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Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution

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In most respects, Abigail and Brittany Hensel are normal American twins. Born and raised in a small town, they enjoy a close relationship, though each has her own tastes and personality. But the Hensels also share a body. Their two heads sit side-by-side on a single torso, with two arms and two legs. They have not only survived, but have developed into athletic, graceful young women. And that, writes Mark S. Blumberg, opens an extraordinary window onto human development and evolution.

In Freaks of Nature, Blumberg turns a scientist's eye on the oddities of nature, showing how a subject once relegated to the sideshow can help explain some of the deepest complexities of biology. Why, for example, does a two-headed human so resemble a two-headed minnow? What we need to understand, Blumberg argues, is that anomalies are the natural products of development, and it is through developmental mechanisms that evolution works. Freaks of Nature induces a kind of intellectual vertigo as it upends our intuitive understanding of biology. What really is an anomaly? Why is a limbless human a "freak," but a limbless reptile-a snake-a successful variation?

What we see as deformities, Blumberg writes, are merely alternative paths for development, which challenge both the creature itself and our ability to fit it into our familiar categories. Rather than mere dead-ends, many anomalies prove surprisingly survivable-as in the case of the goat without forelimbs that learned to walk upright. Blumberg explains how such variations occur, and points to the success of the Hensel sisters and the goat as examples of the extraordinary flexibility inherent in individual development.

In taking seriously a subject that has often been shunned as discomfiting and embarrassing, Mark Blumberg sheds new light on how individuals-and entire species-develop, survive, and evolve.

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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Kerby C. Oberg, MD, PhD (Loma Linda University)
Description: The author sets out to debunk the concept of malformation as an error of nature using examples of biologic diversity in comparison with anomalies. Along this journey he is an equal opportunity offender, challenging the concept of a heavenly creator of monstrosities and the Darwinian notion that monstrosities are accidents of development, and not part of the evolutionary continuum.
Purpose: The book attempts to widen readers' perspectives of development and evolution using anomalies as the leverage. The author states that anomalies are "indispensable break the spell of designer thinking." To encourage readers to reconsider the archetypes of ideal by focusing on anomalies is worthwhile and well done. Attacks on designer thinking or Darwinian evolution are less compelling.
Audience: This is written for anyone with an interest in science and biology. The author is a developmental psychobiologist, although not a recognized authority in the field of zoology, developmental biology, or teratology, and does a credible job comparing species variations and anomalies.
Features: He sets the stage with some history on teratology, then focuses on the overlap between malformations, variation, and differences between species. The coverage of topics is broad and intermixes general biology, evolutionary biology, and developmental biology with the field of teratology. For example, he describes the similarity or progression between the development of elephants with a trunk and the development of cyclopia with a proboscis. He uses movement and limb differences to bolster a case for malformations being part of the spectrum of development rather than its disruption. He also tackles the sexual continuum and the plethora of biologic approaches used in nature to reproduce — to summarize, expect ambiguity. The epilogue challenges readers to recognize that we all could fit the definition of a freak or monster; thus, rather than testaments of developmental errors, malformations inform us of our incredible diversity.
Assessment: This book offers a unique perspective, challenging our view of science, evolution, and social archetypes by examining the nature of malformations. It would be a worthwhile addition to the library of students and scholars alike.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199736188
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Blumberg is Professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. The author of two books and more than eighty journal articles and chapters on a wide variety of subjects, he currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience and as President of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: A PARLIAMENT OF MONSTERS: On the breadth and scope of developmental anomalies
Chapter 2: ARRESTING FEATURES: Development is all about time
Chapter 3: DO THE LOCOMOTION: How we learn to move our bodies
Chapter 4: LIFE AND LIMB: How limbs are made, lost, replaced, and transformed
Chapter 5: ANYTHING GOES: When it comes to sex, expect ambiguity
EPILOGUE: MONSTROUS BEHAVIOR: We still have much to learn from the odd and unusual
Sources and Suggested Reading

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