She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer review – the latest thinking on heredity

What do we pass on from generation to generation? This deeply researched book explores the murky past of genetic research as well as its fast-moving present

Genealogy is apparently the second most searched subject on the internet … after the obvious. Now that we can map our genes, we want to know where we come from. But heredity is not as simple as the passing on of traits from parents to offspring: mothers can acquire cells from their own children; race “is not a feature of the natural world beyond our social experience”; we can chop up DNA to replace the bits we don’t like; and a lot of those genealogy sites are nonsense.

In this painstakingly researched book, the science writer Carl Zimmer takes a long view of heredity. Stories of how discoveries were made often start with farming and plants (Mendel’s peas) and continue via unusual humans (the Habsburg jaw) before being proved or disproved by DNA sequencing, and then potentially rethought as knowledge increases. Mini-biographies paint powerful pictures. Emma Wolverton, born in 1889, was sent away by her impoverished family to the Vineland training school for “feebleminded children”. Henry Goddard, who ran the institution, traced her family tree and found evidence, he thought, that the mental deficiency was hereditary. His popular book The Kallikak Family inspired a young man called Adolf Hitler. The Nazis’ eugenics programme was based on research that turned out to be completely false.

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