30 May 2010

book review: Freaks of Nature

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 9:32 pm by Andromeda

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

(I confess it’s a bit early for me to write a review — I’m on page 206 of 256 — but I have easily a post’s worth of thoughts.)

So, I really ought to like this book. It has science! Evolution! Embryology! Biological anomalies, oddities, curiosities galore! I’m a sucker for that. But, well, he keeps calling me a freak, and that predisposes me to be skeptical.

Anyway, it seems that what he’s doing is saying that a developmental perspective on biology calls into question the modern, gene-centric consensus on how evolution works. It’s really hard for me to evaluate that claim, because, while I think I understand more about basic evolutionary theory than J. Random Person, I don’t know anything about the state of the discourse among biologists these days. So a lot of it comes across as tilting at straw men. Maybe they’re real men, but as they’re present only by allusion to something I’m unfamiliar with, they may as well be concocted out of air to give him something to overcome…

He also (except in one brief example) simply does not address the heritability of the developmental properties he discusses. Again, not familiar with the modern in-field dialogue on evolution here, but when I think of evolution, I think of it as something that happens to populations and demands heritability, whereas his discussion of development seems (at least without an argument re heritability) to focus on individuals. Let a million glorious dead ends bloom, but the first question I asked about my daughter was how many fingers and toes she had, and it wasn’t the same number I had, yo. (Balance of probabilities is that my polydactyly is a developmental, not genetic, event, but I really couldn’t say.)

He’s also just, I think, entirely dismissed transsexuality as a valid condition, and that’s a line I am fundamentally not OK with people crossing. (And all in a page or two, at that!)

This is all too bad. He writes well and, as I said, the subject matter is intriguing.

You, perhaps, will like the book. My reasons for having major issues with it are…uncommon, to say the least. Chances are you don’t have a striking anatomical abnormality or multiple transsexual acquaintances, some of whom you knew before they came out. So maybe those aspects of the book don’t come to dominate it for you. But really, your library contains many, many other books. Why not get one of those?


  1. Liz said,

    Can’t say much about the book, but I see the best google ads on your blog…today’s is “S.pombe Diploid and Haploid
    Deletion mutant library and strains. Hundreds of new cell cycle genes.”

    I might have to get me some of them…

    • Andromeda said,

      Sweet! I don’t read it that way (duh 😉 so I have been totally missing out on this whole world of serendipity. Now part of me wants to optimize around baffling google ads…albeit not a very big part…

      (…you can *buy* those? Wild.)

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