Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Armand Leroi. Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body. NY: Viking, 2003. 448 pages. Hardcover 0670031100.

Reviewed by Madeleine A. Vala, University of Michigan

Armand Leroi's Mutants surveys genetic mutations in human embryonic development and their effects on the human form. As a scientist trained in genetics and developmental biology, Leroi's book almost exclusively examines disability through medical discourse. While he begins with a discussion of the historical interpretations of deformity as alternately the wrath or will of God, this attention to the socio-cultural constructions of disability is largely omitted from the rest of his text. Instead, Leroi approaches mutation as a "Rosetta Stone. . . to translate the hidden meanings of genes" (p. 14). Here, Leroi's language betrays his binary thinking, positioning disability as an "other" code against which the "normal" may be deciphered. The final sentence of his introduction posits: "We are all mutants. But some of us are more mutant than others" (p. 19). Despite his efforts to render disability relative, Leroi nonetheless suggests that the human form exists on a hierarchical continuum.

Each of Leroi's chapters follows a similar pattern. An anecdote personalizes the deformity under discussion, be it the hermaphroditism of Abel Barbin, born Alexina in 1838; the conjoined twins Ritta and Christina Parodi who caused a medical sensation in early 19th-century Paris; or the international career of Joseph Boruwlaski, born into a poor Polish family, but whose adult height of 3'3" granted him access to the courts of 18th-century Europe. These stories personify mutation, but they do little to address these persons' actual lived experiences. Occasionally, Leroi includes diary entries from the affected individuals, but for the most part, the anecdotes and freakish photography serve to pique the reader's interest before launching into scientific explanations. Throughout the text, Leroi impresses on his reader the genetic gamble that results in deformity. Only the presence of a specific enzyme at a particular moment guarantees the embryo's usual development; conversely, the absence of an enzyme can result in cyclopia, dwarfism, or stunted limbs.

The overall progression of chapters also describes mutation on a continuum, moving from the more rare and severe mutations to the more common ones. The initial body chapters deal with conjoined twins and the disorders resulting from unusual or absent distributions of "sonic hedgehog," a protein ultimately responsible for the brain's division into right and left hemispheres. Fetuses devoid of sonic hedgehog develop into babies, often stillborn, with one eye. However, with the discussion of skin mutation in Chapter 8, the binary between "mutant" and "normal" blurs. Leroi examines piebalding (uneven skin pigmentation), extra nipples, red-headedness, and baldness all together. Susceptible readers will find Leroi's continuum appealing, and indeed the author himself claims that "the boundary between normal and pathological is never distinct: it is a grey zone, dictated by clinical possibility, or even convenience" (p. 212). However, in many places, the text still operates on binary notions of normal and abnormal, healthy and mutant. Discussing hermaphrodites, for example, Leroi writes: "[This chapter] is about genetic mistakes that start as disorders of anatomy and end as disorders of desire" (p. 218). Genetics here becomes the code to discern "mistaken," "disordered" desire and anatomy from their "normal" counterparts. Similarly, in his epilogue, Leroi echoes his introduction, stating, "Mutation is a game of chance, one we must all play, and at which we all lose. But some of us lose more heavily than others" (p. 354). Like his claim that some individuals are "more mutant than others," the author here insists that mutation pits individuals as relative genetic "winners" and "losers."

The book closes with a meditation on perceptions of race and beauty–what Leroi dubs genetic "variety" as opposed to mutation–and their potential relationships to genetics (p. 336). Leroi is aware of the problems associated with these topics, but he dismisses the claim that studying racial genetics could lead to social inequality: "Reasonable people know that the differences among humans are so slight that they cannot be used to undermine any conceivable commitment to social justice" (p. 346). He describes beauty as culturally variable, but notes consistent preferences across cultures: symmetry over asymmetry, youth over age, and health over illness. Yet he then posits that "the true meaning of beauty is a relative absence of genetic error" (p. 355). This assertion seems to contradict his earlier claim that genetics does not result in social injustice. Studying the genetics of human variety could, it seems, motivate the creation of "beautiful" individuals by "correcting" their "genetic errors."

The strongest aspect of Mutants lies in its written style. Leroi describes the intricacies of developmental biology with surprising accessibility; he refers to experiments in mice and worms that parallel human mutations, but maintains the novelistic, light-hearted tone of the entire work. He often uses witty analogies to render scientific processes lucid. He dubs sonic hedgehog "an incorrigibly promiscuous molecule" (p. 125), and likens the pairing of the "ill-matched" X and Y chromosomes to "those apparently odd couples–a large matronly woman a small dapper man–that one sometimes finds among professionals of the Argentinean tango" (p. 230). In places, however, the author's tone does not adequately adjust to the mistreatment he documents. His account of Josef Mengele's experiments on the Ovitzes, a family of dwarves, lacks the political indignation we expect. To be sure, Leroi describes the Angel of Death as driven by a "maniacal purpose" to conduct "pointless experiments" (pp.152-153), but he completes his discussion by simply declaring that "Josef Mengele was never tried for his crimes, but died on a Brazilian beach in 1979" (p. 153).

The book not only eschews political commentary, but larger socio-economic questions as well. Leroi does mention that wealth and access to good nutrition complicate an assessment of height as genetically determined; cretinism, he says, is mostly caused by iodine-deficient diets. But the extent to which wealth affects the global incidence of deformities could be further explored. This reader wonders about the ability to detect and prevent genetic mutations, and who has access to these resources.

Armand Leroi's Mutants provides an intriguing and accessible account of the scientific complexities of genetic mutation. Unfortunately, Leroi's historical vignettes fail to the address larger socio-cultural, political, and performative aspects of disability. Readers who seek a lively debate between Disability Studies and scientific discourse will not find it here.