Arts & Culture

Reviews: September/October 2018

Books by Yale authors on heredity, baseball, and Jane Austen mania.

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She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
Carl Zimmer ’87
Dutton, $30
Reviewed by James Ledbetter ’86

James Ledbetter ’86 is the editor of Inc. magazine.

The discovery of genetics is one of the most profound developments in modern science—and arguably the least understood. Even those who’ve studied Darwin are prone to understandings of genetics that rely on long-debunked models of inheritance.

With this sweeping book, science writer Carl Zimmer ’87 seeks to correct the record and expand the layperson’s understanding of “heritability.” He peppers his narrative with reporting on various labs, as well as observations on his own background, including a reading of his DNA.

Zimmer reminds readers that genetics has been intertwined with public policy debacles from sterilization (designed to prevent the breeding of “morons”) to immigration restrictions to Nazi death camps. While these ethical issues are always front of mind for Zimmer, he also delights in recounting the breakthroughs of genetic pioneers, many of whom worked in relative obscurity. Along the way are tales about attempts to find patterns in human height, to breed a rare type of cherry, and to breed mosquitos that do not transmit malaria.

The twenty-first-century development of gene editing with CRISPR—which allows scientists to make precise changes to an organism’s DNA—has sharpened the debate over how widespread artificial mutations should be, and the price future generations might pay for consequences unseen today. Zimmer details these concerns. But he also implores readers to consider a full interpretation of inheritance. Our lives are governed by more than genetic code: people also inherit cultural and family values; wealth and poverty; and a fragile ecosystem. To solve global warming, he argues, “we need a social form of CRISPR—a means to alter the practices and the values that make their way from one generation to the next.”