Science Nonfiction: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh

June 21, 2021 Uncategorized 6 ★★★★★

Science Nonfiction: She Has Her Mother’s LaughTitle: She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity
Author: Carl Zimmer
Source: Library
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: This was an engaging, fresh look at some fascinating science history and current questions in science.

Although the description of this book promises “a profoundly original perspective on what we pass along from generation to generation”, I was skeptical. I’ve read a lot of books on genetics at this point and a lot of the anecdotes are getting stale. I’m pleasantly surprised to report, however, that this book really did give a fresh perspective on several interesting topics in genetics. These topics were connected to one another in a new way conceptually, which was very cool. And this new perspective meant that the anecdotes and science history the author included weren’t always the same old stories I’ve read over and over again. These stories were told in such engaging ways that I couldn’t put this down.

The book leads with a history of our understanding of heredity. I’ve recently complained about a book that was more science history than science, so I had to think about why I enjoyed the stories included here. I think the key difference is that in the field of heredity, even wrong ideas had enormous social implications. Mistakes in botany, for example, may simply be dead ends. They aren’t especially relevant to the modern world. Incorrect ideas about heredity shaped everything from monarchies to WWII, as well as slavery and sterilization programs in the US. The author did a great job sharing stories of individual people, both scientists who were working in this field and people whose lives were shaped by the scientific consensus.

I was impressed with the way the author handled the important topics brought up by this difficult history. His thorough examination of race and how poorly that concept maps onto what we actually know about heredity was fascinating. He did directly quote several racist remarks from scientists, doctors, and politicians. I think these direct quotes serve the valuable purpose of showing what people in these professions truly thought. It’s also very clear that the author doesn’t agree with them. However, the details may still unpleasantly surprise the unsuspecting reader, so this is your content warning.

After the discussions of heredity and race, the author surprised me by moving into topics like evolutionary development and genome editing. He looks at heredity in the context of new cells growing within one organism. He also presents a thoughtful discussion of the ways scientific intervention in reproduction can challenge our current ideas about heredity. With this new perspective on both older science history and hot topics like CRISPR-based genome editing, the author created a timely, engaging, and yes, original book on this much covered topic. As always, a focus on human stories can make science vividly entertaining and Zimmer is clearly an expert at that approach. I enjoyed this immensely and would definitely read more of his work.

6 Responses to “Science Nonfiction: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh”

  1. louloureads

    Oh, this sounds fascinating, and I’m really pleased to hear that the author has actually interrogated the views of scientists and authors. So often we hear that science is objective fact, when of course people design experiments with preconceived biases and interpret the results with those same biases in place, even if the data collection itself is done fairly. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for this one – thanks for sharing your review!
    louloureads recently posted…Patricia Brent, Spinster #20booksofsummer21My Profile

    • DoingDewey

      Really good point! That was something I liked about this one. The author was very clear about how people have and continue to misuse genetics to support racist ideas that have now been thoroughly debunked.

  2. Jenny @ Reading the End

    Ooh, awesome! That’s such a great point about heredity science having massive social implications even (especially?) when it’s wrong, and it’s great to find a book that actually knows that and is willing to address them head-on. Adding to the list!

    • DoingDewey

      I don’t know that I’ve come across any other books with descriptions that are completely focused on the science and that said nothing about race which does such a good job interrogating where scientists got it wrong in regards to older ideas about race. That was a surprisingly large portion of the book and it was really well done 🙂

  3. Rennie

    Loved getting your take on this! You definitely made such a good point about the way he dealt with race issues here. I’m kind of in awe at how many angles of this topic he managed to cover and still make it so readable. Definitely give his most recent book, Life’s Edge, a try. I felt like it was very similarly structured in the ways you pick out, like the historical mistakes that ended up being significant.

    Thanks for chatting about this one, was so much fun! 🙂
    Rennie recently posted…Two Mysteries: What Happened to Paula and Atlantis BlackMy Profile

    • DoingDewey

      I was also really impressed with how many different ways he came at the topic of heredity! It’s good to know his other books have the same qualities I enjoyed in this one; I’ll definitely get to them eventually. I really enjoyed talking about this one too 😀

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