The science writer and Harvard professor on intelligence, the promise and dangers of gene editing, and how we get heredity wrong
Carl Zimmer is a rarity among professional science writers in being influential among the scientists on whose work he writes and comments – to the extent that he has been appointed as professor adjunct in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Zimmer has just published his 13th book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, a survey of “the power, perversions and potential of heredity”.
What is the book’s main message about our attitudes to heredity?
Heredity is central to our existence and how we define ourselves. But it’s not what we think it is. It’s not just genes, for example. We inherit culture too, and there may even be other channels of heredity. And the way genes enable heredity doesn’t fit our common notions. We tend to imagine that we inherit particular genes from our parents, grandparents and so on, and that these shape us in ways that are easy to understand and trace. But that’s not how heredity works. Each trait is typically influenced by hundreds or thousands of different genes, and the environment in which those genes are acting makes all the difference to how we turn out.