I actually finished this book a few weeks ago, but I have been slow to pick up on the review. I think the main problem I’ve had to deal with here has been breadth. I generally try to pick up a thread or a narrative to follow for a review, but this book is just so broad and all-encompassing that I’ve had some real trouble picking just one thing to focus on and write about.
To write a book that so thoroughly goes through the concept of heredity is no simple task. This isn’t an easy topic for newcomers to wrap their head around, and it’s not helped by the fact that it’s often badly interpreted by the popular press. This does mean that any author attempting to write clearly and concisely on this subject is going to be facing an uphill battle.
Carl Zimmer has a reputation of being an excellent science writer and journalist, with several popular science books under his belt; the honour of being the author of one of the most accessible textbooks on evolution, and a column in the New York Times. And with “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh”, he has clearly knocked it out of the park. Even if you think you’re well versed in a subject, you should always leave yourself room to be surprised by what else there is out there that you don’t know. For example, I thought I was well versed in this subject. And yet, I found some surprises. (The biggest? I had never come across free-martins. What the hell was that?)
In my opinion, one of the best-written parts of the book, and one that really shows the author’s skill at explaining difficult concepts is ‘Nine-Foot High Complete.’ I’d give most of my stars for this chapter alone. ‘Nine-Foot High Complete’ deals with the concept of heritability – describing variation across a population. If you’re the kind of person who picks and chooses their way through a non-fiction book, browsing from chapter to chapter, I strongly encourage you to pick your way through this one. It starts by asking the question of what causes the differences in human hight, and by the end has touched on Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS), missing heritability and complex trait analysis.
While obviously not going into the math – this is not a textbook, after all – a basic primer on these kinds of analysis is going to be of benefit in the near future, with the proliferation of private, cheap and accessible genetic testing. 23andMe, for example, has already provided user data for use in GWAS for traits such as depression, which is a trait that has faced the ‘missing heritability’ problem. I don’t think I’m the only one that would be more comfortable with people making the choice to allow the use of their genetic data in this way if they had a rough understanding of what these concepts are and how their data will be used! So, I feel this kind of explainer is going to prove itself very, very helpful in the long run.
This feeling of being surprised by what you don’t know is not just limited to the scientific sense either. A significant portion of this book, as hinted by the subtitle, deals with how heredity has been treated both historically and socially. Even before we had the ability to explain the ‘how’ behind heritable traits, there were cultural concerns over having the (ahem) ‘wrong sort’ of people breeding and what effect this might have on society.
These ideas carried a lot of weight, and their effects were not abstract either. Zimmer dedicates the greater part of a chapter to the knock-on effects the publication of ‘The Kallikak Family’ had in the United States. This was supposedly a report on the spread of feeble-mindedness within one family, and its popularity was used to make eugenics appear respectable. Despite it being revealed as mostly a fabrication, the damage this book caused was longlasting, leaving behind some nasty cultural stains and matching legislation. Even with the progression of our knowledge of genetics and heredity, and with Thomas Hunt Morgan (the man who established that genes are on chromosomes) ripping into William Goddard, the author of the book, people still had trouble letting these ideas go.
‘It is a conclusion planted by the will to believe’
Even now, I’ve not even come close to touching on everything Zimmer covers across 600 pages. There are cases of women not only passing genes on their children but receiving genetic material form them in turn; people discovering that they have two separate genomes in their bodies due to accidents at conception, effectively making them human chimeras; that some cancers are contagious, and its this kind of tumor that is threatening the survival of Tasmanian Devils; and that that new-fangled gene editing technology, CRISPR, was actually discovered close to 100 years ago.
See? I wasn’t overdoing the hyperbole when I said that this book is broad. Zimmer has even worked a Burke and Wills reference into the book – I would never have expected that. But rather than me adding more surprising and bizarre facts to an ever-growing list, I suggest anyone who has even a fleeting interest in the subject or has interest in doing a direct-to-consumer DNA test, to pick up the book themselves and give it a go. It may be close to 600 pages, but I promise, you, it won’t feel like it.
(Oh, if we are bingo-ing, I guess this falls under ‘So Shiney!’, being published the day after I started a 24 hour long trip across the world. Damn it!)