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Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body [Hardcover]

by Armand Marie Leroi
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 10, 2003 0670031100 978-0670031108 First Edition
"Who are the mutants? We are all mutants. But some of us are more mutant than others."

Variety, even deformity, may seem like an unlikely route by which to approach normality, even perfection. Yet much of what we know about the mechanisms of human development, growth, and aging comes from the study of people who are afflicted with congenital diseases, most of which have genetic causes. Congenital abnormalities reveal not only errors within the womb, but also our evolutionary history.

In Mutants, Armand Marie Leroi gives a brilliant narrative account of our genetic grammar and the people whose bodies have revealed it, balancing both the science and the stories behind some of history's most captivating figures-including a French convent girl who found herself changing sex upon puberty; children who, echoing Homer's Cyclops, are born with a single eye in the middle of their foreheads; a village of long-lived Croatian dwarves; a hairy family who was kept at the Burmese royal court for four generations (and from whom Darwin took one of his keenest insights into heredity); and the ostrich-footed Wadoma of the Zambezi River Valley.

Stepping effortlessly from myth to molecular biology, this elegant, humane, and illuminating book is about us all.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a book that's as disturbing as it is enlightening, as unsettling as it is compelling, Leroi examines all sorts of genetic variability in humans and explains how that variability helps scientists understand the processes associated with human growth and development. Leroi, recipient of a Scientist for the New Century medal from the Royal Institution of Great Britain, demonstrates, in both text and pictures, that an enormous amount can go wrong as humans develop from fertilized eggs and progress toward old age. The missteps can result from genetic or environmental causes, with the latter occasionally responsible for the former. Although the subjects Leroi presents conjoined twins, individuals with cyclopia (a single eye), deformed or missing limbs, abnormal height, supernumerary breasts, an overabundance of body hair, piebald coloring often appear grotesque, he approaches all of his topics and each of his human subjects with great respect. Leroi uses each example to demonstrate the developmental lessons they illustrate: e.g., the role of fibroblast growth factors in the formation of limbs, the pituitary's impact on body size. By explaining that each of us carries hundreds of mutations within us, he asserts that we are not all that different from those who, on first glance, appear very disparate. Similarly, he effectively dismisses the belief that human races are anything more than a convenient social construct, establishing that there is no biological basis for such categorization. While the graphic pictures might deter some, they add immeasurably to the text.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

