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Faces of the UI: Prof interested by freaks

BY GEOFF WARING | MARCH 6, 2009 7:22 AM

UI psychology Professor Mark Blumberg is fascinated with freaks.

But these freaks — a man with no legs who learned to walk with his hands, a dog in Oklahoma who learned to walk upright, and Siamese twins who can play the piano, drive, and swim — provide Blumberg with a unique perspective on human evolution and development. It’s also the topic of his new book, Freaks of Nature.

The book, his third work on popular science, discusses the stranger organisms in nature, an area of study Blumberg might be a pioneer in.

“I have always been interested in nature versus nurture — looking at development of instinct and studying anomalies,” he said. “I think that organisms like the ones I covered in Freaks of Nature are very interesting.”

Blumberg came to the UI in 1992 after earning a Ph.D. in biopsychology from the University of Chicago in 1988. Today, his primary area of interest is studying development of sleep.

But that interest took an abrupt halt when he became curious about nature’s anomalies.



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His newest book provides strong arguments on what nature’s abnormalities tell us about evolution and development. The book has taken off in the scientific world and has been reviewed by publications such as The Scientist, New Scientist, Discover, and Nature.

Blumberg’s argument centers on the process by which both animals and humans can become mutated. He argues that many anomalies are caused by genetic mutations, yet there are others that take place as a result of environmental factors.

So, Blumberg loves to raise the question: nature or nurture?

He believes that genes are only a piece of the answer when it comes to evolution and development. The deformities that we see on a regular basis are, to Blumberg, simply alternative ways of development.

“They are ‘freaks’ but they are still of nature,” he said. “By studying them we can understand how many types of development happen.”

One of Blumberg’s colleagues, Associate Professor Scott Robinson, works with Blumberg in the UI behavioral and cognitive neuroscience department. Robinson said he believes Blumberg’s newest book is a significant piece of work.

“He touches on an important subject that is underappreciated — a process that involves more than simply evolving,” Robinson said.

The recent success of Mark’s publication, Robinson said, is due to the research he has done in the UI psychology department.

“I have known Mark for many years and he is exceptional,” he said. “He has been a central figure in our psychology field for a couple of decades and does very innovative work in our department, and we think very highly of him.”

But his colleagues are not the only ones who take notice of the popularity of Blumberg’s latest work. Jo Blumberg, his wife of 20 years, said appreciates his work as much as anyone.

“I always think he writes beautifully, and it is a pleasure to read his books,” she said. “I think every book he writes is different and each one has special qualities. The more he writes, I think the prose gets more and more elegant.”

Mark Blumberg tries to tell us that we’re not all that different from the deformed he covered in his publication.

“We are all extraordinary, all strange — freaks, every last one of us” he said in a UI release. “Some of us just happen to be more notable, with a particularly interesting story to tell.”


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