Friday, 3 February 2012

Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

Winner of the Guardian First Book Award 2004

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This is a book about Siamese twins, people with extra digits, cyclops, dwarves, hermaphrodites, giants, and a pig with two faces. It was accompanied by a Channel 4 documentary when first published. Already you might have formed some impression of this book, but you might be surprised to learn it is a sensitive book that doesn’t treat its subject matter like carnival freaks—though many of the characters in the book were in carnivals. Instead, the book deals with dignity with its themes to show how important mutations are for all of us. In Leroi’s words, “We are all mutants. But some of us are more mutant than others.” In fact, you probably have about 100 mutations that were not given to you by your parents. But which ones did you get?

Armand Marie Leroi lectures in evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, London. The mutants in the book result from abnormal developmental processes and Leroi is well-placed to tell us about them. With mutations as the excuse, Leroi describes the processes of development in an accessible way, both what normally happens, and what can go wrong. By understanding why people can end up so differently, we understand something important about us all: the value of all that variability. You will get a fundamental understanding of developmental biology from embryo to old age. How does the embryo organise itself into all those different bits and pieces, at all the right times? How does your body know when it is time to get old? I was left impressed with the ability of these phenomenally complex processes to produce human beings mostly to plan so often. It is amazing, and well worth reading about.

Not surprisingly, you will read things that will shock you. Every now and again, I found myself pausing to take in what I had just read. For example, that "a Dutch child born in 1995 had the remains of 21 foetuses (as determined by leg count) embedded in its brain" or the experiments of Josef Mengele on a family of Jewish dwarves in a Nazi concentration camp. But these things are not there merely to shock you—they really do belong in the book and, if anything, point up the sensitivity of the issues being explored. Most of the people are historical, which does add some poignancy: they were not always treated well. Do we do any better these days? I think so, but we still have further to go.

I loved the writing style of this book. There is a beauty to the descriptions, and you get an odd combination of fascination and appreciation—especially odd considering the gruesome nature of most of the book. Gruesome though the subject matter is, Leroi’s book seems to soar effortlessly above the murk. Of course, that effortlessness is the result of superb writing skills and a genuine respect for the subject matter. The book is better than the TV series—but once you’ve read the book you might want to seek out the series, since the video footage can help you visualise better what goes on during development.

Read this book! (And leave a comment here telling us what you thought about it.)

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