February 23, 2020

Review: The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean.

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Thank your genes that you’re here. One of the greatest revelations of the 20th century was not only the role of genetics, but the unraveling of the inner workings of DNA. This culminated in the Human Genome Project completed in 2003 which provided another blow courtesy of science to our collective egos as we realized that we possessed far less genes than oh, say, a potato.

This week’s review, The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War & Genius as Written in Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean reveals the amazing world of genetics and the tortuous route that our understanding took to get where it is today. Mr. Kean has done it again, reaching the short list of our favorite reads this year with The Violinist’s Thumb, as he did with his fortray into chemistry in 2011, The Disappearing Spoon. Perhaps Mr. Kean will venture into the realm of astronomy for an Act III?

The Violinist’s Thumb lays the groundwork for the science of genetics via the fascinating tales and anecdotes of the scientists and the amazing lives they led. Here you’ll find Gregor Mendel, the monk whose work with pea plants went largely neglected in his own lifetime only to become the foundation of modern genetics. You’ll also encounter such gruesome tales as that of William Buckland, a man who purportedly “ate his way through the animal kingdom” and a chapter best not read before lunch time. The title of the book refers to the 19th century violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini, whose amazing flexibility allowed him to hit notes that no other violinist could match. The toast of Europe, he died at age 58, with mercury treatments for misdiagnosed tuberculosis and syphilis (known as “The Great Imitator,” syphilis was often the catch-all diagnosis of the 19th century) ravaging his body. Paganini is thought to have had the genetic condition known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and the author also notes the great game that’s been made by historical geneticists over the years in attempting to retrospectively diagnose historical figures such as Lincoln and Darwin.

Tales both bizarre and wonderful liter the pages of The Violist’s Thumb, so much so that we had to “ration” out this gem of a book at only a chapter a day (It’s that good!) Did you know that polar bear liver is highly toxic? (Polar explorers found this out the hard way) Or that the parasite toxoplasma gondii may induce a zombie-like urge to “hoard cats” in its hosts? Or that the ability for human adults to digest lactose only evolved relatively recently?

One of the most poignant revelations that our genes have told us is how close we came to near extinction about 70,000 years ago. Our lack of diversity points to an especially low population, with perhaps less than 1,000 humans eking out a pre-historic existence! And yet, with the end of the last Ice Age, we suddenly began farming, building cities, and betting on blackjack after millions of years of hunter gathering. Could a subtle “tweak” in our genes be to blame?

Where will this genetic odyssey lead? The author explores the state of the field as well as the legal ramifications of the current genetic revolution. Will computer “software” give way to DNA “wetware” as biology merges with technology? Will epigenetics re-write everything? The Violinist’s Thumb is an intriguing read, one that illuminates the science with the human stories behind it, and one that we give a hearty recommendation to!


  1. [...] another great read on the history of genetics pre-Watson and Crick, be sure to check out The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean. Share this:TweetFacebookLinkedInTumblrStumbleDiggDelicious Pin It Filed Under: [...]

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