Mark Blumberg – Freaks of Nature

July 24, 2009

Mark S. Blumberg is Professor and Starch Faculty Fellow at the University of Iowa. His books include The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Behavioral Neuroscience, Body Heat: Temperature and Life on Earth, and Basic Instinct: The Genesis of Behavior. He is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience, and President of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology. His newest book is Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us About Development and Evolution.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Mark Blumberg describes how he became interested in “freaks of nature” as a way to question prevailing concepts within biology regarding genes, instincts, and pre-formed abilities. He talks about why he sees genetic determinism as “action at a distance thinking,” and why he thinks it is similar to creationist views, and describes both as “magical ways of thinking about nature.” He explains epigenetics. He describes how certain non-genetic factors that shape behavior may be inherited from one generation to the next. He discusses “sexual freaks” and sexual ambiguity in nature, and shows how in many ways, it is the norm in nature. He predicts the extinction of creationist thinking, and talks about how freaks of nature are a missed opportunity for those science advocates battling intelligent design and creationism, even as he also criticizes belief in “evolution’s design” and “magical genes.” He contrasts his views with those of evolutionary psychology as regards brain development. And he responds to notable critics of his views, such as Jerry Coyne.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 24th, 2009. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m DJ Grothe growthy pointing. 

The radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grass roots. My guest this week is Mark Blumberg. He’s professor and starch faculty fellow at the University of Iowa. He’s the author or editor of a number of books, including The Oxford Handbook of Developmental, Behavioral, Neuroscience and Basic Instinct, The Genesis of Behavior. He currently serves as editor in chief of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience. And also as president of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology. He joins me on point of inquiry to talk about his new book, Freaks of Nature. What Anomaly’s Tell US about development and Evolution. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Mark Blumberg. 

How are you? I’m doing well, and I appreciate you being on the show to talk about Freaks of Nature. The book I loved because it combines two interests of mind, evolution and sideshow freakishness. Before we get into what literal freaks of nature. Tell us about our own evolution. Just answer for me. How did a professor what you’re researching neuroscience, stuff like that. How did you get into freaks? Are you just the sort of guy who gets into carny culture like I do? 

In some ways, I wish that had been the way I got into it. But what actually happened was I had I had completed my second book called Basic Instinct, The Genesis of Behavior. And at the end of that book, I it was just coming out. I started to realize there were a whole there were whole dimensions of things that I had talked about in that book, particularly relating to the nature, nurture controversy and the nature of instinct. And I said, you know, there’s a whole other sort of take on this. If I looked at, you know, individuals that were not normally formed and it would be another way to wedge into the nature nurture debate. And it actually came about because seeing a dog walk down my street with three legs the day after I was having these thoughts about about these things, these ideas. And I said, well, there there you go. Three legged dog walking down a street that that ship did for Jim Underdown. 

You’re at University of Iowa, right? I think I may know that exact three legged dog. I was just in Iowa and saw another three legged dog at a house party. Wouldn’t it be great if it’s the same three I thought would be great? In the book, you’re kind of jutting up against the prevailing view in biology that genetics explains it all. Yeah, actually kind of argue that developmental mechanisms, what’s happening in the embryo, what happens later, kind of outside the, you know, DNA molecule, outside genetics. It’s one of the big ways that evolution works. But that’s not the prevailing view in evolution. Or is it? 

Well, it’s not. And it’s it’s rather bizarre history as to why not. These are the ideas. Many of the ideas being promoted here are not completely, but from the standpoint of development being poured in evolution. Darwin recognized that his supporters, like T.H. Huxley, recognized that embryology is a very important part of Darwin’s arguments about evolution. But what happened in the 20th century was there was a a break that happened between developmental people who have developmental interests and people have evolutionary interests. And now we’ve gotten to this rather bizarre point in our history where the prevailing view is that development is not critical. And it’s astounding to me because there’s no way to actually create an adult, but by going through development. So the idea that you could actually skip from one generation to the next to the form of action at a distance thinking, which is really what genetic determinism is now applied, oddly enough, by people whom I agree with the part of so many other things. But it’s a strange development. 

