Title: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh
Author: Carl Zimmer
Rating Out of 5: 4.5 (Amazing, but not quite perfect)
My Bookshelves: Biology, Non-fiction, Science
Dates read: 1st – 13th December 2019
Format: Non-fictional text, Novel
5th sentence, 74th page: He wasn’t any fonder of that school either, considering it nothing but “a convenient way to keep the sons of rich Philadelphia Quakers out of mischief.”
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.
I remember studying genetics and heredity in my first year of Biology at University. It’s not the most engaging of subjects. Actually, it can be downright tedious at times. I was a little bit hesitant at reading this book. I really only got it to try and complete the Pick Your Poison reading challenge. Which meant I was pleasantly surprised when I enjoyed this so much.
This is one of the best approaches to genetic and heredity explanations that I have ever come across. Instead of just reporting the facts (as most classes and textbooks have to do), it’s full of stories. Anecdotal tales of heredity across the ages which are then used to explain how genes are passed on from mother to daughter, father to son, so on and so forth. And it all starts with a personal story, pulling you into Zimmer’s journey from the beginning – because it actually affects him.
This is definitely a book that I’ll reread in the future. It’s one that has so much information in it that you can’t possibly absorb it all the first time. And, unlike some of the non-fiction books I’ve read, I’m actually looking forward to rereading this. After all, it relates directly to my own field of obsession (ecology), and, if I want children in the future… it will affect them too.
She Has Her Mother’s Laugh is not only a great read, it is also incredibly informative. The mix of personal and informative is perfectly balanced and seriously enjoyable. Not the kind of book that I’m likely to forget at any point in the future.