Science writing has been one of our favorite themes since we started this platform. The quality with which science is explained in clear language is good for the planet, we think. Carl Zimmer is probably the most cited science writer during these eight years, for good reason. The interview above from late 2016, if you are convinced about the importance of science writing, is about as good as it gets for hearing a master explain his craft in very personal terms. It was recorded just weeks after the most fateful (with regard to science) presidential election in recent USA history. Zimmer takes a “just the facts” approach to the interview, and neither punches, nor pulls punches, with regard to the environmental and other science policy mess-making that had just begun. He just shares his craft.
He has a new book out, which we have not read, but we are glad that it has brought him out on book tour. In the interview below, from just a couple weeks ago, we get a quick read on what he is saying now:
Carl Zimmer is a rarity among professional science writers in being influential among the scientists on whose work he writes and comments – to the extent that he has been appointed as professor adjunct in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University. Zimmer has just published his 13th book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, a survey of “the power, perversions and potential of heredity”.
What is the book’s main message about our attitudes to heredity?
Heredity is central to our existence and how we define ourselves. But it’s not what we think it is. It’s not just genes, for example. We inherit culture too, and there may even be other channels of heredity. And the way genes enable heredity doesn’t fit our common notions. We tend to imagine that we inherit particular genes from our parents, grandparents and so on, and that these shape us in ways that are easy to understand and trace. But that’s not how heredity works. Each trait is typically influenced by hundreds or thousands of different genes, and the environment in which those genes are acting makes all the difference to how we turn out.
You talk in the book about how some of these questions were brought home to you when your first daughter was born in 2001. What’s your personal journey into the story of heredity?
In 2000 my wife was pregnant with our first child, and our doctor asked us to go to a genetics counsellor. I thought this was pointless. But the counsellor started asking me questions and I suddenly realised I had a really terrible grasp of my family history. I felt very ashamed and irresponsible, because here was this child who would be inheriting a lot of my genes. This was the first time heredity went from being something I learned about in class to one of the most important things in my existence.
Linking our traits to genes still has bad connotations for some people. Why is that?
In the 19th century, people like Charles Darwin and Francis Galton framed heredity for the first time as a scientific question, and by the early 20th century some thought they had found the complete answer in genetics. In the short term, that had a terrible social impact, because several scientists and politicians felt we knew enough to control heredity for the betterment of society: to practise eugenics.
These incendiary questions haven’t gone away. The links between genes and intelligence or race are still hotly debated. What is your take on those connections?
There are lots of different ways to define intelligence, but the tests do measure a factor that is stable across people’s lifetimes and that is partly heritable. That’s a firm result, both from studies of twins and now looking directly at genes.
Read the whole interview here.