Heredity Tome Splices History, Science

By Johnston, Douglas J. | Winnipeg Free Press, June 9, 2018 | Go to article overview

Heredity Tome Splices History, Science


Johnston, Douglas J., Winnipeg Free Press


This massive volume could have been subtitled Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Heredity, And Then Some.

The book is huge and detailed. But its saving grace is that author Carl Zimmer, a New York Times science columnist and author of 11 prior science-for-the-layman books, is an adept and lucid writer.

It’s a hybrid volume. Mostly, it’s a history of our scientific understanding of heredity. But it also touches on the birth and personality shaping of Zimmer’s own two daughters, and even detours into a nifty consideration of his ancestors. (Zimmer, by dint of the early 20th-century research of a distant cousin, traces his roots to 14th-century England.)

It includes some interesting spinoff tales — Charlie Chaplin’s pioneering legal defence of an aspiring actor’s paternity suit via the use of blood testing, the debunking of Alex Haley’s 1976 bestselling ancestral biography Roots and its author’s claim to have traced his ancestry back to a Gambian-born slave named Kunta Kinte, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck’s struggles with a severely disabled daughter who suffered from a hereditary disease.

A book about heredity can’t avoid the subject of eugenics — the pseudo-science of improving a human population by controlled breeding, especially via the compulsory sterilization of the “feeble minded.”

Zimmer traces eugenics’ rise from Francis Galton’s coining of the term in the 19th century, through to its popularization in the early 20th century, unto its final discredit after the Nazis employed it as the intellectual rationale for committing mass genocide of Jews and Slavs during the Second World War. …

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