Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body(Book Review)

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The Goodreads description of Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

I love pop science, I love books, I love biology, and I love medical history. Surely a pop science book focusing on the biological basis for genetic mutations and how they were handled both socially and medically over the last several hundred years would be right up my alley. Combine that with goodreads recommending it to me and it having a 4.1 rating with over 1,000 reviews and Mutants jumped up my reading list.

Things started off great with a discussion of case studies of conjoined twins in the 1600s. I assumed mutations of that degree would universally be looked upon as evil in that time, so learning that there was an extremely celebrated conjoined twins birth in Europe took me off guard. The birth closely followed a peace treaty being signed between two long warring regions, so the conjoined twins were seen as God blessing the union. Cool, I’m learning things already. This was followed by a brief overview of the debate at the time within the church regarding whether birth defects were part of God’s divine creation and therefor beautiful or the result of The Fall and symptoms of mankind’s sin. Great, this is precisely what I picked up this book for.

Then the author moved the discussion to what happens in the womb to cause conjoined twins. Then the author stayed on what happens in the womb. Then the author stalled on what happens in the womb. Then the author started using terms I don’t remember from the developmental biology portion of my biology degree to describe what happens in the womb.

This was pretty much the pattern for the book. There were a few fascinating nuggets buried in what can only be described as advanced embryology. There is nothing wrong with embryology. It is a field with tons of questions, a great deal of depth, and a certain beauty in its universality not just for humans, but all creatures. It didn’t help that the author insisted upon a top of the line vocabulary for even the non medical portions and there are only so many times per chapter you can use the word ‘vicissitudes’ before you sound pretentious.

I don’t mean to give the impression this is a bad book. The biology content was top of the line(there is an 80 page bibliography attached) and the historical case studies were truly fascinating. The issue is that if I didn’t have the background in biology I have, much of the book would have been incomprehensible and tricky to pick up on the fly. Mutants is a great science book, hence the high reviews it had on goodreads. It is a poor pop science book. If the topic of genetic mutations is interesting to you and you have some background in the field, then you’ll gain some great insight. If the topic of genetic mutations is interesting to you, but the last time you took biology was high school, then you still might enjoy Mutants, you’re just going to have to slog through some densely packed new information tat rapidly builds upon itself. If you’re not big on genetic mutation this book isn’t going to convince you to go back to school and pick up a new major.

As a final note, if you are the type of person who skips epilogues figuring if it was really important the author would have included it in the rest of the book, ignore that rule in this case. The epilogue is almost as long as one of the chapters but is worth your time. The author does an excellent job presenting data on genetic variation between different towns, then countries, and finally continents to show that despite all the variation the book discusses, we really are quite alike and should bear in mind. Discussing genetic variation between races of humans is a charged issue and the author handles it with the same clinical eye for detail they use in the rest of the text.

I should have written this up before The Monuments Men, it is a much better example of why my rating system is a little different. As a reminder, my star rating is based upon the percentage of people I think would enjoy it, not how good I think the content is. In the case of Mutants, the content is truly fantastic, but I’m going to give it a low rating because this book almost perfectly fits my two star rank.

★★☆☆☆ – The information is great but the author has written it in a way that makes it tricky for anyone other than a biology nerd(something I proudly am) to get much out of it thanks to the language barrier. A reminder of my rating system.

As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.

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