Dec 29 2008 Published by under Physiology/Pharmacology

I'm BACK! Finally, a return to wireless. Granted, I'm sitting in an airport, but that's long enough to bang out a post, right? The real work can wait, my brain is still on vacation.
I hope you all got what you wanted for the holidays, and that Santa left PhDs in your stockings, or tenure, or the latest in lab equipment. Or whatever.
Did I mention how much I LOVE getting free books in the mail? Seriously, it makes Sci so happy. This one looked promising right from the start. Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution, by Mark Blumberg.
And for good measure, here's the cover:

WARNING: spoilers ahead. Though considering it's a book review, there SHOULD be spoilers ahead. Otherwise one would have to question whether or not I had read the book at all.

Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution, (from hereon referred to as Freaks, or perhaps FREAKS, because that sounds better), is not just about anomalies. Rather, it's about development, the huge role that development can play iin the expression of genes, and a plea for the further investigation of development and a place for it right alongside genes and environment, forming a great triumvirate of The Things That Can Screw You Up.
It's a convincing argument. But don't start getting all freaked out (heh...heh) over how delicate the womb is and how women should all be dreadfully careful. What the author is referring to is development as played out by the expression of genes throughout time in the womb, childhood, and adolesence, timed incredibly carefully, all coming together with what the genes are and your environment, to produce the miraculous thing that is a human being. Most of us have never thought twice about our arms and legs being in the right place, our genetalia corresponding with XX or XY, or even having the correct number of fingers and toes. But Blumberg emphasizes just how amazing this is, and how small changes in the timing of genetic expression can have enormous consequences, from multiple heads to not enough eyes, too many limbs to not nearly enough. It really makes you appreciate the delicate balance that produces what we see as "normal".
I learned a lot reading this one. My favorite part was definitely the explanation of cyclopia, how these things form, and now I really think I need to go view myself some medical anomalies. Although the book is filled with drawings and a few photographs, I really want to see some of these things in real life. Line drawings just don't cut it, but they are enough to give you a vague idea.
I also enjoyed the last two chapters, entirely on sex and expression, though some parts were fragmented, and he'd come around to certain explanations later than I wanted them. But it really brought to light that our current definitions of "male" and "female" are just not enough to describe the different sexes and sexual behaviors that occur out there in the big wide world. In fish, for example, there are big males and little males, each of whom will exhibit radically different methods of getting their sperm out and about. Not only that, the females may be fully capable of switching to male when the situation gets desperate. Male, or female? Pehaps we need to be changing our definitions.
On the whole, I really liked the book, very readable science, and full of interesting facts and eye-openers. There were some problems with organization, as the author wished to focus on certain examples, refer to something ELSE cool about the examples, but then only come back to it a chapter later. But it certainly made me think of development itself as far more than genes and environment, but as something of even more importance, and to a certain extent, a law unto itself.
And now, Sci introduces, her new Book Rating System!!! Being as we are neuroscience people on this here blog (well, ok, I have several hats, but I consider myself primarily neuroscience), I think we'll give things ratings in BRAINS. Mmmm...brains. Highest score is 5. For this book, I give it 4 out of 5 brains, due to my confusion at some of the organizational problems. Other than that, highly recommended. Go out and read up on some FREAKS!

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