Monday, November 1, 2010

Book Review: Freaks of Nature

Posted by Kirk
I bought Freaks of Nature on a whim at the bookstore a few months back. The tagline on the book is "what anomalies tell us about development and evolution." The book essentially has two ideas to it. First off, it chronicles a bit of the history of the Evo-Devo debate. Before evolution came on the scene, it was thought that an animal develops based on environmental conditions present during development. Freaks or abnormalities were ascribed to events such as a mother being frightened during pregnancy. Once genetics and evolution came on the scene, the tendency became to ascribe everything a genetic cause. Mutations were (and still are) king. What Bloomberg lays out in his book is the concept that while genetics are an important piece of the puzzle they are not the whole story. Species still need to develop and while there are structural processes that help shape animals bodies. Genetics may set the scene but structural interactions also play a role in determining final form. The book touches on the topic of epigenetic inheritance as well. The idea that non-genetic traits can be passed on to offspring. This idea seems preposterous and naive, a kind of pre-genetic understanding of the world. Yet, we're seeing new studies that seem to show this very thing happening. One example is the Marshall University study showing that fat father rats have unhealthy daughters.

The basic concept of the books is that by studying how and why things go wrong, we can gain insight into how things go right. Bloomberg walks the line between differing worldviews and presents his case with interesting stories and case studies.

While I found the information interesting, I'll admit the book is more than a bit dry. At times, I found myself wondering if I was reading a doctoral thesis turned into a book. It was not as fascinating as one might think a book about freaks of nature would be. For those fascinated in developmental and evolutionary biology, the book will be interesting but not a page turner. For those looking simply for a book about what we can learn from freaks and why they occur, the history and debate between the two theories may be a bit tiresome.



beegirl said...

Hi Kirk,
So here is the link to the article I so badly related at Birds & Beers last month.

I once found myself at a brunch going on and on about a cold and snowy experience, when I turned and found myself looking into Anne Bancroft's tolerant, attentive gaze. I kind of felt like that again at B & B, after contradicting you about what I thought was gyandromorphism. You were similarly gracious. -Kathy

Kirk said...

Hey no worries! Nice story about Anne. That must have been a real foot in mouth moment. Every time I've met or spoken with her she's been real nice though. Thanks for the link to the article.