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She Has Her Mother's Laugh

The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

By Carl Zimmer
15-minute read
Audio available
She Has Her Mother's Laugh by Carl Zimmer

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh (2018) probes the contemporary understanding of genetics and heredity, and provides an accessible history of the subject from the time of the Ancient Greeks onwards. Author Carl Zimmer also looks to the future, forecasting genetic developments on the horizon and unpacking what they might mean for humanity.

  • Science enthusiasts who want to round out their understanding of genetics and DNA
  • History buffs who enjoy reading about science and medicine
  • Amateur genealogists with an interest in getting to the roots of their family trees

Carl Zimmer is a science journalist who reports on genetics, evolution, and parasites in “Matter,” his New York Times column. He is also the author of many popular science books, which have won him accolades such as the Stephen Jay Gould Prize, the Science in Society Journalism Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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She Has Her Mother's Laugh

The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

By Carl Zimmer
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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She Has Her Mother's Laugh by Carl Zimmer
Synopsis

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh (2018) probes the contemporary understanding of genetics and heredity, and provides an accessible history of the subject from the time of the Ancient Greeks onwards. Author Carl Zimmer also looks to the future, forecasting genetic developments on the horizon and unpacking what they might mean for humanity.

Key idea 1 of 9

Inheritance is both a cultural construct and a biological process.

What comes to mind when you think of inheritance? Genes? Wealth? Status? Actually, it encompasses all of these things. Inheritance is a complex concept, one with both biological and cultural implications, as the story of the Habsburgs shows.

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, the Habsburgs were among Europe’s most powerful dynasties, ruling over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They secured their power through the dominant cultural model of inheritance: the throne passed from father to son upon the father’s death.

Long before genetics became a field of scientific study, it was the basis for the transfer of wealth, status, and power in societies throughout the world, through inheritance.

In Western Europe, the Roman system of hereditas, in which a deceased person’s estate was passed on to their heir, or inheritor, was prevalent up until the Middle Ages.

On top of hereditas, the Renaissance introduced the concept of blood inheritance. It was believed that traits such as intelligence and courage were contained within and transmitted through blood, from parent to offspring. Nobles, in particular, were loathe to taint their “superior” blood by intermingling it with that of people outside their class.

But it was basing their inheritance on blood and biology that proved to be the Habsburgs’ undoing. They had the most rarefied blood in Europe and were preoccupied with keeping it untainted, so they only married those within a select gene pool. Genes are units of hereditary information carried within our cells. What scientists now know – and what the Habsburgs didn’t know – is that cultivating genetic variation, rather than purity, is key for avoiding genetic diseases.

After centuries of inbreeding, generations of Habsburgs were born with various genetic diseases, including hunched backs, pigeon chests, malformed jaws, and mental illnesses. Infertility is another side effect of inbreeding and so Habsburg kings started struggling to produce heirs – so much so that, eventually, the Habsburg dynasty died out.

Ironically, in 1592, during the dying days of the Habsburg empire, Luis Mercado was appointed court physician. In 1603, Mercado published a seminal early work, likely influenced by his connection to the Habsburgs; his book On Hereditary Diseases suggested that physical traits and illnesses could – much like a crown – be passed down from one generation to the next.

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