Skip to main content

Freaks of Nature – Mark S. Blumberg ***

This is an interesting book to set alongside Armand Leroi’s remarkable book Mutants. As a pure reading experience, Mutants is without doubt streets ahead. Leroi’s style is much more readable and engaging, where Blumberg tends to the pompous and resorts to academic pronouncement. However he does have a good criticism of the dependence of Mutants on a genetic basis for unusual physical formation in animals and humans. After all, as Blumberg points out, human beings have produced quite dramatic variants through environmental pressures – head and foot binding, for instance. Development is as important to the production of freaks of nature as is the genetic material and its flaws.
That said, Mutants is, not surprisingly, about, well, mutants – so it’s hardly surprising that this is the main thrust of Leroi’s story. But the distinction does give Blumberg a broader canvas to work with. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is Blumberg’s stress on the way animals develop over and above pure genetic shaping of evolution. It gives some interesting insights into the nature of species and variation. We see just what a delicate process the development process is – and how those who have not formed along normal lines have developed mechanisms to cope.
The blurb on the back calls this book ‘beautifully written’ and calls Blumberg a ‘scientist-writer who can sweep us along’ – I’m afraid I couldn’t warm to this book, but do recognize it has an important message for those who see everything as written in the genes.

Hardback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Patricia Fara - Four Way Interview

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She was the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes. She also contributes articles and reviews to many popular magazines and journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary SupplementHer new book is Erasmus Darwin.

Why history of science?
I read physics at university, but half-way through the course I realised that had been a big mistake. Although I relished the intellectual challenge, I was bored by the long hours spent lining up recalcitrant instruments in dusty laboratories. Why was nobody encouraging us to think about the big questions – What is gravity? Does quantum mechani…

The Idea of the Brain: Matthew Cobb *****

Matthew Cobb is one of those people that you can’t help but admire but also secretly hate just a little bit for being so awesome. He is professor for zoology at the University of Manchester with a sizable teaching load that he apparently masters with consummate skill. He’s a scientific researcher, who researches the sense of smell of fruit fly maggots; I kid you not!  He’s also an attentive and loving family father but he still finds time and energy to write brilliant history of science books, three to date. His first, The Egg and Sperm Race, describes the search for the secret of human reproduction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and is one of my favourite history of science books, on the period. His second, Life’s Greatest Secret is a monster, both in scope and detail, description of the hunt to decipher the structure and function of DNA that along the way demolishes a whole boatload of modern history of science myths. The most recent, and the subject of this review, is

The Big Ideas in Science - Jon Evans ***

The starting point of a review like this has to be to congratulate the author on his achievement, Jon Evans, because getting all of science into one relatively short book is a massive (and thankless) task. Although inevitably the result is a fairly hectic dash through the material, with limited space for subtleness, Evans manages to make the experience readable and has a light touch that is effective without becoming too simplistic.

There is only one reason this book doesn't get four stars - it's not the quality of the writing but rather the selection of the contents. Of course, there is bound to be plenty of stuff missed out - how else could you get all of science into 269 pages? But the balance is strangely skewed. Chemistry is pretty much omitted, though aspects of chemistry occur under other headings. But for me, the real problem is that physics is really under-represented. It's interesting to use Jim Al-Khalili's recent excellent physics summary title The World Acc…