This book is "about the making of the human body." Armand Leroi, a reader in evolutionary developmental biology at London's Imperial College, thus joins the multitude of writers who are attempting to gratify our narcissistic focus on "the body." His slant is genetic, and his approach is to employ the story of variation, hence the title and subtitle of his book. Leroi takes vignettes from famous historical cases of human "mutants" to provide interest and background for his discussions of the principles of developmental biology (what used to be called "embryology"). The nature of the subject leads him to emphasize genes and morphogenesis, certainly a fascinating area in recent years. Leroi starts his discussion with famous "monsters" in history -- some mythical, some well known, and some obscure, but all quite interesting. Famous examples include cases of conjoined twins, persons with hypertrichosis, and cyclops. The author is at his best in his lively writing regarding the historical context of these cases. He takes up examples of limb malformations, disorders of stature, and cases of intersex (more commonly known as hermaphroditism). The mysteries and medical theorizing of the past are presented in a sensitive voice and are followed by explanations of the current biologic thinking about the processes that appear to underlie these disorders. Leroi's accounts of the human lives touched by these variations are revealing of our historical biases. For example, he illuminates the curious association between ectrodactyly (the lobster-claw syndrome) and the cruel punishment of two religious dissenters in 1685 and shows how the connection reflects the pervasive belief that malformed children are born as retribution for parental transgression. These stories exhibit the wide range of human variation as well as the sometimes astonishing ways in which the affected human beings have managed to fit within their culture and society. In trying to craft scientific explanations that fit the tone and detail of the historical account, the author runs into a few problems. It is always difficult to convey complex ideas about, say, transcription factors and their role in sex determination to a readership that presumably does not have a detailed knowledge of the entire process of transcription. As the biologist Lewis Wolpert has noted, much of modern science is counterintuitive, so Leroi's task is especially daunting. He has attempted much, but it seems to me that his explanations are apt to be more mystifying than edifying to many readers. To the student of current biology, these passages will be a useful summary, but for the hypothetical "general, well-informed" reader, discussions of morphogens, cell receptors, and aromatase are likely to be underappreciated. Although Leroi simplifies and streamlines as best he can, there are some places where this approach can seem to be misleading -- for example, when he asserts early in the book that mutations are "deficiencies in particular genes." To be fair, toward the end of the book, he tries to reverse this rather flat-footed definition of mutation. Sometimes, too, the distinction between genetic causes and nongenetic developmental accidents (e.g., virus infections) is not made sufficiently clear. Read this book for the fascinating tales of human variation and the lives of those affected; the clinical genetics may also be of interest. William C. Summers, M.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (November 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670031100
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670031108
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #687,442 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
39 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Imperfections Show Us Who We Are April 6, 2004
You are a mutant, and you have been since before you were born. You probably have three hundred mutations in your genes that impair your health in some way. Of course, that leaves a huge number of genes to correct any problems, and most of us don't look as if we stepped out of the X-Men comic books. "We are all mutants. But some of us are more mutant than others," says the evolutionary biologist Armand Marie Leroi in _Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body_ (Viking). Leroi takes a review of human mutations based on the wonderful principle that we get to understand how nature normally works by carefully examining abnormalities; when things go wrong, we know that there must be some important process going right most of the time. So there is extensive evaluation here of strange-looking humans, often with nightmarish defects. Amply illustrated, the book has engravings from centuries past to show that humans have always had a curiosity about such beings. Leroi's intellectual interest is far from morbid, however, and his lessons drawn from the monsters here are humane and increase our admiration for how often things go right, and how often those who were dealt a bad genetic hand can still play it well.
For example, Carl Herman Unthan was a violin virtuoso by age twenty, although he had no arms. Of course, not all such mutants are so successful. Harry Eastlack had a defect that told his body to make bone whenever it made any repair, so that bruises and tears would turn into bone, not healed flesh. The stillborn babies here are strange indeed. One has a second developed mouth in its forehead. Another child was born with over twenty half-developed fetuses in his brain. The book, however, is far from a chamber of horrors.
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27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clever approach to genetics January 2, 2004
I have to admit to a little voyeurism when it comes to the odd, and Armand Marie LeRoi's book Mutants does have a bit of a side show aspect to it. What it really intends is to show how science discovers how things work--or in this case fail to work--in human anatomy-physiology.
Now that the human genome project has crunched out the raw data on what our DNA code is, it has become the far more daunting task of biologists to figure out what it says and how it works. The best way to do that would be to screw up specific sites on the gene and see what happens. This is how they learn what the DNA of lower orders does, but humans aren't like fruit flies; we don't live our lives in a matter of days. Nor are we like amoeba or worms; our genetics are much more complicated and the interactions among them probably orders of magnitude greater than those for the "simpler" animals. Most important, screwing up the genetics of a human subject is not exactly, ethically or morally speaking, a good place to go! That leaves us with natural genetic failures, those individuals who have suffered genetic misprints that can lead to clues about what normal DNA does. This is what chapter one explains in some detail.