And for you, Professor Blumberg, these freaks of nature or these sideshow freaks really are proof that development is just as important as genetics. Would you say it’s more important? It’s equal footing? 

Well, you can’t take genetics out of the organism and you can’t take the environment away from genetics and by environment and experience. I mean, everything from the from the cellular environment to the tissue environment to what’s happening in the room around you, all happening in real time. So I will not say, you know, like it’s 80 percent isn’t 20 percent that because that’s not really the type of thinking we need to move forward, not for understanding complex organisms. 

Before we get into some of the actual freaks, help me unpack what you know, the buzzwords are this is the Evo devo stuff, developmental biology, evolutionary developmental biology, like epigenetics. Define that for me. You know, help me with that. Our listeners who aren’t steeped in evolutionary biology or or the field as you might be. 

I’ll do it as quickly as I can. There’s an old concept of epic genesis, which is against pre formation ism, the notion of all of us. We just a little versions of ourselves that get bigger. Epic Genesis. Was an attempt to understand complexity and the modern word epigenetics borrows from that older concept, but applies in almost entirely to genetic mechanisms. So it’s really a it’s within the global domain of epic genesis, but it’s been really taken over by by geneticists in that way. So it’s it’s really complicated to go into very quickly. But the basic idea is that those of us who believe in epic genesis and are not genetic determinists, we’re interested in understanding how in real time embryos develop and how you change tissue formation across development and how all of these things emerge. So we don’t look at it as here you have a gene and then you have a trait. We’re interested in connecting all the dots in between. 

And part of connecting all the dots is in epigenetics. It’s, you know, the the notion that genes are expressed differently in different or the same genes are expressed differently in different organisms. The same genes do different things in different species because they’re expressed differently. And this is central to your argument against the genetic determinism of most evolutionists. 

Even me tweak that just a little bit, if it’s more than just the same gene can be expressed differently in different species, but also in brothers and sisters or in twins because of the very local environmental differences that are there. So even though the experiences at present will rats get from their mother, you can have different gene expression in one pop and its neighboring pop doesn’t get the same stimulation and you end up with very different outcomes. And those genetic differences can cross can be inherited by offspring. So you can get non genetic transmission of trait due to early experience. 

And that was one of the questions about the book. You know, there are a lot of freaks, but, you know, how do freaks explain our nature if if it happened in the embryo, in it’s not genetic. How does it get passed on? You’re saying it can still get passed on even if it’s not a genetic trait? 

That is true. I mean, the important thing to remember is the old notion of inheritance. Right. Could be that you’re inheriting money. It also. But from a biological standpoint, it means you’re inheriting environments and environments are are often just as stable as any genetic trait can be. Think about, you know, a beaver not living near water. How would you ever know that a beaver build a dam if you don’t put it near water? These are parts of the environment that shape the behavior. And there are many, many different types of examples like that. That that that I could give puts a very important concept to broaden our concept of inheritance beyond genes. Genes have stolen the hearts of America. There’s no question at the heart of America. There’s no question about it. But I view this as a momentary blip that we will find our way back into appreciating nature for how it actually is. 

Okay. Just on that point, maybe genes haven’t stolen the heart of America, at least of America’s scientific community. You know, there’s a lot of America who yet denies the genes, a view of of the world just as as as you might be pushing up against it. Let’s tie all this to freaks then, for you freaks. They’re not just they’re not unnatural. There’s something that’s very natural. They’re just natural variations of how our genes are expressed. Of of how the environment plays on in the development of an organism. And that’s that opens the door to explaining kind of how we came to be who we are. It’s not just all genes. 

