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Just Freakin' Out

November 19, 2009 By:
Frank Rosci, JE Feature
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In his book, Freaks of Nature, What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution, Mark S. Blumberg, professor in the department of psychology, and a Starch Faculty Fellow, at the University of Iowa, proposes that freaks are actually part of the normal course of development, survival and evolution.

Blumberg introduced the book to a packed house at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, home of the Mutter Museum -- the ideal venue, he maintained, because the museum, founded to educate doctors about anatomy, houses a number of human medical anomalies, including the plaster cast of the torso of world-famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng.

At CPP, Blumberg said that the configuration of anomalies' bodies shapes their behavior, and that they then use the process of trial and error to find ways to survive and even thrive.

He explained this by making the analogy between the diversity of silverware and the evolution of humanity. He stated that just as the need arose for new and different utensils -- for example, when forks with just two tines proved to be rather inefficient, they evolved into forks with a more useful four tines -- physically challenged humans invent new ways to cope with their deformities. An example: people with barely formed legs who rely more on their arms for balance and locomotion.

"Unfortunate term, freak, but that and monster are the very colloquialisms that scientists and philosophers have used to describe the odd and the grotesque throughout history," Blumberg writes in the book.

Such terms, he continues, say more about our intense fascination with the unexplained and about our skewed notions of perfection than about oddly formed individuals themselves.

His aim in the book, adds Blumberg, is to explore the diversity of life by focusing on some of its oddest representatives.

What Role Evolution?
At his CPP presentation he talked about American-born Abigail and Brittany Hensel, the world's most famous conjoined twins, who share one body but have separate and perfectly formed heads (a condition known as dicephalus).

"But the twins," he writes, "are not rendered immobile by their predicament. Far from it. As with the bipedal goat, these remarkable girls have successfully adapted their behavior (swimming, bike riding, even dribbling a basketball) to a unique biological condition. It may be that evolution has never favored dicephalus, but evolution also has never precluded living -- even thriving -- with this condition.

"What we see as deformities are merely alternative paths for development, which challenge both the creature itself and our ability to fit it into our familiar categories," revealed Blumberg, further.

Genes are involved in everything, but that doesn't mean a gene mutation is present when some living form looks different; environmental events can influence genes, he said in a telephone interview following his engagement here.

By accepting abnormalities, he noted, people can learn to grow in compassion, as they see there's a place in a shared world for all.

"At first look," Blumberg said at CPP, "anomalies are very disturbing, but the seminal idea in this is that humans develop and evolve with their disabilities. Understanding this takes us out of our conservative, comfortable views of life."

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