The remaining chapters illustrate what is learned from specific mutations: twinning, how and from what parts of the body arise, how things grow, how gender develops, how skin differences occurs, and why aging happens.
Since many of the mutant individuals discussed are historic figures, some of the bibliographic entries are quite old. While there are some books, most of the entries are those of modern scientific journals: American Journal of Medicine, Annals of Human Biology, Developmental Biology, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, etc.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Are Redheads Mutants? June 26, 2004
Despite being the repository of many of my family's variant genes, I can't complain - I am a fully functional human being. That said, the fact that I am the first known case of inherited intermittent vertical nystagmus [at least that's what the doctors said at the time of my birth] has given me an above average interest in the genetics of human beings. Armand Marie Leroi's Mutants is an excellent introduction to genetic variety in human beings. Mutants could have been turned into a freak show by a lesser writer or one with the desire to titillate, but Leroi handles the subject directly and with the right level of sensitivity. In the introduction, Leroi demystifies the word mutant and concludes the chapter by saying
We are all mutants. But some of us are more mutant than others.
I especially enjoyed the fact that I was finally able to understand the genetics of my aunt's 6th toe and the fact that Leroi uses redheads to explore the boundary between mutation and polymorphism [I'm okay with the fact that being a redhead makes me a mutant].
Despite the way Leroi handles the material, this is not a book for the squeamish. The black and white illustrations may be disturbing to some readers. I think the perfect reader for this book would be a person with the background from a 9th grade biology class and an interest in learning more about human genetics. People with an interest in history and the process of doing science should also find much of interest in Mutants.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Weird, witty and wise January 2, 2004
By A Customer
Armand Marie Leroi's MUTANTS is a delightful mixture of historical anecdote, philosophy, artistic allusions and serious science, all served up with a first-person narrative voice that is both sympathetic and learned. Despite the bizarre and often gruesome subject matter used to illustrate scientific principles governing the formation of the human body, we are guided through the spectrum of human abnormality with a respectful hand. Although at times Leroi is amusing, he never ridicules the mutant humans he discusses - if anything, it is the scientists, anthropologists and historians who have misunderstood or abused their odd subjects that receive the well-timed onslaught of his wit. And yet even some of these jibes are sympathetic: the wise men of old were fumbling around in the dark and did not have the benefit of our knowledge or modern morals, so Leroi is gracious enough at times to excuse them, when other authors might be stern and judgmental. Even the horrific spectre of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele is portrayed in a multi-faceted light; Leroi does not condone or excuse his acts, but he does attempt to understand his motivations. It is a delicate balancing act that the author pulls off beautifully in most cases.
If you want to learn something about the genetics of human development, the explanations are clear and logical, with enough analogies and examples to help you along. The reference section is vast, so you know where to turn for more gory (so to speak) details. If, however, you'd rather just sit back and enjoy the historical anecdotes, the structure of the book makes it easy for you to skim through the scientific stuff - which does not ramble on too long - and the section headings help you pick and choose your area of interest.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars We are all mutants...
If you are interested in biology in general, and genetics in particular, this is a must read. The science is explained with just enough detail to make it accessable to the average... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Librarydragon
5.0 out of 5 stars A very interesting book!
This book was assigned to me for a developmental biology class. It was such an interesting book, and very accessible for people who don't know a lot of biology. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Kayla Martyn
5.0 out of 5 stars not just another book with pictures of 'freaks'
my family (the family i raised, not my parents) is one that always got every book we could find on circus 'freaks' and human anomalies. why? Read more
Published 1 month ago by Lizardhaven
4.0 out of 5 stars Facinating
This was a text for a senior seminar, but it's been a great read, and doesn't require intense knowledge of genetics to follow.
Published 2 months ago by Emily Apgood
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent medical reading...
The book begins with a concise description of embryonic development interlaced with feasible genetic changes. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Suzanne Jacobs
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Read...with 1 or 2 Provisos
It was a very good book, perhaps a little overly technical but a very informative read. The style was elegant but dry. Read more
Published 3 months ago by David S. Wellhauser
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it!
What an incredible book! I had to get it for a class I was taking. Even after the class I continued to read it in its entirety and was blown away!
Published 7 months ago by Karen Schilli
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating
The number of things that can go horribly wrong in the formation of a human embryo are endless-- and scary. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Bookworm
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect for the science minded
This book does an excellent job of presenting complex genetic mutations in an easy to understand manner. Read more
Published 11 months ago by Aaron S. Zimmerman
5.0 out of 5 stars I am a clueless twonk
Popular science books can read terribly. This was not one of them; it felt (to an idiot like me) nice and meaty, covered an insanely wide gamut of genetic hinged topics, and did so... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Donald Paul Carr
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