This book is filled with mistakes

Mutants: on the form, varieties and errors of the human body

by Armand Marie Leroi

Leroi may have spent over five years researching and writing this book, but it is so easy to read and so enticing that the stories it contains could have been plucked direct from history. Leroi has pulled off one of those great feats of effortlessness in combining folklore and legend with science – including cutting-edge understanding. Mutants is a thrilling description of how the human body takes many forms, how these come to be and how people have responded to them over time.

The author tackles a number of mutations over the course of this book, each contained within its own chapter. There’s one chapter on limb deformaties, one on short and tall people, one on hermaphroditism, and so on. Through each of these, Leroi weaves historical accounts of people who had such mutations, and even delves into legend. The brief history of cyclopiea is particularly well drawn. We learn about how the Greeks came to deify that condition and then hear how genetic mutations cause it by failing to produce enough of the curious hormone known as ‘sonic hedgehog’. I was also moved by the accounts of ‘cleppies’, or people with hands and fingers that resemble crab claws. The story of the two seventeenth-century political dissenters, their warning to their executioner and his wife’s subsequent delivery of clawed babies is the stuff of horror movies and nightmares. And yet it is incredibly believeable and so realistic, thanks to Leroi.

That realism is perfect for Mutants. Long seen as outcasts or freaks, mutants are of course part of humanity. In Leroi’s sensitive analysis, they are readmitted into humanity. Anyone who thinks of them as outside of society are, it is clear upon reading this book, ignorant. Educating us about the great diversity of human form is an admirable project indeed, and one successfully executed by the author.

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