Science Journalist Carl Zimmer speaks on heredity, new book at CSU

Julia Trowbridge

If you’ve ever read his column in the New York Times or listened to Radiolab, you’ve probably heard science from Carl Zimmer.

Zimmer, an award-winning scientific journalist who focuses on hereditary and biological sciences, came to speak at Colorado State University Oct. 17 about some of the research he put into his new book “She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions and Potential of Heredity.” Zimmer discussed some key aspects of the field and reflected on history as a means to avoid repeating the past.  

Ad

The Murray Honors Visitor Scholar series, which brought Zimmer to CSU, is co-hosted by the University Honors Program and the College of Natural Sciences. The series is funded by CSU alumni in order to bring distinguished science scholars to campus to interact with students, said Donald Mykles, director of the Honors Program.

“In the past we’ve centered on more scientists, and women scientists since 70 percent of (Honors) students are women, but we thought we’d change things up a bit and bring in someone who is very well respected and is a scholar in his own right — an English major that covers science — and I think that’s really cool,” Mykles said. 

Overall, students like Maddie Sheets, a freshman honors international studies major, said they enjoyed the talk whether they studied science or not. 

“I liked the question time. I thought he did a really good job answering it and he was pretty funny at some parts,” Sheets said. “I’m not super science-y, but it was interesting.”

Carl Zimmer
Carl Zimmer accepts a plaque from Donald Mykles, director of the honors program, for being a presenter. (Alyse Oxenford | Collegian)

Zimmer started his talk with the inspiration for writing his book on heredity: becoming a father. Zimmer said he realized that his daughters inherited something from him, but became curious about what. Zimmer compared this to what he recognized he inherited from his parents and grandparents.

“I know I inherited something from them, but I can’t tell you what it is,” Zimmer said. “And it’s really disorienting when suddenly there’s someone walking around who has inherited things from you.”

Zimmer talked about the history of heredity, looking first at family trees from the Middle Ages that people used to claim royalty or possessions. He then discussed research in the early 1920s on eugenics, which aimed to improve the human population through legal sterilization of people who were believed to be “feeble-minded.”

Citing an inaccurate psychiatric study that poor people were passing down a “feeble-minded” gene, Zimmer discussed how the eugenics movement started in the United States and eventually moved to Nazi Germany. 

“This is a sobering, horrifying story, and it’s easy to just put it aside and say ‘well that was a long time ago, let’s not think about that anymore,'” Zimmer said. “I think we have to remember just how easy it is to take these ideas about heredity and use them to justify terrible things.”

We really have to be careful about deciding what is something we want to eliminate and something that we want to preserve. What is a disease and what’s just being a different type of person?” – Carl Zimmer, Science Journalist

Mykles said he appreciated Zimmer pointing out this overlooked historical fact. 

Ad

I think that’s a story that really hasn’t been told, and people aren’t really aware of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century,” Mykles said. “We focus on Nazi Germany and all the evils and everything else, but there were scientists and academics in the United States that influenced the Nazi Party to do this.”

Zimmer said even though humanity has come a far way with understanding heredity and genetics, scientists still don’t know how genes affect traits. He experienced this first-hand while researching for his book. Although doctors could see what his genome consisted of after he took a genome test, they only had a vague understanding of some genes’ effects. 

“I found out that I have a gene that raises your risk for nosebleeds, and I have nothing else I can tell you about that,” Zimmer said. “One of the lessons I’ve gotten from this; you can see what you’ve inherited, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you understand what you’ve inherited.”

One example of a trait that scientists are still learning about is the genes for height, Zimmer said. Zimmer used an example of a mutated gene that results in Laron syndrome, which is characterized by short stature.

Zimmer related this idea to recent research in gene editing technology like CRISPR, where talks of being able to eliminate diseases by editing someone’s genome have created a fear of “designer babies.”

“We really have to be careful about deciding what is something we want to eliminate and something that we want to preserve,” Zimmer said. “What is a disease and what’s just being a different type of person? There are people who would argue that being very short is a disorder, so does it mean that these people, having children, should edit that one mutation?”

Collegian reporter Julia Trowbridge can be reached at news@collegian.com or on twitter @chapin_jules.