and arthritis, and their treatments. Along the way, he highlights the medical innovations—from the first X-rays to advanced operative techniques—that enhance our lives and introduces the giants of orthopedic surgery who developed them.
After it has supported vertebrate life, bone reveals itself in surprising ways—sometimes hundreds of millions of years later. With enthusiasm and humor, Meals investigates the diverse roles bone has played in human culture throughout history. He highlights allusions to bone in religion and literature, from Adam’s rib to Hamlet’s skull, and uncovers its enduring presence as fossils, technological tools, and musical instruments ranging from the Tibetan thighbone kangling horn to everyday drumsticks. From the dawn of civilization through to the present day, humankind has repurposed bone to serve and protect, and even to teach, amuse, and inspire.
Approachable and entertaining, Bones richly illuminates our bodies’ essential framework.
Pay attention to the title because that’s what you’re going to get. And yet, it’s amazing stuff. Dr. Meals, a practicing orthopedic hand surgeon for over forty years has put together a comprehensive book about all facets of that substance which holds us all up, repairs itself far better than any other parts of our body, serves as a repository for calcium- should our diva cardiac muscle need a boost – but which also helps tell the tale of our distant past, our evolution, our cultural changes, and then from way back reveals animal life that predates us by hundreds of millions of years. Let me tell you, I was geeking out while reading this.
Dr. Meals covers the medical aspects of our skeleton from the origin of the Latin names (foramen magnum sounds all fancy schmancy but all it means is big hole), to how bone structure makes it able to bear weight, how it repairs itself (and I had to imagine our cone cutters, osteoblasts, and osteoclasts with little hard hats), and ways that are used to repair it and visualize it. He talks about what goes into the training to be an orthopedic surgeon (complete with all the jokes both for and against surgeons) and some of the amazing advances made by titans of the field. It’s not just a male dominated specialty any more as more and more women are joining the ranks.
Then, when I was on an information high from all that, came the outside view of bones. Fossils anyone? Showing us the prehistoric world? But wait, there’s more! Meals discusses the earliest known burial complete with grave goods (~100,000 years ago in Israel) which gives us a good idea of our social evolutionary history. The change in attitudes about collection and display of skeletal remains (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) and the various ways our collective ancestors buried their dead plus what they did when they ran out of room (Roman and Parisian catacombs). There are sections on what we’ve made out of bone (and how to tell the difference between bone objects and ivory objects to help you not encourage poaching animals).
Meals has an informative yet accessible style of presentation. He simplifies complex medical stuff without making too obvious or sounding dumbed down but also makes it fascinating. There are also little tidbits of trivia mixed in (such as the origin of “lucky break”). The man obviously loves his subject and job then makes it interesting to the layperson. I had fun reading this one. B+
These are immortal bones’ great stories. Protein chains linked to one another and coated with calcium crystals form a unique substance that supports advanced animal forms. When alive, with few exceptions, bone remains concealed. In its second life, bone reveals much about Earth’s history and human activity. It is both an inheritance and a legacy. Bone is the world’s best building material. It always has been. It always will be.