Ask anyone what they know about DNA, and they’re likely to tell you it’s used to catch criminals. Some might say it’s the collection of genes that makes each one of us a unique individual. Some might even mention the iconic double-helix structure of
But there’s more, so much more, and we haven’t even scratched the surface in unraveling the mystery of DNA.
The title refers to the 19th century virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini whose feats on the instrument were so extraordinary that many believed he’d made a Faustian pact with the devil. Ever the showman, he took advantage of the notoriety. Authorities in the Catholic church took him at his word. When he died, they refused to allow burial in church cemetery. It was decades before they finally relented.
The real reason was his unusually flexible fingers, bestowed on him not by the devil, but by his DNA.
In the Violinist’s Thumb, author Sam Kean takes a complex and somewhat inscrutable topic – DNA – and crafts an engaging narrative weaving entertaining anecdotes with clear explanations of the science involved. The writing is breezy and often humorous. As a result, the casual reader walks away learning more about DNA - what it is and how it functions – after a few hours’ reading, than from the time spent plowing through the tedium of a college text.
“Every human activity leaves a forensic trace in our DNA, and whether that DNA records stories about music or sports or Machiavellian microbes, those tales tell, collectively, a larger and more intricate tale of the rise of human beings on Earth: why we’re one of nature’s most absurd creatures, as well as it’s crowning glory,” writes Kean in his introduction.
The book generally follows our development as a species from microbes swimming around in the primordial soup to modern humans. The protagonists carrying us through this are the legions of researchers – serious academics and raving crackpots alike, all find a place here – testing their pet theories, trying to find the answers.
The antagonists are those afraid of what they might find out – religious zealots, politicians, government and academic bureaucrats who hold the research purse strings, and those who would twist the findings to their own purposes.
The breakthroughs of the Austrian friar Gregor Mendel, theorizing about genes from his pea plants, to Francis Crick and James Watson the first to discover the double-helix of DNA, to the Human Genome Project completed in 2003, stand alongside the sinister work of a Stalinist-era Russian geneticist experimenting in Africa to try to create a humanzee – crossing humans and chimps (it failed).
THE VIOLINIST'S THUMB and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code
by Sam Kean
Little, Brown and Company