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

by Mark S. Blumberg
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 13, 2008 0195322827 978-0195322828 1
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.

Editorial Reviews


"Mark Blumberg's beautifully written book introduces some major problems in both developmental and evolutionary biology. Individuals can sometimes develop in astonishingly aberrant ways. These freaks of nature challenge the way we think about development and, over the years, have caused some biologists to wonder whether the formation of new species is always as continuous as orthodox theories of evolution purpose."--Sir Patrick Bateson, Professor Emeritus of Ethology, University of Cambridge

"Mark Blumberg is a freak of literature--one of the very few scientist-writers (think Stephen Jay Gould or Oliver Sacks) who can sweep us along as they try to figure out how the exceptions in the species can prove the rule of who we all are. In Freaks of Nature, the specimens are certainly riveting, but it's also Blumberg's lucid, lyrical, profound insights into what it means to be human that will stay with the reader."--Richard Panek, author of Seeing and Believing: How the Telescope Opened Our Eyes and Minds to the Heavens and The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes

"Freaks of Nature examines various kinds of disfigurement that occur in both human beings and animals, includes diagrams and photographs, and questions our assumptions about the abnormally developed...Blumberg urges us to consider how our ideas of what is natural can and should expand to include the anomalies among us."--The Chronicle Review

"When people come to the Mutter Museum 'to see the freaks,' I cringe inwardly, smile outwardly and generally say nothing at all. I have found over the years that the inhabitants of this remarkable place say far more than I ever could. Whatever the reason for visiting the museum--fascination, repulsion, even derision--people tend to leave more informed and perhaps even more aware than when they arrive. And that is exactly how I felt after reading this book."--Anna N. Dhody, Curator of the Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, in The Scientist

"Timely and wide-ranging, Freaks of Nature shows that although we've passed some exciting landmarks on our journey, we're still some distance from that circled destination and the route is still unclear."--New Scientist

"If you're interested in the science behind the macabre, this book will thrill you. It's also a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about a cutting-edge area of evolutionary theory."

"One of the Best Books of 2008"--Neurotopia

"With well-picked examples, Blumberg constructs his at first peculiar, but ultimately profound, argument...Startlingly convincing." --Elizabeth Quill, Science News

"Blumberg is a developmental psychobiologist, and thus advocates for a more supple understanding of the interplay between development, behavior, and evolution than has usually been accepted. He eloquently defends the view that 'development is the story of adaptation within one lifetime,' and that thinking seriously about anomalies helps us see 'how much adaptability there is in the developing organism.' --Jason B. Jones, Boldtype

"By presenting a parade of animal freaks, mutants, developmental anomalies, and weird species, Blumberg imparts lessons that, although familiar to biologists, will be valuable to non-specialists. He emphasizes that the complex process of development can be unraveled by understanding how such anomalies are produced...Blumberg illustrates his points with clear and intriguing examples...Blumberg's ambitions transcend storytelling: he aims to show that developmental biology has made real contributions to evolutionary theory." --Jerry A. Coyne, Nature

"Blumberg takes us on a tour of real-life teratology, and how understanding abnormalities is casting new light on the relationship between the genetic and non-genetic forces that shape us all." --Stephen Cass, Discover

"A stimulating read." --Financial Times

"Blumberg's explanations of the factors that go into [these] deformations are gripping." --Robert Colvile,

"Engrossing and interesting." --John Wilkins, Evolving Thoughts

About 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.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 344 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 1 edition (November 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195322827
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195322828
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.9 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,552,228 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Mark Blumberg is a behavioral neuroscientist and the F. Wendell Miller Professor at the University of Iowa. He received his bachelor's degree from Brandeis University in 1983, majoring in Physics and Philosophy. That year, he began graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he received his doctorate in Biopsychology in 1988. After leaving Chicago, he began four years as a postdoctoral associate at Indiana University in Bloomington. In 1992, he moved to Iowa City to take a position at the University of Iowa.

Blumberg has published over 80 scientific articles and chapters on a wide variety of topics, including sleep, animal behavior, animal mind, temperature regulation, and communication. He has received nearly two million dollars in federal grant support, including a Career Development Award from the National Institute of Mental Health. In 1997, he received an Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association (APA) and, in 2009, he received a Regents Award for Faculty Excellence from the University of Iowa. Currently, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

In addition, to Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution, Blumberg has published two other books of general science: Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior, and Body Heat: Temperature and LIfe on Earth. He also co-edited The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Behavioral Neuroscience.

Blumberg was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We are all freaks of nature. January 14, 2009
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.

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) can result in a cascade of downstream effects, producing sometimes radically novel forms.

