Armand Leroi is not your average Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology. As a scientist, his expertise lies in tiny worms and why they grow to precisely the same size. But outside the lab he has written a book about human mutants, presented several TV shows about biology and done (serious) research into the evolution of pop music.
Leroi has been working at Imperial College London for over 10 years, but he is no stranger to the wider world. He was born in New Zealand, grew up in South Africa and Canada, has a doctorate from the USA, and is now a Dutch citizen. In 2003, between doing research and teaching biology students, he published a book called Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body. The book looks at human variation, from the everyday to the shocking, and how it arises.
Mutants won the Guardian First Book Award in 2004. It has a remarkable cast of characters, from Petrus Gonsalvus, the hairy-faced fixture of 16th century royal courts, to the Ovitzes, a family of dwarfs who survived Auschwitz thanks to being the subject of pointless experiments. In his book, Leroi wanders through the centuries and across the globe, providing biological explanations of hair colour, sex, ageing and plenty more. It turns out that we are all mutants to some degree; we just differ in the way we express it.
Though accessible, Mutants was grounded in Leroi’s scientific expertise in evolutionary developmental biology, or ‘evo-devo’ for short. The field tries to explain how our developmental processes work. For example, how do our arms, eyes, kidneys, brains and other organs form from just a few cells? And why do they look like they do? It’s when these processes go wrong that we tend to get the most unusual mutations, so studying mutation can tell us a lot about our developmental processes.
But why evolutionary developmental biology? Well, studying evolution shows us why we are different from all the other living things on Earth. Development is a big part of that difference. You might expect us to develop completely differently from, say, a microscopic worm, but you’d be wrong. In fact, over millions of years evolution has never really reinvented development. Instead, small mutations mean that similar genes, used in a slightly different way, can give rise to the millions of different forms that exist today. So in evo-devo, biologists compare how different organisms develop to find out how they (and we) evolved.
In 2004, Leroi adapted his book into a television series called Human Mutants for Channel 4. This became the first in a string of biology documentaries he has presented, covering subjects like evolution, its discoverer Charles Darwin, and the ancient Greek philosopher/naturalist Aristotle.
Leroi’s most recent media escapade looked at the “evolution” of music. Last year, in Darwin’s Tunes for BBC Radio 4, Leroi suggested that music, along with the rest of our culture, evolves in a way similar to biological evolution. He and his colleagues proved this by applying the process of natural selection to computer-generated random sounds to eventually create music without human musicians or producers.
Today, Professor Leroi is working on several new books and regularly publishes new research. If you want to find out more about him his work, visit his website at www.armandmarieleroi.com.
IMAGE: Armand Leroi