Right. And one of the primary themes of the book involves two individuals, one by Petel goat, who was born in nineteen forty in the Netherlands, which is very famous in scientific circles, now boarded up four limbs, but developed the ability to walk on its two hind legs by Peter Lee and Johnny Eck, who was born without functioning lower limbs and with a very skillful, athletic walker on his arm. And so, since the major theme I’m a psychologist, I study behavior and I’m a neuroscientist. And so I’m interested in behavior. And when you look at the remarkable adaptability of each of us as we grow through our lives, I look at Johnny back and I say, well, we all may look at Johnny. I could say, my God, what you know? So he would say, what a freak. What would an interesting anomaly. And I look at Johnny X and I say he’s no different than the rest of us. We just happen to have longer legs. But I don’t see any difference in the way that he learned to walk on his arms, the way we learned to walk our legs. And in fact, there is no difference in those two processes. So we can break ourselves out of habits of thinking, very bad habits of thinking by looking at these anomalies and by appreciating all the things that don’t have to be there at all in order for you to have good outcomes. If we get stuck thinking about genes and instincts and preformed abilities, we really lose sight of what’s really going on when we develop. 

So there’s no preformed ability kind of hardwired in our brain for us to only use our hands if we don’t have hands. Will, we’ll use our. Feet or history? 

That’s absolutely true and see, from my perspective, you know, when I hear many individuals from very prominent individuals go on about how terrible intelligent design is that I agree with them about that. And then go on to talk about genetic determinism. I don’t see any difference between creationism in genetic determinism. They’re both they’re both magical ways of thinking about nature and they’re both equally unrealistic. 

I want to unpack a little of that in a bit. But so you see, you’re not only against intelligent design, you’re against kind of evolution’s design. There’s no actual design and evolution. There are just manifold ways of how we fare in the world. And it’s not like evolution says one is better than the other. You look at limbless people, not just Johnny Mac, who was missing two limbs, but, you know, there are people who are missing all four limbs. And we say, oh, that’s a that’s an anomaly kind of evolution’s dead end. Something went wrong. But we look at limbless the reptiles. We call them snakes. We say, oh, that’s a perfectly designed by evolution creature. And you’re saying there should be a disconnect there. 

Right. We shouldn’t we shouldn’t be judging one of the freak and the other one as the glorious product of nature. And they all basically come through the same developmental mechanisms, the mechanism that led to snakes losing their limbs are not unlike the mechanism that lead to individuals losing their limbs in the species that normally have them. They both have to work through changes in the same developmental pathways. And so there are there are definite connections. But then you see what happens when people, even individual human beings who grow up without arms. You know, in Victorian England, they were called armless wonder. Right. And these people use their feet the way we use our hands. And I just you know, I at first I was sort of thinking that’s just not possible. And then you just brought it. You say, well, how do we use our hands? Same thing. It’s just that we’ve decided that feet are not supposed to be used that way. And so when they are used his hands, we think that there’s something extraordinary about it when. Not really. 

Okay. So these armless wonders in the Victorian era, they’re there as skilled, using their feet to, you know, write with pencils, to do complex, you know, fine motor skills stuff. And. And you’re saying that our brain will use whatever tools it has. You know, if you don’t have hands, you’ll use your feet. You’re really saying that there’s not a perfected by evolution design of the human being? There’s not like one way the human being should even be sure. 

Yes. I mean, my my my first answer to that is yes, but with some caveats. I mean, clearly, the evolutionary process, you know, those of us who have two arms and two legs fared better than those who did it. And that’s why the typical form for our species is to have the two legs. But that doesn’t mean that our brain is sitting there expecting us to have two arms and two legs. Our brain develop, given the input that’s coming in from the outside world. You know, a lot of people, like evolutionary psychologists, think that the only way to make sense of all of this is to say the brain must have modules that are predesigned to do certain things, make us jealous when our lovers do things with other people, you know, to be religious. And are all kinds of silly ideas about pre formation. And then you say, well, how do I explain the fact that if you’re born without eyes, your brain, that the part of your brain that’s normally responsive to vision now responds to touch or to hearing? 

Well, the evolutionary psychologist explains that, like you just did, the module of the brain that normally does that thing moves over and does the other thing. I mean, they have an explanation, right? 

Well, not really, because their explanation usually involves concepts like encapsulation and rigidity, which make it unlikely that such things should be expected to occur. 

