cover image Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body

Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body

Gavin Francis. Basic, $27 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5416-9752-2

An Edinburgh physician, Francis (Adventures in Human Being) undertakes a thoughtful exploration of diverse “transformations” of the human body. His topics include normal anatomical changes such as pregnancy and puberty; abnormal conditions such as anorexia and gigantism; the biological underpinnings of sleep, memory, and jet lag; and external efforts at reshaping the body such as through tattooing and cosmetic surgery. The chapters function less as formal essays than as observations of psychological and cultural links to biological phenomena. They tend to follow a similar formula: mythological, historical, or literary reference; scientific explanation; and anecdotal case—with some variation in the order. This formula, though effective, becomes overly predictable; the chapters are best read a few at a time, according to interest, the way one might browse encyclopedia entries. The scientific explanations often read like excerpts from a medical textbook (“The heart develops in the throat from the vessels of these gill arches, and the ductus arises from the residue of the sixth arch”) and may tax readers without a background in anatomy or biology. The standout chapters—which concern “Werewolves,” “Bodybuilding,” “Castration,” and “Prosthetics”—are those that do the best job of blending the book’s various interpretive lenses. Francis’s wide-ranging experience and curiosity produce fascinating samples of medical and cultural approaches to human change, albeit ones best consumed in small portions. (June)