Genes are in the air, and not just pollen. Since the mapping of the human genome nearly two decades ago, a slew of books has translated its staggering complexity to popular audiences, among them: Francis Collins’ “The Language of Life,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s “The Gene,” and Adam Rutherford’s “A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.”
Now comes “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh,” New York Times journalist Carl Zimmer’s magnum opus, probing myriad strands of science through the prism of decadeslong, stellar reporting, and a leading contender as the most outstanding nonfiction work of the year.
Unlike previous books, which focused almost exclusively on the mysteries entwined in our DNA, Zimmer chooses heredity as his subject, which includes nongenetic arcs as well. He commences with vivid historical anecdotes, such as the inbred Hapsburgs and their protruding jaws. Zimmer’s erudition is encyclopedic. He touches on the famous (Voltaire, Darwin, Mendel, Crick and Watson) and the lesser known (Pearl Buck, Rosalind Franklin, Rollin Hotchkiss) as he explores who inherits which traits, and why, and why we’re endlessly fascinated: “Genealogy has now become the second-most popular search topic on the internet. It is out-ranked only by porn.”
For all the rich cultural ground Zimmer covers, “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” shines supernova-bright as he teases out the genomic threads of heredity. Mendel’s Law, epigenetic influences, the revolutionary CRISPR molecules — they’re all here, painted in the nuanced tones of a Renaissance master. There’s even a captivating section in which Zimmer, “Individual Z,” peers into his own genome, discovering a few surprises.
Zimmer’s medical investigations unfold with the suspense and flair of a novel, gracefully untangling Gordian concepts — mosaicism and chimerism — in fluent prose. Some intriguing data, for example, indicate that male offspring may lower a female’s risk for breast cancer. Or consider this finding from Tufts University’s Diana Bianchi: “In another woman, Bianchi discovered that an entire lobe of her liver was made up of Y-chromosome-bearing cells. Bianchi was even able to trace the paternity of the cells to the woman’s boyfriend. She had had an abortion years before, but some of the cells from the fetus still remained inside her. When her liver was damaged later by hepatitis C, Bianchi’s research suggested, her son’s cells rebuilt it.”
As Zimmer notes, the advent of new technologies, such as CRISPR and induced pluripotent stem cells, may nudge open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences, cutting against the grain of natural selection. The ethical questions loom large. It’s a testament to his achievement, then, that “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” ranges from philosophy to history to biology, looping forward and back and forward again — a lush, enthralling book that transforms the reader with its insights.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing,” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
She Has Her Mother's Laugh
By: Carl Zimmer.
Publisher: Dutton, 656 pages, $30.