The number of intermediate varieties which have formerly existed on earth must be truly enormous. Why then is not every geological formation and every stratum full of such intermediate links? Geology assuredly does not reveal any such finely graduated organic chain; and this, perhaps, is the most obvious and gravest objection which can be urged against my theory… Charles Darwin, 1902


In the Martian novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs there are some inventive and original ideas, including an autopilot and collision detection device for Martian fliers, and the creation of the Lotharians, a race of ancient martians who have become adept at telepathic projection, able to create imaginary warriors that can kill, and sustain themselves through thought alone.

In a zombie apocalypse, a widespread (usually global) rise of zombies hostile to human life engages in a general assault on civilization. Victims of zombies may become zombies themselves. This causes the outbreak to become an exponentially growing crisis: the spreading “zombie plague/virus” swamps normal military and law enforcement organizations, leading to the panicked collapse of civilian society until only isolated pockets of survivors remain, scavenging for food and supplies in a world reduced to a pre-industrial hostile wilderness.

We mention these two seemingly disparate – and incredible – ideas only because either or both of them contain more real science than Blumberg’s book. The idea that we are the latest colloid to arise out of primordial slime that is still on the burner waiting to give off something to unalterably change us – or to replace us entirely – would be amusing if it were not so totally destructive of everything of merit that mankind has discovered since our creation. There are “accidents” within nature. Cells may not behave properly and all sorts of living things may suffer various types of deformities. Most of these do not survive, or if they do they do not replicate their deformity. Such things may inform us and may give an opportunity to our compassion but they are not signposts on the road to the future and neither should they – nor the pseudo science that underlies them – be allowed to misshape any social policy.

Freaks of nature : and what they tell us about development and evolution Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009 Mark S. Blumberg Natural selection Hardcover. 1st. ed. xiv, 326 p. : ill. ; 23 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 283-307) and indexes. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

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.

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