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


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 ...
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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: 9780195322828
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/13/2008
  • Pages: 344
  • Product dimensions: 5.60 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.10 (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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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 15, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Worth reading and contemplating seriously.

    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. <BR/><BR/><BR/>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. <BR/><BR/><BR/>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.<BR/><BR/><BR/>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.

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