Book: Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body
Author: Armand Marie Leroi
Type of Book: Non-fiction, genetics
Why Did I Read This Book: I initially thought this would be a good fit on my site for odd books because Amazon recommended this book when I purchased a book about carny culture. This book is not about “mutants” in the vulgar parlance wherein the term has come to mean “freaks” and as a result, it really is a better fit for this site. But the reason I read it initially was because I thought it far stranger than it was.
Availability: Published in 2003 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I am decidedly a liberal arts kind of woman. I managed to cram enough science into my head to make it (barely) through college and then promptly forgot all of it. Much science seems like magic to me, a sentiment that makes me sound really dumb, but I’m okay with that (though I do need to mention that I understand how magnets work). So it was a little bit of a shock when I realized this was not a book about carny folk and old side-show acts that featured “freaks.” I was intimidated by the book and put off reading it.
When I finally picked this book up and gave it a try, it was a marvel at how accessible this book made biology and genetics to a non-science person like me. Moreover, it was an engrossing book, as well. Biology in the micro is a dramatic thing and as Leroi makes the science clear enough that even I can understand it, he shows the drama that takes place in our genetic code. I wish this book, clear and elegant, had been my college biology text. I sure would have enjoyed the class a lot more.
This book really did lay out for me the logic in genetics, and how it is that genetic mutations help us “reverse-engineer” the body, giving clarity to genetic function that we might lack if the mutations did not exist.
Gain or loss, both kinds of mutations, reveal something about the function of the genes that they affect, and in doing so, reveal a small part of the genetic grammar. Mutations reverse-engineer the body.
Until reading this book, the concept that parts of an embryo develop in stages, that limbs develop at a different time than organs, didn’t really occur to me. And the fact that they do develop at different stages explains how it is a person can have a terrible mutation that affects their legs or arms but have a perfectly healthy heart. This may seem so elementary to others but to me it really was a revelation. Moreover, it was also sobering to realize how many mutations never come to light, as the mutation prevents life. It was quite interesting, seeing it from that perspective, that mutations that seem quite catastrophic to the person who is born without limbs, in terms of genetics are not that profound as they don’t threaten life.
Limbs have an extraordinary knack for going wrong. There are more named congenital disorders that affect our limbs than almost any other part of our bodies. Is it that limbs are particularly delicate, and so prone to register every insult that heredity or the environment imprints upon them? Or is it that they are especially complex? Delicate and complex they are, to be sure, but the more likely reason for the exuberant abundance of their imperfections is simply that they are not needed, at least not for life itself. Children may grow in the womb and be born with extra fingers, a missing tibia, or missing a limb entirely, and yet be otherwise quite healthy. They survive and we see the damage.
Despite what I was expecting from the title, Leroi discusses genetics in a manner that is nothing but respectful. He makes it clear that in a sense we are all mutants.
Who, then, are the mutants? To say that the sequence of a particular gene shows a ‘mutation’, or to call the person who bears such a gene a ‘mutant’, is to make an invidious distinction. It is to imply, at the least, deviation from some ideal of perfection. Yet humans differ from each other in very many ways, and those differences are, at least in part, inherited. Who among us has the genome of genomes, the one by which all other genomes will be judged.
The short answer is that no one does.
He also discusses the social implications of misapplying genetics, a section that was at times hard to read, and I will come back to how hard it was to read in a moment. In the meantime, here’s an example of what Gould would have called the the mismeasure of men:
Ever since Linnaeus divided the world’s people into four races – Asiaticus, Americanus, Europaeus, Afer – skin colour has been misused as a convenient mark of other human attributes. Linnaeus distinguished his four races not only by the colour of their skins but also their temperaments: Asiaticus was ‘stern, haughty, avaricious and ruled by opinions’; Americanus ‘tenacious, contented, choleric and ruled by habit’; Afer, seemingly devoid of any redeeming virtue, was ‘cunning, slow, phlegmatic, careless and ruled by caprice’. What of his own race? Europaeus, Linnaeus thought, was ‘lively, light, inventive and ruled by custom’. This was the beginning of an intellectual tradition that, via the writings of Arthur, Comte de Gobineau, the nineteenth-century theorist of Aryan supremacy, culminated in the most systematic chromatocracy that the world has ever known: apartheid in South Africa.
