Award-winning, celebrated New York Times columnist and science writer Carl Zimmer presents a history of our understanding of heredity in this sweeping, resonating overview of a force that shaped human society – a force set to shape our future even more radically.
She Has Her Mother's Laugh presents a profoundly original perspective on what we pass along from generation to generation. Charles Darwin played a crucial part in turning heredity into a scientific question, and yet he failed spectacularly to answer it. The birth of genetics in the early 1900s seemed to do precisely that. Gradually, people translated their old notions about heredity into a language of genes. As the technology for studying genes became cheaper, millions of people ordered genetic tests to link themselves to missing parents, to distant ancestors, to ethnic identities...
But, Zimmer writes, "Each of us carries an amalgam of fragments of DNA, stitched together from some of our many ancestors. Each piece has its own ancestry, traveling a different path back through human history. A particular fragment may sometimes be cause for worry, but most of our DNA influences who we are – our appearance, our height, our penchants – in inconceivably subtle ways". Heredity isn't just about genes that pass from parent to child. Heredity continues within our own bodies, as a single cell gives rise to trillions of cells that make up our bodies. We say we inherit genes from our ancestors – using a word that once referred to kingdoms and estates – but we inherit other things that matter as much or more to our lives, from microbes to technologies we use to make life more comfortable. We need a new definition of what heredity is and, through Carl Zimmer's lucid exposition and storytelling, this resounding tour de force delivers it.
Weaving historical and current scientific research, his own experience with his two daughters, and the kind of original reporting expected of one of the world's best science journalists, Zimmer ultimately unpacks urgent bioethical quandaries arising from new biomedical technologies, but also long-standing presumptions about who we really are and what we can pass on to future generations.
"Beautifully written [...] [A] grand and sweeping book."
– The Times
"Nuanced, entertaining and balances eloquent story-telling with well-researched science [...] Anyone interested in their path through history, and what they may hand on, will find much to excite them."
– Book of the Week, New Scientist
"Fascinating [...] Absorbing [...] Deftly persuasive."
"This is cutting-edge stuff that could be heavy-going except that it is written by Carl Zimmer, one of our best science journalists [...] He makes complex topics accessible with his sparkling storytelling and beautiful writing [...] If you want to [...] know where the DNA revolution is headed, you can't do better than this book, which is a joy to read."
– Evening Standard
"She Has Her Mother's Laugh is a masterpiece – a career-best work from one of the world's premier science writers, on a topic that literally touches every person on the planet."
– Ed Yong, author of New York Times bestseller I Contain Multitudes and staff writer at The Atlantic
"Zimmer is a born story-teller. Or is he an inherited story-teller? The inspiring and heartbreaking stories in She Has Her Mother's Laugh build a fundamentally new perspective on what previous generations have delivered to us, and what we can pass along. An outstanding book and great accomplishment."
– Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music and The Organized Mind
"Extraordinary [...] This book is Zimmer at his best: obliterating misconceptions about science with gentle prose."
– New York Review of Books
"Expansive, engrossing, and often enlightening."
"Why do children look like their parents and siblings, but still differ from one another? [...] Engrossing [...] Zimmer's book is an excellent way to get up to speed."
– Washington Post
"She Has Her Mother's Laugh is at once far-ranging, imaginative, and totally relevant. Carl Zimmer makes the complex science of heredity read like a novel, and explains why the subject has been – and always will be – so vexed."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Pulitzer Prize winner The Sixth Extinction
If Charles Darwin were to walk into my office today and ask me: “So, what did I miss?” I think I would sit the good man down with a copy of She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, telling him: “Here, this should get you up to speed”. Darwin struggled to explain how traits were being inherited from generation to generation. As New York Times columnist Carl Zimmer shows in this wide-ranging book, the story of heredity has turned out to be both diverse and wonderful, but has also been misappropriated to prop up some horrible ideologies.
With the narrative itself sprawling over more than 570 pages, the scope of this book is vast. In the hands of a lesser writer, the prospect of reading such a large book on a technical topic such as heredity might seem daunting. Zimmer, however, is very adept at combining his personal experience as a father with the results from historical and current scientific research, frequently highlighting the many human stories and dramas leading to new findings.
