She Has Her Mother’s Laugh

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She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Author: Carl Zimmer (wiki link).
Publishing year: 2018. 

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh is an extensive explanation of heredity. The author has constructed the stories around his quest into his genetic inheritance. In his journey, Carl Zimmer covers a wide array of subjects from ancestry trees to gene editing techniques. 


While expecting a child Carl Zimmer undergoes the standard genetic screening required nowadays. Doctors recommend this in order to discover potential disease that could affect the baby. The author found himself unprepared when the doctors asked him about possible familial diseases. The answer was incredible complex.

This doctor visit prompts him to go on an exploratory journey into genetics. His goal is to understand how we got to today’s knowledge.

The book contains both historical anecdotes and scientific information on heredity and genetics.

She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

The Long Story of Heredity

Inheritance meant different things over the years. In the beginning, hundred of years ago, it was used to track royalty blood lines. Last century, it was mostly equated with disease and mental illness.  Only recently, we gradually started to recognized its importance.

“The only inescapable proof of our biological ancestry is what we inherit in our cells.”

Two genetically identical daffodils.
Two genetically identical daffodils.

The book takes us on a journey from Aristotle’s ideas on heredity all the way to the modern era of CRISPR editing and genome reading. Along the way, it makes stops highlighting Darwin’s discoveries. Further more, we can read detailed stories about Goddard’s ideas and other interesting insights. For example, we can read about human chimeras and Mendel’s pea garden:

Inheritance in Humans

Carl Zimmer is an extremely skilled narrator. He lets us know how genes were discovered and how genealogy trees were used to trace back ancestry. While looking at genealogy trees the author explains DNA testing for the purpose of finding our ancestry:

“Everyone alive thousands of years ago who has any descendants today is an ancestor of every living person of European descent.”

After a few bad turns, with the ideas like eugenics and race differences, we finally arrive at a more modern understanding of the genome. For example, it helped us get a better insight into the history of human species migration:

“Ancient DNA demonstrated that while people do not share some deep, pure genetic bond reaching back to the earliest days of the human occupation of Europe. […] living people of European descent can trace their ancestry to the people who came to the continent in a series of waves, separated by thousands of years. […] Today’s European’s are fairly uniform genetically, speaking. But that uniformity came out of a biological blender.”

Heredity Today

Today we can order a set of hereditary testing just as easily as clothes or food. Unfortunately, this simplicity misleads us into thinking the issue of heredity is simple:

“We have the technology right now to effectively eradicate Huntington’s disease from the planet, along with many other genetic disorders. But the messy realities of human existence – of economics, emotions, politics, and the rest – override the technological possibilities.”

Twins: genetically identical.
Twins: genetically identical.

Interpreting the results of genetic testing is an extremely complex affair.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh explains heredity in the light of the latest scientific research. Further more, It describes the main principles of genetics. At times the explanation go deeper into specialized subjects like molecular and developmental biology. Nonetheless, the author makes extensive effort to keep the reader afloat, clarifying difficult notions. 

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