So from my perspective, you know, we expect a lot of plasticity, a lot of, you know, ability to adapt to these systems. They have very high level concepts which they view as being pre-determined and established for some very specific function. 

Professor Blumberg, let’s get back to Johnny Eck for a moment. As you point out in the book, it is people who are under Carnie Sideshow kind of freak culture. No. He was billed in this classic movie Freaks from 1932 as the houseboy. And as we talked about, even though he didn’t have legs, it’s like his arms turned into his legs. He was every bit as graceful. Getting around as someone with legs would be the scientists of that day. 

And maybe even some scientists to day said, you know, that’s a hiccup of evolution or maybe a throwback to earlier, you know, species in our evolutionary history when all of us were kind of hand walkers. You say that’s actually part of the problem, trying to explain everything with genetics. 

Stephen Jay Gould, the late Stephen J. Good call that just so storytelling along Rudyard Kipling, you can come up with a great evolutionary story for just about anything. But the thing is. That what we can say for certain is there’s a great deal of adaptability in our developmental systems, most of which we are not aware of because we don’t see all the different ways that you can challenge the system and still have it turn out functional. And that’s why Freak’s is so important, is because they provide access to that information. And it sort of wakes us up from that slumber of thinking about everything being perfect and evolutionarily designed in these sorts of things or intelligently designed depending upon your ear or your perspective. So I view it as a as a wakeup call. Let’s let’s broaden our perspective and let’s see the diversity that’s out there. So you can tell a story. You could say, oh, this is sort of a throwback to whenever. But the fact is that all animals are adaptable in this way. So you’d have to tell the stories for them, too. 

Professor, let’s talk about sexual ambiguities in nature, kind of in this context. Sexual freaks, the freaks are natural. We’ve talked about that. They’re not you know, they’re anomalous, which just means they’re not in the majority on the bell curve. But it’s not like they’re on natural or or something. 

They’re you know, it’s part of the, you know, way nature is one of the many ways nature is. The problem is that we just have a hard time with the fuzziness of sexual ambiguities. We want the categories to remain cut and dry, like there’s always going to be a male, always going to be a female. The freaks show us, though. 

Otherwise, yeah. I mean, I think a great example recently in the news was that the track star from South Africa. Right. And just how people responded so vociferously against her. 

She was intersex and they actually there were calls to, you know, have her go through grueling procedures to make her one or the other. 

Right. Well, she she’s probably got a condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome. But based on the description and I, I I’ve seen people mention that. And that was my sort of gut feeling based upon what I had heard. If she does have androgen insensitivity syndrome, she has X Y chromosome, but she doesn’t have the receptors that make testosterone effective. 

So she’s not officially intersex. But she is. She’s anomalous. 

Well, they they put it in the intersex category, but it’s it’s not as if she has. So she has the genes of a male, if you want to think about it that way. Again, a problem with that way of thinking. Her brain, though, is didn’t ever masculinized because the testosterone couldn’t have an effect on it. And she probably has two testes inside of her abdomen. But they’re not really doing anything. So she is not fertile. But she thinks of herself as a as a woman and everybody else who knows her clearly based upon the interviews, think of her as a woman. So it’s it’s to me, it’s it’s a no brainer as to why she should be included as a woman and a track star, if that’s the condition that she that she has. 

So if we’re looking at these in, quote, sexual freaks, there’s some real social social justice implications to your way of thinking about them. Of course, we’d believe there’s no normal way. You know, contrary to what religion says, no normal way to be male, female. But also you’re saying contrary to what most people think, evolution says anomaly’s are actually normal. 

