She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
By Carl Zimmer
Read: July 2019
This large (672 pages) book is quite a treasure. Zimmer, a Yale graduate with a BA in English, has been writing about science since 1989. He’s written 13 books including two text books: The Tangled Bank: An Introduction to Evolution (first edition 2009, second edition 2013), the first textbook on evolution written for non-science majors, and Evolution: Making Sense of Life (coauthored with evolutionary biologist Douglas Emlen) (first edition 2012; second edition 2015; third edition to be published in 2019), a textbook for science majors. He’s written countless articles about a range of science topics and is author of a weekly column Matter for the New York Times. This particular book has received a large number of awards and honors from various literary organizations and this reader understands why.
Carl Zimmer manages to help us understand how vast the concept of heredity really is and he then makes this huge field interesting and approachable. He starts with a historical perspective about why we originally cared about heredity (who is the father, who gets the inheritance), proceeds through the concepts of bloodlines and genetics, confronts the messy eugenics movements over the ages, explores the power and problems associated purchasing your genetic information with products like Ancestry.com, and confronts us with significant concepts regarding babies’ DNA becoming part of mom and perhaps her future offspring. This is just a small sampling the huge number of concepts that are part of the concept of heredity. He teaches about basic biology, miosis, genetics, and the new gene-editing technology, CRISPR, among many other biological, evolutionary, human developmental concepts in understandable, digestible, and engaging ways. He uses real-life stories—his own and others—to enable understanding of the concepts and challenge the reader to understand the complexity of heredity.
My sole criticism of the book is that the chapter titles are meaningful to Carl Zimmer, and the phrase does eventually comes up during the chapter, but the Table of Contents and chapter titles are completely useless if you’re interesting in efficiently trying to re-explore concepts in them. The index provides some help in this regard.
While a major volume to digest, it’s well worth the effort. This reader was fortunate to be introduced to the book through a book discussion group at a local library. Certainly having a deadline for the conversation provided some motivation to continue reading, but the book is very extraordinary so it was easy to meet that book discussion preparation goal. Discussing this book with others was highly useful as each reader latched onto different concepts differently and sharing the experience of reading this book and what was learned was frankly quite thrilling.