Many such novelties are simply not viable and thus never make it to the stage (birth) where scientists can study and others wonder at them.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Uncharted Territory November 24, 2008
What a delight! Finally, a beautifully written science book exploring a subject area often ignored or deliberately shunned. Mark Blumberg sensitively explores the world of exceptions, those individuals among us who are limbless, ambiguously gendered, conjoined--those creatures that we see as abnormal. He helps us understand
the wondrous diversity of our world, and calls us to embrace the exceptions, for we are all "monsters."
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Freaky" Good January 14, 2009
A two-legged goat. A man who walked on his hands. A kitten with two faces. A naked mole rat. A star-nosed mole. A fun read.

Freaks is a provocative look at anomalies in nature and the developmental processes that produce them. Blumberg details the self-organizing mechanisms that create an integrated phenotype in all creatures, not just the archetypes, and persuasively argues how these systems should influence the way we think and talk about evolution.

Poignantly blending fields such as embryology, ethology, psychology and neuroscience, along with a bit of history and anecdote, Blumberg delivers a treat for readers of all interests that should change how we look at what it means to be "normal".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye opener! January 6, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I read this book for a developmental psychology class. This book is so informative and interesting! I really think the world would be a more hospitable place if more people understood this area of science. We shun those who are different when we should be celebrating the fact that there is so much exciting variability!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Every chapter revealed another surprise!!!! January 27, 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book should be a companion book for all those books people interested in evolution and neuroscience have read, or have yet to read! Mark Blumberg answered questions I never knew I had; explained science I never knew I needed explained. He drove home to me the still evolving science of evolution, and the wonder and power of nature! My only wish is Great Courses (The Teaching Company) would develope a lecture series with him. Thank you Amazon for putting this book on my recommendations list!
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars We are all "freaks" January 13, 2009
This book is truly one of a kind. Not only does Dr. Mark Blumberg help to elucidate the issues and confusion that people often have with development and evolution, but he does so in a way that helps us to understand that development isn't a prescribed process. He shows us, through many examples, how one small change during the developmental process can result in big effects: both development and evolution are continuing processes that are guided by cascading effects in the system: genes and environment alike.

Never has a book been so "raw" in presenting the details and differences that exist among species...and quite frankly, that exist amongst ourselves. Each of us is a "freak of nature" expressed in different ways. It is just more evident in some humans and some non-human animals that may represent the more extreme, or unique, cases. Why don't we ask each other how we walk, talk and function every single day? We have all been faced with developmental demands and environmental challenges along the way, just like the goat without forelimbs that learned to walk upright. We are always adapting.

After reading this book, the reader will undoubtedly walk away with a better understanding of the science behind development and evolution, as well as a strong appreciation for these "freaks." The examples throughout the book are very beautiful demonstrations of how powerful science can be, and how adaptable organisms really are. Even after being faced with these challenges, we all find a way to evolve and survive.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Too much philosophy, not enough simple facts and illustrations.
This reads like one of those 19 th century books that is not up to date with the modern mind. My interest was about current discoveries and research into factors such as global... Read more
Published 9 months ago by R. Clay
5.0 out of 5 stars The freaky aspects of Nature!
The Evolution processes is conduções by natural selecionados but also relíeis on trial and error... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Jefferson G. N. Santos
1.0 out of 5 stars there are so many better options
I picked it up at a remainder sale. Now I know why it was remaindered.

Freaks of Nature tries to be something great, like Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi, and just utterly... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Alison Young
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent but flawed
The book is highly entertaining and informative, but suffers from the author's constant need to generate controversy and to create a false split between a gene-centric view and an... Read more
Published on August 2, 2011 by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars An important look at environmental factors
This is an entertaining and much-needed tale about how the adult form is the product of (genes AND) environment. However, he goes a bit far and sometimes ignores genes altogether. Read more
Published on March 26, 2010 by S. Gallagher
5.0 out of 5 stars Freaks Speaks About Development
I've read Freaks several times. The first time, I was curious about what Mark Blumberg, the author of Body Heat and Basic Instinct, had to say about the relations between abnormal... Read more
Published on January 6, 2010 by Karen Adolph
5.0 out of 5 stars Disturbingly Brilliant
Want to change, enhance or cement your view on evolution? Get this book. You will never think about or discuss this topic in the same fashion again. Read more
Published on August 8, 2009 by LifeIsGrand
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read if anomalies and science are your thing
I really enjoyed reading this book, mostly because it tied together many of my quirky interests. I was actually embarrassed how intimately familiar I was with all of the examples... Read more
Published on August 2, 2009 by Laura T
4.0 out of 5 stars fREakS oF nATuRE
This is a very entertaining book. Except for the chapter on sexuality, it seemed almost to read itself. Read more
Published on July 11, 2009 by Niklas Anderberg
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