Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2009 | Reviews

Word on the Freak by Mark S. Blumberg

By IAM Staff
"Step right up! Step right up to see the greatest natural curiosities in the world! A bearded lady! Siamese twins! The Elephant Man!"

A UI psychologist explains why nature's oddities are no accident.

P.T. Barnum lured in scores of customers with such pitches, making a fortune on people's fascination with "freaks." But while physical abnormalities continue to draw the public's eye, a UI psychologist's new book claims that scientists don't pay them nearly enough notice.

In Freaks of Nature, Mark Blumberg suggests that nature's curiosities can teach scientists much about the development and evolution of body, brain, and behavior. While Charles Darwin and others have disregarded freak show headliners as "abrupt accidents" and "evolutionary dead ends," Blumberg defends them as evidence that nature and nurture play equally important roles in development.

"To me, the nature-nurture debate is a dead end," says the UI behavioral and cognitive neuroscience professor. "Asking whether something is more nature or more nurture is like asking whether a hurricane is more wind or rain. It's both—always both."

Written in a style that makes it accessible and engaging for a lay audience, Blumberg's buzzworthy book has also stirred debate in the scientific community about whether Freaks of Nature downplays the influence of genetics on development. To the contrary, Blumberg asserts that scientists focus so much on genes that they've overlooked how people and animals adapt to their environmental challenges. To illustrate his point, he offers examples such as a two-legged goat that learned to walk upright, a man without legs who became a hand-walker, and conjoined twins who worked together to drive, swim, and play piano.

"Left to its own devices, nature always takes exception to the rule, undermines the archetype, and reminds us that our ideas about what is natural and what we should do to correct nature's 'imperfections' are as sound as a sandcastle batterd by a rising tide," says Blumberg. "And nothing batters those ideas with more gusto, more shock and awe, than the creature in nature that is malformed or otherwise anomalous: the freak."

"We are all extraordinary, all strange—freaks, every last one of us. Some of us just happen to be more notable."