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

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

4.0 2
by Mark S. Blumberg

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,


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.

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.
From the Publisher
"Freaks of Nature examines various kinds of disfigurement that occur in both human beings and animals, includes diagrams and photographs, and questions our assumptions about the abnormally developed...Blumberg urges us to consider how our ideas of what is natural can and should expand to include the anomalies among us."—The Chronicle Review

"With well-picked examples, Blumberg constructs his at first peculiar, but ultimately profound, argument ...Startlingly convincing...." — Elizabeth Quill, Science News

"When people come to the Mütter Museum 'to see the freaks' I cringe inwardly, smile outwardly and generally say nothing at all. I have found over the years that the inhabitants of this remarkable place say far more than I ever could. Whatever the reason for visiting the museum — fascination, repulsion, even derision — people tend to leave more informed and perhaps even more aware than when they arrive. And that is exactly how I felt after reading this book."—Anna N. Dhody, Curator of the Mütter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in The Scientist

"Timely and wide-ranging." —New Scientist

"[Freaks of Nature] is a highly readable, entertaining, and informative introduction to the science and culture connected with freaks and monsters. For each of these 'freaks,' Blumberg offers a highly informative account of the developmental basis of their condition."—Science

"Eminent neuroscientist Blumberg offers a strangely poetic analysis of new theories of evolution.... If you're interested in the science behind the macabre, this book will thrill you. It's also a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about a cutting-edge area of evolutionary theory." —Annalee Newitz,

"I really liked the book, very readable science, and full of interesting facts and eye-openers...Highly recommended."—Neurotopia

"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."—Doody's Health Sciences Review, a 4-star review!

"Blumberg is a developmental psychobiologist, and thus advocates for a more supple understanding of the interplay between development, behavior, and evolution than has usually been accepted. He eloquently defends the view that "development is the story of adaptation within one lifetime," and that thinking seriously about anomalies helps us see "how much adaptability there is in the developing organism." — Jason B. Jones, Boldtype

"Mark Blumberg's beautifully written book introduces some major problems in both developmental and evolutionary biology. Individuals can sometimes develop in astonishingly aberrant ways. These freaks of nature challenge the way we think about development and, over the years, have caused some biologists to wonder whether the formation of new species is always as continuous as orthodox theories of evolution purpose."—Sir Patrick Bateson, Emeritus Professor of Ethology, University of Cambridge

"Mark Blumberg is a freak of literature—one of the very few scientist-writers (think Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sacks) who can sweep us along as they try to figure out how the exceptions in the species can prove the rule of who we all are. In Freaks of Nature, the specimens are certainly riveting, but its also Blumberg's lucid, lyrical, profound insights into what it means to be human that will stay with the reader."—Richard Panek, author of Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens and The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes

"By presenting a parade of animal freaks mutants, developmental anomalies and weird species Blumberg imparts lessons that, although familiar to biologists, will be valuable to non-specialists. He emphasizes that the complex process of development can be unraveled by understanding how such anomalies are produced...Blumberg illustrates his points with clear and intriguing examples... Blumberg's ambitions transcend storytelling: he aims to show that developmental biology has made real contributions to evolutionary theory."—Jerry A. Coyne, Nature

"Blumberg takes us on a tour of real-life teratology, and how understanding abnormalities is casting new light on the relationship between the genetic and non-genetic forces that shape us all."—Stephen Cass, Discover


"A stimulating read."—Financial Times

"Blumbergs explanations of the factors that go into [these] deformations are gripping." —Robert Colvile,

"Engrossing and interesting."— John Wilkins, Evolving Thoughts

" a book for the general public to learn about developmental plasticity, this is a good place to start... to be applauded."—Journal of Clinical Investigation

"[A]n...elegant effort.... All writers of popular natural history books will these days be compared to the late Stephen Jay Gould . . .but with Freaks of Nature a comparison seems apt . . ."—Jennie Erin Smith, Times Literary Supplement

Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

Meet the Author

Mark Blumberg is the F. Wendell Miller Professor of Psychology at the University of Iowa. He is the author of three books and one hundred journal articles and chapters on a wide variety of subjects, and is also a co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Behavioral Neuroscience. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience and was recently President of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
C_Harshaw More than 1 year ago
As in his previous book, Basic Instinct (also highly recommended), Blumberg does a remarkable job of translating a number of complex ideas into readily understandable prose. The relationship between development and evolution was a subject largely neglected in mainstream biology for much of the 20th century. The tide has begun to turn significantly only over the course of the last two decades--not enough time for the burgeoning science of epigenetics (molecular and molar) to have filtered into the general scientific and popular consciousness. Books like Blumberg's are thus badly needed.

In Freaks of Nature Blumberg presents a novel way of understanding the development and significance of "freaks"--those organisms who differ from the species-typical (or order-, family-, or genus-typical) norm in significant if not radical ways. Whether the freak be a cyclopean human fetus, a bipedal goat or rodent, an experimentally produced "unicorn," or a female hyena with freakishly enlarged sexual anatomy, Blumberg shows that there is a developmental logic to such anomalies. As numerous findings from modern epigenetics and developmental biology show, subtle differences in the timing of events during development (e.g., the separation of the tissues that eventually become the two fully formed eyes), many of them open or responsive to environmental perturbation, can result in a cascade of downstream effects, producing sometimes radically novel forms.

Many such novelties are simply not viable and thus never make it to the stage where scientists can study and others wonder at them. Other anomalies, like Johnny Eck, a man born with no legs who nonetheless managed to locomote with a high degree of fluidity and even gracefulness--using his hands--are not only viable but capable of thriving due to the high degree of plasticity inherent in the brain and nervous system. We are neither born with a knowledge of what our bodies will be like (for one, our bodies change throughout the lifespan, so we would have to be born with knowledge of infinitely many bodies) nor a knowledge of how to effectively and efficiently control them. This is the beauty of development and is why developmental processes have enormous implications for understanding not only ourselves as humans (we are, in important ways, freaks among the primates), but ourselves as individuals and moreover evolution as a whole.

Blumberg concludes his excellent book by introducing the possibility of two new fields of scientific investigation: terethology, or the study of the behavior of developmental anomalies (or "monsters"), and developmental neuroethology, a field that would seek to study comprehensively the behavior and neural development of "brains packaged in novel forms." In many ways such a field already exists or at least has seeds in modern developmental science (developmental neurobiology, neuroscience and psychobiology). It also reminiscent of the vision for the behavioral sciences held by the underappreciated psychologist and embryologist Zing-Yang Kuo: an integrative, interdisciplinary science that takes the experimental production and study of novel phenotypes (or neophenotypes) as central to an understanding of both developmental and evolutionary processes.