Stories of heredity: “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh”

The title refers to a book I just finished reading. I’ll tell you more in a moment. But first, I need to report “breaking news.” Last night, while scrolling through my social media feeds, a cutesy entry from the pop culture website Buzzfeed showed up: “32 People That Look So Much Like Their Parent You’ll Think They’re Actually Twins Instead” (subheading: “DNA is weird”). Of course, you could certainly debate how much some of these entries fit the promise of the headline. But the post highlights the ongoing curiosity many people have about the power of the programming inside our cells that properly outfits us not only with body parts in all the assigned places (most of the time), but also the subtleties that define us as unique individuals—variations on a theme sent along from our parents before us.


The white glob contains DNA removed from strawberry cells. Cool!

At an impressionable age (9th grade), I became enamored with the remarkable molecule with the unwieldy name “deoxyribonucleic acid” (DNA for short). I embarked on a personal journey of education and scientific investigation that led me through the history of genetics, the role of DNA as the hard drive of information storage in living things, and even deep exploration of a tiny part of the genetic programming of a generally overlooked mushroom. Now, from my perch at the front of a classroom, I follow and report to a new generation of students the newest discoveries of genomics—studying all the DNA inside organisms as a whole, powered in no small part by advances in our own human-based computer programming savvy to crunch a lot of data. But even a geneticist can suffer from information overload. Keeping up with the fast pace of discovery and revision of models in this accelerating area of science can feel like a superhuman trait of its own.


I don’t usually read popular books about genetics. Many of them are simply overviews of concepts I already know (and teach), and I’d rather spend my time reading about something I don’t already know. But social media struck again: scientists and science communicators had started posting updates on Twitter about a new book they were eager to read (or had just finished): She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, by Carl Zimmer. Zimmer writes widely about science for The New York Times and various popular magazines. He teaches science writing at Yale and has written books on other biology themes. In other words, I know who this person is and why I should want to read his new book about genes. I dutifully requested it from my local public library and was loaned a very thick book. A summer read, indeed. I reported to friends and family last month what I was embarking on, and they all agreed this was clearly the book for me to read this summer. I had plenty of downtime on a recent family vacation, and so I was able to dig right in.

Zimmer book

Cover of Carl Zimmer’s new book, featuring a colorful depiction of a genome as art (by Sandra Culliton). 

Except, here’s the key thing: it’s not a book for scientists. It’s a book for anyone who is curious about the human condition and the nature of living things (and has a little time on their hands). Zimmer treats the history of the study, interpretation, and application of information about heredity as a story. Each chapter is somewhat cryptically titled, and we must follow the storyline to discover its meaning. Some chapters describe interesting people and their contributions to our understanding over time of the components of heredity. Others highlight an interesting story about a trait and how that changed how we think about genetics. Some chapters are darker ones, considering how human nature sometimes exploits information (or misinformation) about genetics. Zimmer also includes the newest breakthroughs in genetic technology, and interweaves perspectives from other disciplines. Through it all, we see both the process of science and some curious stories about genetics that don’t always make the cut in a basic science class, a traditional textbook, or the latest news headline.

But that’s all I’m going to say. No other spoilers. Even the back cover—crammed full of recommendations from famous scientists and contemporary science writers—doesn’t spoil the story. No one on Twitter mentioned how the story unfolds. And that was the best part. So many new media—from books to music to movies—can be discovered and dissected online, almost in real time. But not this book, at least not for me. And so I’ll leave it here for you to unravel on your own, too, if you choose. Overall, I recommend it enthusiastically. As a geneticist and educator, I learned a lot of interesting back stories as well as updates on new topics that may change how I teach certain topics to my own students. The book also intersects with broader conversations many writers and scientists are having about invoking more narrative structure in communicating about science (see several earlier blog posts of mine for more on this topic). Zimmer presents a carefully crafted example that many people may find interesting to consider on that front. But remember: it’s a book for everyone who is driven by curiosity. And if you really don’t know very much about genetics, it’s a great place to start. I think you’ll be rewarded for your efforts.

Oh, and I plan to go buy a copy for myself. I’ve got to return mine to the library today for the next patron who requested it. Happy reading!

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