Starting with our understanding of heredity before Darwin, Zimmer walks us through Darwin’s failed attempt at explaining heredity in The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (see also Van Grouw’s recent celebration of that book in Unnatural Selection), the forgotten work of Mendel that was rediscovered decades later, and the “laughably baroque” cell division process of meiosis that results in egg and sperm cells. There is the obsession of many people with genealogy, something that received renewed interest with the falling costs of sequencing technology. Zimmer has his own DNA sequenced and uses this as a hook to talk about ancient DNA recovered from archaeological remains and how this has revealed that we are all complex mosaics of many different ethnic groups, with even some Neanderthal DNA thrown in for good measure! (see also Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man and my review of Reich’s excellent Who We Are and How We Got Here that goes into much more detail).
Mendel’s principle of inheritance is not the only mechanism though. Zimmer goes into the discovery of the complex inheritance of traits such as height and intelligence that rely on small contributions from many genes, the nature/nurture debate and what studies on human twins have revealed, or the astounding discoveries that our bodies are mosaics of genetic variation due to localised mutation, and that some people are even chimeras containing genetic material from more than two people.
The concept of heredity becomes even fuzzier once we start adding the discovery of the microbiome (the community of microbes that lives in and on us), epigenetics (heritable changes due to changes in gene activity rather than sequence), or the notion that culture is a form of heritability to pass on knowledge. You can see why Bonduriansky & Day are calling for a reappraisal of the concept of heredity in their recent book Extended Heredity.
But what of this misappropriation? Ah yes, the dark side. Throughout all these various chapters Zimmer weaves the troubled contribution mental institutes have made to our understanding of heredity (see Porter’s Genetics in the Madhouse), the subsequent rise of the eugenics movement that hoped to improve the human race through forced sterilization, the horrors of Nazi Germany, and the persistence of the outdated idea of race that for centuries has been used to justify slavery and racism (see Sussman’s strident takedown in The Myth of Race). Given his own Jewish background, his treatment of these topics is surprisingly dispassionate. Although he obviously opposes all of the above, his assertion that “it’s also a mistake to use Hitler as a label for all of eugenics” (p. 499) and his willingness to discuss Hermann Muller’s ideas on more progressive forms of eugenics shows Zimmer to be open-minded, or at least able to keep his writer’s cool.
This, of course, brings us to all the ethical quandaries stirred up by the discovery and application of CRISPR (see also my reviews of A Crack in Creation and Modern Prometheus). This new tool to edit genetic material has the ability to cure diseases but could also be used for more questionable ends such as designer babies. There are no simple answers here, and Zimmer gives a great overview of the debates and the rapid pace with which this technique is developing.
As you can see, I have been reading into quite a few of the topics that Zimmer deals with. Even so, the quality of his narrative, the well-placed humorous comparisons, and the human portraits he mixes in make these chapters a joy to read. There were plenty of subjects that were new to me and especially the chapters on human mosaics and chimaeras at times made my eyes widen in astonishment. I envy the reader for who all this material is new – you are going to have a lot of fun reading this book. In that sense She Has Her Mother's Laugh acts like a portal, introducing you to a huge number of topics relevant to heredity from which you can branch out to read more into areas of interest. The press has heaped praise on this book, calling it magisterial and sweeping. Having devoured the book from cover to cover in a day and a half, I can assure you this is no hyperbole. Zimmer has written an epic book that provides a vast panorama on our current and past understanding of human heredity and genetics.
Carl Zimmer reports from the frontiers of biology, where scientists are expanding our understanding of life. Since 2013 he has been a columnist at the New York Times. He is a popular speaker at universities, medical schools, museums, and festivals, and he is also a frequent on radio programmes such as Radiolab and This American Life. In 2016, Zimmer won the Stephen Jay Gould Prize, awarded annually by the Society for the Study of Evolution to recognize individuals whose sustained efforts have advanced public understanding of evolutionary science. Zimmer is the author of a dozen books about science, on subjects ranging from viruses to neuroscience to evolution.