Book Review: She Has Her Mother's Laugh

by Carl Zimmer.

Lee recommended this book to me, and it is really excellent.  It took me a while to read it, since I was busy with other things, and because I like to take time digest what I've read.  I have taken three graduate/undergraduate courses in evolution and human genomics in the last couple of years, but I was very gratified that Zimmer still had a lot to teach me.

It's aimed at a popular audience, but it is wide ranging and admirably documented with hundreds of endnotes.  Zimmer is a talented writer, and he knows how to tell a story and how to explain the sometimes complex workings of heredity.  He does an admirable job of explaining both the history and the latest (up to 2015) developments in this rapidly developing field.

If you take a biology or evolution course you will get a kind of cartoon version of Mendel's and Darwin's work and thought.  The reality is considerably more nuanced, and Zimmer will explain it, as well as the many steps that led to the modern evolutionary synthesis.

The subtitle of the book is "The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity."  These are all major themes of the book.  One disheartening story is the history of various eugenics movements, one of the most influential of them inspired by the book "The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness" by the American psychologist and eugenicist Henry H. Goddard, which told the story of a family of supposedly feeble minded and crime prone ne'er do-wells.  Although the research supporting the book was subsequently  discredited as partially fraudulent and otherwise sloppy, it was very influential in American psychology and eugenics and even proved to be a key influence on Hitler's murderous eugenics programs.

Some of the most interesting chapters are devoted to the new worlds opened by sequencing the genome and learning some of the ways we are learning to manipulate it.  The potential is being exploited in new crops, new farm animals and even new, humane eugenics ideas aimed at improving the lives of individuals.

Highly recommended to anyone who cares about science or the future of the human race.  It's a long, substantial book, but well worth it.

Thanks again, Lee, for the hat tip.  

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