Nick Lane relishes Carl Zimmer’s history of inherited traits in all their messiness, from genes and culture to epigenetics

Nick Lane in Nature:

Few subjects have afforded more room for doubt, or caused more harm through false certainty, than heredity. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, an illuminating survey of the concept through history, science writer Carl Zimmer shows that scientists have often clung to travesties of the truth — and that we are still in danger of doing so.

The book is a beguiling narrative of more than 600 pages. It blends popular science and history with a personal journey, culminating in a plea for a nuanced view of heredity. Zimmer ably navigates some of the most fraught developments in research, politics, religion and race: from eugenics, slavery and genocide to IQ and genetic engineering in humans. He combines a deep personal empathy with clear scientific understanding. For instance, in presenting controversial figures such as Henry Goddard — who coined the term ‘moron’ and helped to foster the US eugenics movement in the early twentieth century — he examines their hopes, fears and delusions, before dispassionately gutting their scientific errors and the disastrous consequences.

Compellingly, Zimmer delves into his own genome. After having it sequenced at 90% coverage by Illumina in San Diego, California, he got his hands on the raw data, and approached experts such as Dina Zielinski of the New York Genome Center to help him unravel his genes’ secrets. Zimmer uses this backstory to illustrate how genomes break up into millions of short stretches of DNA, each with its own history from around the world.

More here.