Friday, 30 July 2004

Mutants – Armand Leroi *****

A freak show. It’s not a nice term – not a nice concept, but something that has the terrible ability to fascinate at the same time as it horrifies.
This is a subject where academic detachment is inconceivable. The whole concept of being entertained by the deformed is so disgusting (and so appealing to many) that it would seem a good popular science book on the subject of human mutation is practically impossible. Yet Armand Leroi has achieved it.
It’s hard to believe that the accompanying TV series can manage this so well. However good Leroi’s intentions, TV can’t help but turn this topic into prurient viewing. And it doesn’t help that in the UK that the next programme in the broadcaster’s schedule is Big Brother – a show that is totally dependent on the voyeuristic enjoyment of the human condition and suffering of others. (A recent example of this was when the occupants of the Big Brother house had to sit on a roundabout that was spun until they vomited.) Arguably the TV version of Mutants should never have been made. But – an immense but – the book manages to walk the tightrope superbly.
Perhaps it would have been even better to emphasize this distinction without the illustrations, but that apart, the distancing brought by the printed word makes it possible to deal with this delicate topic with real humanity. What Leroi’s book is about is not the horrified delight of the peep show, nor the opportunistic exhibition of the likes of Joseph Merrick, but the biological causes of human mutation and the lessons we can learn about the way we are all put together. And it is remarkably brilliant at doing this.
Reading Leroi’s description of the minute complexities of our gradual construction in the womb, what is remarkable is not that there are mutants, but there are so few. Or at least seemingly so – for as Leroi points out we are all mutants, it’s just that some are more mutated than others.
If your idea of what mutants are is formed from watching the movie X-Men, it’s time for a radical re-think. We all know, as the portentous X-Men voiceover tells us, that mutation is an essential. Without it there would have been no evolution of the human race. But Leroi shows us both mutation’s dark side – the sad but essential cost of being able to develop in this way – and the lessons that modern biologists can learn, both from natural mutation and from the experimental modification (in animals, not humans) of genetic material. These experiments themselves can seem distastefully gruesome – but the balance of knowledge is one we have to weigh carefully.
If you had any doubt about getting this book because of the “freak factor” – and I have to confess I did – put that concern aside. Leroi is not a modern-day sideshow huckster, encouraging you in to see the two-headed calf and the bearded lady. Instead he brilliantly (and most of all, humanely and very readably) lays bare the realities of our human development. Highly recommended.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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