They are. And they’re really the way to appreciate that is to go and look around the world and see how many species. Right. Evolved species. What do you think of them? You know, for those religious people out there, you know, if you think about God made him this way, well, then God created a lot of sexually ambiguous species. Ambiguity is the norm out there. You go out, you look at the fish world and all of the hermaphroditic fish, the the species of fish that either they’re male at one stage of their life, females at the other, or they’re males and females from one minute to the next. And just the incredible diversity out there in terms of how some families like, you know, they’re constructed, they’re hermaphrodites that happened in normally not hermaphroditic type of species. You know, polar bears, brown bears have been reported hermaphrodites, whales, virtually every species of bat that you can think of. You can find either anomalous hermaphrodites or hermaphrodite ism as a normal aspect of the species. You have all female species like the Amazon Mali savary, which is a fish in Mexico and the southern United States. You know that that is the norm, if you want to think of it that way. And the interesting thing is that what produces the hermaphrodite qualities of these species is the same developmental system that exists in US human beings. 

So it’s not that they’re genetically determined to be how they are. It’s it’s a developmental or kind of is it accurate to say non genetic process that determines their hermaphrodite ism? 

Well, yes, because it is an entire process that, in fact, can involve genes, but involves so much more than genes. And and if you want to go even one step further, look at those species like turtles and alligators that have no sex chromosomes at all. They have no. Genetic differences, and yet they have clearly males and females. And that’s because temperature in the egg is what determines whether or not they will become a male or female. So there are multiple ways to skin the cat here. And and you can do it genetically. That’s one mechanism or environmentally, that’s another. And they are interchangeable. So instead of thinking about the world, as, you know, genetically determined, if we think about the system as being shaped by genes and by environmental experiences, then we get a much richer view of how these things actually happen, whether it’s normal development or a typical development. 

One of the parts of your book that I enjoyed a great deal and we touched on this just briefly so far, is how you argue that these freaks of nature, these anomalies, they really undercut arguments about intelligent design, show how nonsensical those arguments are. Just to be devil’s advocate a bit. Tell me how this is really so might it instead be that we’re still intelligently designed by some creator, but it’s just that the design gets mucked up during this development that you’re talking about, the development in the womb or something? 

Yeah, I mean, I think I think the beautiful thing about intelligent design is you can you can pretty much, you know, come up with a counter argument for anything like God put fossils on the Earth to make it look as though they were only 6000 years, that they were older than 6000 years old. Right. So that’s sort of been a common thing. So, yeah, you can look at it that way. I think that so-called freaks of nature have been a missed opportunity on the part of evolutionists to explore, you know, the notion of design in nature. And it’s a missed opportunity. You alluded to it earlier, the dead end concept, if they’re dead ends, evolutionists haven’t wanted to be interested in it. They ignored it for the most part. And so I think it’s just another side to the notion of of errors like the blind spot, you know, errors in normally functioning things so that the blind spot in our eye has been the classic antidote to designer thinking. No, God worth his engineering salt would have produced an eye with a hole in the back that created a blind spot. But also perhaps no God worth his salt. No designer with his salt would have made animals that were so prone to these sorts of anomalous developmental things. We don’t you know, we don’t know. We don’t see as many freaks around us as perhaps we used to in the past for a variety of reasons. One, you know, we just don’t showcase them and freak shows, which is probably a good thing social justice wise. 

But, you know, you got to love freak shows nonetheless. 

Well, a lot of people do. A lot of people are horrified by them and they’re committed there that they’re gone for that, you know. 

I think there’s still one in Coney Island. But still, you know, it’s it does get us down to the nitty gritty of how development happens and anything. I think that gets us more focused on development and less focused on magical genes. And we’re more likely to have convincing arguments, convincing to, I think, many people who may be swayed by some intelligent design arguments, convincing to them to to get them to appreciate just how much more complex this is and how glib it is to say, well, it was just designed that way by God. 

So, yes, this is a counter argument to intelligent design. But you also, you know, in your statement just now, you said it’s kind of a counter argument to the hard line evolutionists who say that evolution designed things to be how they are. It’s much more than that. You’re kind of taking on both the intelligent designers and the hard line evolutionists, even though obviously you’re you know, you’re an evolutionist of a hard core evolution. 

