Author of the week
Carl Zimmer knows himself unusually well, said Terry Gross in NPR.org. At a time when other people thrill at the sketchy insights on ancestry they gain from simple DNA tests, the New York Times science columnist has had his entire genome sequenced—likely a first for a journalist. “It was a very nerve-racking experience going into it,” he says, noting that the results could have revealed a mutation that foretold an early death or that he’d passed such a curse to his daughters. But his genetics counselor had almost worse news. “She said, ‘You’re fine. You have a boring genome.’ And it’s funny—I felt a little crestfallen,” he says. That disappointment passed, though. A “boring” genome, he knew, meant greater odds for a long life. And genes can predict only so much anyway.
In his new book, She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, Zimmer summarizes all that science currently knows about heredity. Which means he is forced to admit, said Shayla Love in Vice.com, that DNA remains a veritable black box. Scientists can identify every gene in his body, often pinpoint its origins, and even speak vaguely about function. They can say a particular Neanderthal gene, for example, is “associated” with toe deformities. “And when I look at my toes, they look fine,” Zimmer says. Why other people with the same gene wind up with odd toes remains unknown, he says, which “kind of leaves you in this limbo.” As research continues, he argues for the likelihood that other hereditary factors, including environment, culture, and the microbes we carry, shape each of us as much as DNA does. As intriguing as DNA is, he says, “we hardly understand any of it.” ■