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Science Books

August 26, 2005

Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body
Armand Leroi (2005)
ISBN: 0142004820

In Mutants, Armand Leroi, a lecturer in evolutionary genetics at Imperial College in London, puts an almost macabre twist on the process of human growth and development. Leroi observes cases of human development where things have not exactly gone to plan, where anything from missing limbs, extra breasts and cyclopia (yes, like the guy from Homer's Odyssey) is possible. But the book is not a throwback designed solely to thrill voyeuristic minds as the eighteenth century sideshows once did. Instead, the book is a respectful look at the nuance of genetic variation. Leroi describes how environmental factors play a big part in genetic blunders that can be passed on to successive generations; a vicious cycle! Leroi also points out that while our morbid fascinations may be drawn to those with visible physical differences, everyone carries within them an indeterminate amount of mutations of their own. This fact raises subsequent questions as to the very nature of what we as a species consider to be "normal". Do we believe that we have reached the pinnacle of evolutionary development, and that anything perceived as different is just an anomaly poking its head above the genetic status quo? Mutants is a worthwhile read as an introduction to genetic variation for those familiar with contemporary biology, but the presumption of assumed knowledge may leave some general readers somewhat perplexed. It should also be made clear that a number of photographs contained in Mutants may leave some feeling a tad uneasy, if not queasy.

The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank
David Plotz (2005)
ISBN: 1400061245

The Genius Factory is David Plotz's account of one American's misguided attempt at what was ostensibly a eugenics program. This book really does make you laugh, cry and prompt feelings of profound hopelessness at humanity's often dim-witted attempts at creating a utopian paradise. Carrying on from previous work written for Slate, Plotz recounts how self-made millionaire Robert Graham set up a sperm bank, called the Repository for Germinal Choice, that catered for the more discerning mother-to-be. The draw card of the sperm bank was that it was to be stocked exclusively by Nobel laureates. You can tell that Plotz relishes making fun of the sensitive yet incredibly ridiculous subject matter. As if the attempted eugenics program wasn't bad enough, Plotz points out to the reader that there were was only one known Nobel laureate, William Shockley, who contributed to the sperm bank and, ironically, he was a notorious racist. You can feel either a sense of sorrow or contempt for the mothers hoping to give birth to their very own master race of Nobel laureates. However, there is no getting around the fact that Plotz provides a very human account of all the players involved in Graham's web of diabolical lunacy. This is most pronounced when children and parents of the experiment meet and the reality of anonymous artificial insemination becomes apparent. From drug dealers to geniuses, the children of Graham's sperm banks and their parents only proved that the nature versus nurture question is yet to be satisfactorily explained. Plotz's book may be a lot of fun and games and amusing anecdotes, but underlying this is a very clear and sobering message. Highly recommended.

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