In amongst all this interesting and amazing (or at least to me) information in this book, there were some chunks of information that kept me thinking long after I stopped reading. One is that there is some belief and evidence that aging is, in fact, the result of genetic mutations that don’t manifest until we age or are, in fact, slow-progressing diseases. This was very interesting to me, the idea that perhaps one day death will seem as much a disease as cystic fibrosis. Also interesting was the idea that the most common trait among women who lived an exceptionally long life was being childless. Having children ensures your genetic code sustains itself in generations to come but giving birth requires much of a woman, so much in fact that the fewer children a woman has appears to lengthen her life (but in my soft science mind, I wonder how much childlessness has to do with increased education and social status, both of which are linked to decreased childbirth rates so bear in mind that it’s hard to show any direct causation). Of course, as a childless woman, this was very relevant to my interests, but I suspect in this book there is something that will be relevant to your interests as most of us have a family member with a condition caused by a genetic mutation, be it a mild or major issue, and we all certainly are getting older.
And almost as fascinating was Leroi’s examination of genetic mutations in history. This part of the book reminded me much of some of Jan Bondeson’s books, a respectful yet entertaining look at the various genetic mutations that affected body hair and skin color. I’ll never get tired of reading about the hirsute family in Burma.
But unexpectedly, there was a section of this book that has haunted me. I would suspect that most geneticists prefer not to think of or mention Josef Mengele, the mad doctor at Auschwitz who performed hideous experiments on Jews, the worst of his obsessions played out on twins, doing things that even then defied science, like changing eye color or trying to graft people together. Leroi recounts a chilling story easily as creepy as anything I have read in a horror novel. The Ovitz family were sent to Auschwitz during WWII. The family were Romanian Jews, but members of the family had a form of dwarfism, which caused normal body size but short limbs. Specifically, they suffered from pseudoachondroplasia, which is a dominant genetic condition.
The family became performers and despite moving around Europe before the war ended up in Auschwitz after German troops occupied Hungary and the family was captured. Because the family were so much smaller, they were housed together away from the other prisoners and while they were given enough to eat, “they paid for survival by being given starring roles in Mengele’s bizarre and frenetic programme of experimental research.”
As Elizabeth Ovitz would write: ‘the most frightful experiments of all [were] the gynaecological experiments. Only the married ones among us had to endure that. They tied us to the table and systematic torture began. They injected things into our uterus, extracted blood, dug into us, pierced us and removed samples. The pain was unbearable.’
Even after the terrible gynecological experiments ended, the Ovitz family still endured inhumane suffering.
‘They extracted fluid from our spinal cord and rinsed out our ears with extremely hot or cold water which made us vomit. Subsequently hair extraction began and when we were ready to collapse, they began painful tests on the brain, nose, mouth and hand regions. All stages of the tests were fully documented with illustrations. It may be noted, ironically, that we were among the only ones in the world whose torture was premeditated and “scientifically” documented for the sake of future generations…’
But as horrible as all of that is, that was not the creepy part.
The Ovitz family walked the the tightrope of Mengele’s obsessions for seven months. Once, when Mengele unexpectedly entered the compound, the youngest of the family, Shimshon, who was only eighteen months old, toddled towards him. Mengele lifted the child into his arms and softly enquired why the child had approached him. ‘He thinks you are his father.’ ‘I am not his father,’ said Mengele, ‘only his uncle’. Yet the child was emaciated from the poor food and incessant blood sampling.
When I read this book the last damn thing I expected to read was a passage wherein Mengele showed a doting affection towards a child he tortured. If anything, that made the man more of a monster, for had he unyielding hatred for the Jews he tormented and tortured, his behavior could in a terrible manner make sense. That he felt fondness and saw himself as a sort of uncle to a Jewish dwarf toddler makes him all the more inexplicable to me.
I think this is one of those books that has a passage that will stay with all readers. You just have to read it and determine what that passage is. I recommend this book and hope others read it and let me know what they think.