Shortlist author interview with Carl Zimmer
What does it feel like to be shortlisted?
It is a tremendous honour to be included in this company of writers. I’m especially grateful to get to rub shoulders with authors who examine such a wide range of subjects, from history to culture and current social issues. Too often, science gets sequestered away from these topics, but my experience writing She Has Her Mother’s Laugh has taught me just how intertwined they all are.
What inspired you to write this book?
Heredity has intrigued me ever since I became dimly aware of how I came to be, how my parents came to be, and so on back through the history of our species and beyond. Becoming a father only made me more curious about it. As a journalist, I have had the privilege to report on some of the great scientific advances that have allowed us to understand heredity as never before. But I also saw how the advent of direct-to-consumer genetic testing was, paradoxically, leading people to simplistic, obsolete ideas about what they inherited from their ancestors. I decided to explore the history of heredity—both as a cultural obsession and a scientific inquiry—and search for a new definition for it that is suited to the twenty-first century.
How did you research?
This was an extremely personal book to write—by which I mean I got my entire genome sequenced and analysed by a couple dozen scientists as part of my research. In addition, I travelled to historical sites that have an underappreciated importance in the history of heredity, such as an institute for the ‘feeble-minded’ where the ideology of eugenics was nursed in the early 1900s, as well as a California garden where the ‘plant wizard’ Luther Burbank performed miracles on heredity to create new crops in the late 1800s. Along with historical trips, I also visited the labs where cutting-edge research is pushing heredity in new directions. I visited a lab where researchers are following in Burbank’s footsteps, now using gene-editing technology to turn wild plants into new crops. And I spent time in a lab where scientists are engineering mosquitoes that can override Mendel’s Law, in the hopes of wiping out malaria.
How important is it that we debunk some popular myths about genetics?
There are few myths more pernicious than the ones that concern genetics. It’s a myth that common diseases such as diabetes or cancer are controlled by single genes. We must learn to understand how thousands of genes interact with each other and the environment to influence our health. Myths about genetics also exacerbate conflicts between groups of people, by providing a pseudo-scientific gloss to the claims that some people are superior to others.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
I have a rolling list of favourite non-fiction books, and right now the one that’s front and centre is James Gleick’s biography of the physicist Richard Feynman. It succeeds astonishingly well as both an intimate portrait of a remarkable person and a history of the Golden Age of particle physics in the mid-1900s.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing a lot of reading at the moment on the intertwined fates of science, democracy, and human welfare. Today, many American scientists are protesting the way that their findings are being ignored, whether their research concerns climate change or vaccines or water pollution. I hope to find the right story I can tell as a way to convey the tremendous danger of this wilful ignorance.