Monday, November 20, 2006

Armand Marie Leroi: Mutants

Mutants, by Armand Marie Leroi, is not what you might think. It isn't a horror novel, or a piece of science fiction. In fact it isn't fiction at all: it's a serious and scholarly non-fiction work, and its subject is the human body.

More precisely, Mutants is a book about variations in the human body: some of them minor and almost welcome (red hair as opposed to black hair), and some of them not only unwelcome but also frightening and horrible: gross deformities, or mutations, which arise from deficiencies in particular genes, and from the errors made by the machinery that copies or repairs human DNA.

In the course of considering these mutations, Leroi illuminates the current state of research into genetics, and gives us a historical survey of the human fascination with such creatures. He also considers a number of related issues, such as the nature of beauty.

The first thing that a reviewer has to say about Mutants, in all fairness to the reader, is that you need a strong stomach to read the book, and an even stronger one to contemplate the many illustrations.

At least in the case of a Dutch child, born in 1995, with the remains of 21 foetuses (as determined by a leg count) embedded in its brain, we are spared an illustration; though such undoubtedly exist. But if you've ever seen Tod Browning's 1932 film Freaks, you will know what to expect. (Freaks was banned in the UK for thirty years.)

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, medical men were fascinated by these accidents of nature, and the deformed foetuses were preserved and even collected. They were frequently referred to as 'monsters', and to have given birth to one, or even to have delivered it, must have been a frightening experience.

The birth of such a deformed child was widely regarded as a portent of something or other, and the parents would no doubt have been overwhelmed by feelings of shock, horror, and guilt. 'Of all the doctrines that have been occasioned by human deformity,' says Leroi, 'none is more dismal than the belief that it is due to some moral failing.'

As late as the nineteenth century, Leroi tells us, the citizens of Amsterdam bought Willem Vrolik's anatomical collection for the sum of 12,000 guilders. It contained 1503 specimens in all, 360 of them people with various congenital afflictions; most of these were infants preserved in alcohol or formaldehyde.

Many other institutions, such as Guy's Hospital in London, had similar collections. And on a less formal scale, when I worked in a hospital as a student, the mortuary technician showed me a pair of (dead) conjoined twins; they were wrapped up in an old towel and had been kept in cold storage for many years, for no reason whatever beyond their novelty value, as far as I could see.

I will not upset you with a more detailed description of the subject matter of this book. But I would not wish you to think that Mutants is some sort of popular, shock-horror treatment of a faintly revolting subject. It is not a fairground sideshow. It is, rather, a thoughtful and (as far as I can tell) absolutely up to the minute account of how and why things go wrong in the reproduction of humans and other species.

The author of Mutants, Armand Marie Leroi, is a Reader in evolutionary developmental biology at Imperial College, London (a distinguished institution), and he clearly has an encyclopaedic grasp of all the latest research in this field. Some of the book is therefore not readily intelligible to the lay reader.

Nevertheless, the book is clearly, and rightly, intended as reading matter for the interested general reader, as well as the specialist, because the whole question of deformity merges into issues such as the treatment of diseases with a heredity component (such as breast cancer) and the problem of ageing in general.

Also relevant are the effects of certain drugs: thalidomide, for example, gave rise to a large number of phocomelic infants, though such were known before the introduction of that drug. In the eighteenth century, there was a famous Parisian juggler, Marc Cazotte (known as Le Petit Pepin), whose hands and feet were joined directly to his body.

History is, in fact, not short of famous if unfortunate people who were renowned and perhaps honoured for the injuries which genetic fate had done to them. There was Joseph Boruwlaski, a dwarf who was a favourite of the pre-Revolutionary French court. There was the Gonsalvus family of hypertrichotic (hairy) people. Less happily, there were the Ovitz dwarfs, who caught the eye of Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz; some of them even survived his attentions.

Cretins, castrati, hermaphrodites, albinos, and every other kind of human distortion, are all dealt with in this book. But they are dealt with kindly, with a compassionate touch. The causes of their afflictions, if known, are fully described in appropriate scientific terms, and their stories are told in human terms which will carry along those who do not follow the details of the science.

We may not be helped, for example, by the information that the most common cause of albinism is homozygosity for a 2.7 kilobase-pair deletion in the P gene, but it will do us no harm to have a greater awareness of the difficulties which are experienced by albinos; or indeed, by those born piebald, because there are some such.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of this book is, however, the style in which it is written. Not only is it readily comprehensible (apart from the pure science passages), but it is witty, thoughtful, and in places almost poetic.

At one point Leroi tells us, for instance, that 'the fragments of myth, folklore and tradition that remain to us from a pre-scientific age are like the marks left in sand by retreating waves: void of power and meaning, yet still possessed of some order.'

And Leroi is clearly a well-read man. In relation to Alexina Barbin, for example, a nineteenth-century French hermaphrodite who was brought up as a girl but who who developed a distressing habit of falling in love with other girls in her convent school (and later had to shave), Leroi reminds us that her case is reminiscent of Stendhal's De l'amour, in that, in the Romantic era, 'to love, to truly love, was to exalt the beloved, to abase oneself, to love without hope of return.'

This book was given to me by a neighbour, who told me frankly that she had offered it to others before me, and they had politely declined. I can understand why. Nevertheless, I learnt something useful from it in the first ten seconds, and you may too. If nothing else, it would provide raw material enough for a dozen novels.

Mutants is a learned, humane, and polished work, the outcome of many years of study and careful thought, and it is full of insights both scientific and intuitive. I am not surprised to find that in 2004 it was the winner of the Guardian's First Book Award. It certainly deserves recognition.


Anonymous said...

Great book. It was also shortlisted for the Aventis prize & longlisted for the Samuel Johnson. I think it lost out to Bill Bryson's science for idiot arty types book.

Andrew O'Hara said...

For whatever reason, I was reminded of Poe's "Hop-Frog."

It's comforting to know that there are those who can take so sad a topic and address it to some valid purpose with sensitivity. The cover reflects this, showing only a skeletal hand with six fingers, rather than some terrible disfigurement (that would have been sensational and perhaps sold more books).

Annette said...

reminds me of the "elephant man."
I always think of the parents, what are they going through? Although,of course, it is not their fault, not in any way, but I do feel for them.

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clare said...

The TV programme Leroi presented on a similar subject was fascinating too.

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Cotswold said...

I came across your excellent review of Mutants when researching information about Armand Marie Leroi who I have invited to give a talk to Friends of Imperial College. He will be addressing the evolution of music and song in a talk entitled "The first song - the evolution of music." Having seen his recent BBC4 documentary entitled "What Darwin didn't know" it should be both entertaining and informative. Come and join us on 30 April 2009 at 7.00. See details at Friends of Imperial College All are welcome.

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