Author: Carl Zimmer
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.