August 1, 2002
|Prime Mover: A Natural History
By Steven Vogel
Norton Press, 2001.
370 pages, $12.95.
uscles are big in America. They are our peacock's tail: One flash of a bulging bicep signals well-being, sexual prowess, success. We are terribly aware of that fact. We take "natural" supplements that make us unnaturally bulky; we fuel an entire genre of trash magazines devoted to body-building; we wring our hands over rising steroid use in teenage boys and pro athletes--they're wrecking their health to look healthy!--while implicitly endorsing the end product through Madison Avenue. Tobey Maguire notwithstanding, we like our heroes ripped. Not just the men, either. Waifs used to be fashionable, but today's Lara Crofts and Charlie's Angels could crush them in one hand. These days, "scrawny" is a serious epithet. And don't even mention "weak."
For all our obsession, for all the pseudoscientific jargon we like to throw around at the health club, Americans as a rule know very little about what muscles are, or how they work, or why. We only know how to make them bigger. In Prime Mover: A Natural History of Muscle, James B. Duke Professor of biology Steven Vogel tells a story that neatly makes the point. While teaching a course for adult nonscientists on biomechanics, Vogel decided to use a leg of lamb for demonstration. He was halfway through the dissection when one of his students, a highly appointed local computer exec, got that look on his face--the one educators live for, the one that says Ohhh! "I paused for some comment on the subtle biomechanical role of the kneecap," Vogel writes. "Instead what I heard was 'Muscle--you mean that that's what meat is?' " Ohhh.
That fellow is probably not in the target audience for Vogel's book. But he ought to be. The statement "muscles are big" is far truer than he realizes. Muscle is, as the title says, the prime mover of human history. It is our engine and our fuel; it is literally the beating heart of society. It is much, much more than a big bicep. That's the funny thing: If science and not pseudoscience were king, the muscle craze would be even more intense than it is.
Prime Mover is a glorious testament to that fact. It's probably too much to expect most gym rats to take the hour they usually spend lifting/running/Pilates-ing every day and read this book instead for two weeks. But one can hope. Vogel's last book, Cats' Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People, won him this laurel from The New York Times: "One gets over envying youth in general, but one cannot help hoping that students at Duke University appreciate the fact that their faculty includes two of the finest explainers working in the United States: Steven Vogel, whose books previous to Cats' Paws and Catapults include Life's Devices, and Henry Petroski, best known for Pencil and Engineers of Dreams." This is a book that could easily find its way onto the shelf next to those instant classics.
The one small problem is that this is also a book that, at first, teeters on the edge of inscrutability. This is not surprising in a science book, but who knows how nonscientist readers will react? Beach reading it's not. Still, like all great explainers of science, Vogel has a gift for metaphor, and in the chapter "How Muscle Works," he wields one that almost negates all need for understanding the more subtle submicroscopic processes at work. Noting that muscle components actin and myosin don't actually contract, he writes, "instead contraction comes from interdigitation of myosin and actin, as you might do by sliding the fingers of one hand between the fingers of the other." Ohhh!
The next chapter, "And How We Found Out," is where the book really gets under way. Rich in detail and clean in explanation, it shows off Vogel's obvious and contagious delight in tripping through the history of science, from Aristotle, who "got so little right that one suspects mere accident when he was on target," to continental drift. Here Vogel has something in common with the late Stephen Jay Gould (and an even better grasp of his field to boot)--a wide sweep of knowledge and the ability to connect seemingly unrelated dots across it. The rest of the book continues in the same fashion, effortlessly blending the sort of diagrams you'd only see in class with the sort of historical tidbits you'd only see on Trivial Pursuit cards. It works. It's fascinating.
As Vogel hits the home stretch, it becomes clear that this book is not about muscle-building or anatomy or even pure biology. It is about limitations. It is an elegant argument for the fact that "biology underpins the human world," and it is accomplished without provoking any "antisociobiological brickbats." Like Cats' Paws and Catapults, perhaps more so, it has a Big Message to convey.
The Message is this: Science is the real world. Muscle-builders want to be bigger, faster, stronger, but they are constrained by biology. So, too, is society, and it will never be bigger, faster, stronger unless it takes biology into account. Not the sort of idea generally featured in muscle mags, but one far more worth reading--even for those of us without gym memberships.
Carmichael '01 is a science reporter for Newsweek magazine.