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06/21/2018 12:01 AM

Carl Zimmer Discusses New Book on What We Pass On, Generation to Generation

Carl Zimmer will be discussing and signing his newest book, She Has her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity, on July 9 at 7 p.m. at Breakwater Books, 81 Whitfield Street, Guilford. The talk is free and open to the public.

Heredity is redefined in Zimmer’s sweeping, resonating overview of a force that shaped human society—a force set to shape our future even more radically.

Zimmer presents an original perspective on what we pass along from generation to generation. Charles Darwin played a crucial part in turning heredity into a scientific question, and yet he failed spectacularly to answer it. The birth of genetics in the early 1900s seemed to do precisely that. Gradually, people translated their old notions about heredity into a language of genes. As the technology for studying genes became cheaper, millions of people ordered genetic tests to link themselves to missing parents, to distant ancestors, to ethnic identities.

But, Zimmer writes, “Each of us carries an amalgam of fragments of DNA, stitched together from some of our many ancestors. Each piece has its own ancestry, traveling a different path back through human history. A particular fragment may sometimes be cause for worry, but most of our DNA influences who we are—our appearance, our height, our penchants—in inconceivably subtle ways.”

Heredity isn’t just about genes that pass from parent to child. Heredity continues within our own bodies, as a single cell gives rise to trillions of cells that make up our bodies. We say we inherit genes from our ancestors—using a word that once referred to kingdoms and estates—but we inherit other things that matter as much or more to our lives, from microbes to technologies we use to make life more comfortable.

Weaving historical and current scientific research, his own experience with his two daughters, and the kind of original reporting expected of one of the world’s best science journalists, Zimmer ultimately unpacks urgent bioethical quandaries arising from new biomedical technologies, but also long-standing presumptions about who we really are and what we can pass on to future generations.

Zimmer began his career at Discover, where he was a senior editor. After publishing his first book, At the Water’s Edge, Zimmer became a full-time writer, contributing to magazines including National Geographic, The Atlantic, and Wired. Zimmer began contributing to The New York Times in 2004, and in 2013 he launched “Matter,” a weekly column on everything from Neanderthal DNA to the future of life on earth.

Among his awards, Zimmer has earned the National Academies Communication Award and the Stephen Jay Gould Prize. He is a three-time winner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award. Zimmer is a professor adjunct at Yale, where he teaches writing. He is, to his knowledge, the only writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named.

Carl Zimmer Photo courtesy of Breakwater Books