You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Literary Review - Mutants: on the form, varieties & errors of the human body by Armand Marie Leroi

Aaah, big sigh of satisfaction. I've just finished reading a Most Wonderful book.

I came across Mutants: on the form, varieties & errors of the human body, by Armand Marie Leroi, quite randomly in the library catalogue while looking for something else entirely. Yes, I was struck by the title. The heading might suggest a science fiction or horror theme, but the subtitle and Dewey classification indicate a more scholarly scientific approach. I ordered it through the library, and when it came in, a short review printed on the front cover was the first sign of the literary and educational delights I was in for.

'An exquisitely life-enhancing book... Read it and marvel' - Peter Little, Nature.

I will digress at this point with a little note on the topic of critical reviews printed on the covers, front or back, of books I am considering reading. Generally, I just don't like it. I've found, through experience, that the cover reviews are often meaningless or misleading, and just not a good way to find out anything about the book itself. So I take such comments with grain of salt and if I find myself paying too much attention to them, I remind myself to STOP THAT IMMEDIATELY and look inside the book for a better idea of its actual content - perhaps an introduction, or table of contents, or index of topics. It seems to me that if I were to have a book published, I would prefer not to have what other people think about it printed on the cover.

This book stands out for me by virtue of an unusual quality - it has excellent critical reviews on the covers. They already capture, so precisely and succinctly, exactly how I would like to describe my experience of this book. I'm so impressed, I'm including the reviews printed on the back cover for you. I couldn't sum up this book any better myself.

'Once, people with disfiguring or bizarre mutations were thought monstrous. Now they give vital clues to the dance of genes during the body's growth. Armand Leroi combines meticulous historical research, brand-new genetic understanding and consummate skill with words to tell an absorbing tale' - Matt Ridley.

'Mutants thrills and repels and informs us of the delicacy and wonder of growth and development. It is written with great grace' - Richard Fortey.

'Mutants is much more than a description of the many damaged or unusual forms of human beings that live now and have existed in the past. It is a fun read, being a spicy mix of history, developmental biology and genetics that does the trick of being both entertaining and educational' - Peter Lawrence, author of The Making of a Fly.

The provocative title invites us to question the definition of a word like 'mutant.' This book does not provide an answer to that question, rather, it opens up many more questions and grey areas.

Mutants is many things, but mostly, it's a history. It's a history of the ways in which abnormalities or deformities in the human body have been perceived by society and by science. It's a history of developmental biology, a history of how we have come to understand how the body grows, and why all sorts of things can go wrong in the process. One is left with a sense of wonder that so many of us do, indeed, avoid the myriad of pitfalls in the genetic and biophysical lottery, and end up with all our fingers and toes and bits in the right places. Leroi shows us that it is the very fact of these diversities in natural form that have shown scientists throughout history the way toward to our modern understanding of the development of the human body.

This is a book that is quite heavy on the science, and although it is aimed at a non-professional audience, those without a background or education in biological science might find some sections of this book rather complex and technical. I admit to twice getting to a point where my brain was just getting too twisted up trying to follow the details... and I just skipped to the next bit. Maybe I'll go over some parts a second time. It's a book that required being fairly awake and paying attention to keep up with it - but is hugely rewarding for the effort.

I was absolutely thrilled and enthralled - in a state that's a kind of literary equivalent of being on the edge of one's seat - while reading the first chapter. The topic of the chapter is conjoined twins, but in learning how such a thing comes to occur, we learn about exactly how a blastocyst develops into an embryo. I learned in high school biology classes about the little bundle of stem cells that organises itself into all the different elements of a developing embryo. But how exactly? Leroi shares with us what is known of which genes are active and the names and actions of the various chemical transmitters produced and involved in the process. (Some of them are the hilarious - the names of these signalling chemicals, that is. It seems that, as in many other fields, these chemicals are named according to the personal whimsy of whoever first 'discovered' - that is, isolated or described - them. Sonic hedgehog-defective mouse, anyone? p. 76. Noggin-enhanced conjoined twin African clawed toad tadpoles, perhaps? p. 40.) To read an account of a disc of cells that lifts away from the blastocyst like a leaf, and then curls up to form the neural tube, which goes on to become a brain and spine... to ponder the processes by which an embryo decides what is left, and right, and front and back... it makes me marvel, and wonder in awe at the miracle of multi-cellular life.

Leroi then goes on to discuss, in each respective chapter, the genetic and biological signalling system that orchestrates all these processes, limbs, bones, growth and size, gender, skin and ageing.

As many people would be wondering, yes, there were many ethically questionable experiments carried out along the way in the name of science, as well as the natural history approach of examining and documenting what occurs naturally. A history of genetic study must, of course, include a description of the earliest crude attempts at genetic manipulation. Leroi does not enter into the debate of ethics and refrains from giving any personal views on the matter, beyond agreeing that Josef Mengele was indeed one sick little mongrel. There is surely a place for discussion on the moral implications of some of these courses of action, but Leroi does not make the space for it in his book, sticking instead to the cold facts with their astounding implications.

I did get a bit cross with the author during Chapter IX on the subject of ageing. Leroi proposes that the ageing process itself is a genetic mutation or genetic propensity to disease, one that could, presumably, be identified on the genome and possibly be 'fixed' at some point in the future. I really just don't like this idea. What does he think is going to happen to an already over-populated world if nobody ever dies from natural causes? But I guess that is a debate in itself, and this is just a book review.

It is impossible to predict what medical breakthroughs will be required to ensure that none (eighty-year-olds) will die in the future. But when that day comes comes, it will mark the the completion of industrial civilisation's second great project: the protection of the old from the death.
- p. 331

The first, if you were wondering, was 'the protection of the young from death.'

The epilogue is largely devoted to the author's thoughts on the subject of beauty, from a genetic and biological perspective. It might seem a somewhat incongruous note on which to end, considering the general subject matter of the book, but he actually ties it in beautifully, and opens up some intriguing questions.

I am so excited about how much I have learned about genetics, biology and the human body. Still, when I showed this book to my friend Dr MJ, and he looked through it and announced that it basically contained half the course of a medical degree, I really hope he was exaggerating. I find it hard to tell sometimes - I'm somewhat irony-impaired. There's probably a gene for that.

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