But I think the irony is that at those two ends, it’s a common way of thinking. And I can in my previous book, Basic Instinct, I called it designer thinking. Hmm. So for me, you know, you skip levels, you do action at a distance, which I think is what genetic determinism is. And you say there is a gene for Naimer, you know, a gene for religion, a gene for being gay, a gene for being depressed, that gene for certainly schizophrenia. You go you go down the divide. And to my mind, that is as creationist at its core, as somebody who believes that God made it happen. 

Wow. And yeah, it’s a little bit off putting the people who who otherwise would agree with me about intelligent design. I appreciate that. But to my mind, that is the same. That is the core problem. 

And Richard Dawkins does this, too, as does Steven Pinker, as do many, many other people, knowingly or not. And I think that to really get at the heart of how these complex processes happen, we have to move away from some of these. What I would consider to be rather simplistic ideas about development. 

Are you afraid that potentially creating a dustoff? You know, arguing against this prevailing view in biology or evolution, kind of a.. The genetic deterministic view that you’re going to give ammunition to anti evolutionists? 

I think that anti evolutionary thinking is. Can’t last. It’s going to die if you look at the trend and you have any evolutionary acceptance of helping work. You know, I just don’t. I don’t see them surviving. You know, they’ll always be art. They’re still flatterers, you know. But they’re going to go primarily extinct because they just don’t have evidence on their side. So by bigger my bigger concern is with science. My bigger concern is with accurately portraying how we think about evolution, development and how they fit together. And I should be so lucky as to be able to create a dust-up. The dominant view is clear. There are there have been many of us, my colleagues today, but also the people whose work I’ve read and admired for decades, whose work goes back decades, I should say. And they’ve been thinking like this for one hundred years. 

Right. It should be said that, you know, it’s not like you’re completely alone in this view. There’s a long tradition of people kind of pushing back against the the genetic determinism or that genes explain everything. 

That’s where I stand on the shoulders of giants, clearly. But they’re just not giants who have been recognized. 

Right. You’re not a lone voice in the wilderness, though. You’re not a complete fringe kind of freak. 

Yeah, you’re right. I hope not. No, I’m not. I actually have a society I belong to and I know of others that that which everybody actually thinks like this. 

Well, you know, freaks can have their own clubs, too. They can. And they can have their club. And this may be one of them. 

Last question, Professor. Knowing that you’re going up against a prevailing view and you’re using a kind of a popular way as entree, you know, thinking about freaks. And it’s interesting popular science as well as getting into this controversy. Were you surprised at all by some of the reaction to your book, some notable evolutionists publicly kind of harangued you or let’s just say they took you to task for being too much about development? 

Well, so, yeah, I mean, let’s let’s talk about one of them. I mean, for Jerry Coyne wrote a review in nature wasn’t nearly as harsh as I was expecting, to be honest. And but he opened his paragraph by talking about he openly review by quoting from a Nobel laureate, Lewis Wolpert, who famously demonstrated the primacy of genes by flicking a wall switch at a concert and saying that’s what genes do. They flipped the switch. And I was astounded at how forgive me, how just I don’t know. 

Dare I say it, unsophisticated. That is as an example. So what is Jerry Coyne think? Who is flipping the switch? So, I mean, in order for you to think that that is a convincing argument, you have to believe that the person flipping the switch is not part of the system that controls the lights. This is the problem is you start to become convinced by your own metaphors to the point where, you know, I don’t I don’t even know what to say. I know many of us looked at that and just rolled eyes and said, well, what can you do if that’s a convincing argument that flipping a switch is what happens during development and that prove that genes control that? Then I you know, I’m at a loss. I have nothing to say to that. 

Okay. Your point there is that that is deemphasizing the very thing that they’re you know, they’re they should be emphasizing when they’re talking about development. 

Yes. Which is that it’s all part of the system. The person flipping the switch is part of the system, too, as is the power company that controls the electricity that allows the switch to have an effect. So you run down the line. They choose to focus on the genes. I prefer to focus on systems. 

So it’s not that you’re just focusing like you might have been characterized as only on development. You’re looking at the whole system, you think. 

Okay. Professor Mark Blumberg, thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. I really enjoyed it. It was it was a great conversation. 

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DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.