Connecting Paganini, Dolly, Neanderthals, and the Future of Humanity – A Review of The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean

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Of all the sciences, my strongest bias lies with biology. Physics and chemistry are both very interesting, to be sure, but biology has always fascinated me more than either of the former. It’s difficult to explain precisely why, but I suppose it’s because biology has always seemed less “math-heavy” than physics or chemistry – or at least, it felt that way to me while I was studying the subjects at school. It also seemed like biology was more “real” and less “theoretical” than either physics or chemistry; so much of the latter relied on crunching equations to figure out the effects of gravity, for instance, or finding out how much of one element was required to react with another element to produce a specific compound. In contrast, biology dealt with plants and animals and the human body, both of which were far more tangible than F = ma or NaCl.

Still, physics and chemistry do hold some of my interest, so when I found Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon last year I decided it might be a good read – especially since it promised to make a subject I hadn’t quite enjoyed while in high school just a bit more enjoyable. While it’s true that The Disappearing Spoon proved to be an entertaining read, it wasn’t without its problems, specifically in its lack of illustrations and its uneven narrative tone. Still, I enjoyed Kean’s approach towards science, and though his writing style in The Disappearing Spoon could have used some work, I was more than willing to give him a second chance if he wrote another book.

As it turned out, he did exactly that, and, more importantly, he wrote about genetics, which is an area of biology that I find intensely interesting. That book is titled The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code, and it has proven I was right to trust that Kean would write a better book, because that’s precisely what he did.

I will say now, though, that my enthusiasm for this book might be borne of my strong bias towards biology, and genetics in particular, but I like to think it’s not just that, either. Anyone can write about genetics and I would gladly give the book a chance, but if I do not enjoy the book then I will put it aside without a second thought. There is nothing more off-putting, in my opinion, than a book that one assumes one will enjoy due to the subject matter, but which turns out to be nothing more than a dreadful bore.

What Kean has done, though, is to approach genetics in more or less the same way he approached chemistry in The Disappearing Spoon, but with a significantly more polished writing and narrative style. Since there is no equivalent to the periodic table in genetics (the double helix does not translate very well when writing a book), Kean instead organizes The Violinist’s Thumb in a somewhat more straightforward manner. The first part is concerned with defining what genetics and DNA are, precisely, and how they work. The second part deals with the role of genetics and DNA in understanding evolution, with a focus on animal evolution and how that links to humans. This connects smoothly with the third part, which discusses in more detail the role of genetics and DNA in making us what and who we are. Finally, the fourth part goes into how genetics and DNA have allowed us to understand the distant past; the role they play in the present; and just what lies ahead in the future.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s very clear that Kean’s writing style has improved quite a bit since he wrote The Disappearing Spoon, in the sense that his storytelling has gotten better. The Violinist’s Thumb does not suffer from the narrative issues I had with its predecessor, which pleases me to no end. Reading something with an uneven narrative structure is hard enough without juggling complex ideas at the same time, and that was something of an issue with The Disappearing Spoon. Thankfully, The Violinist’s Thumb has no such problems. It’s also clear that Kean’s tone has improved significantly since his first book, which naturally adds to the entertainment value of The Violinist’s Thumb without sacrificing information.

Another thing Kean handles quite well in The Violinist’s Thumb is his attempt to be as inclusive as possible, making sure that it’s not only male European and/or North American scientists who gain credit for the many discoveries that have led to science’s current understanding of genetics and DNA. Women such as Barbara McClintock and Lynn Margulis, who have contributed greatly to genetics, are acknowledged and, more importantly, given the space they deserve so that the reader knows precisely how much they contributed to the study of genetics as a whole. The same goes for scientists from other parts of the globe such as South Asia, ensuring that they get the credit they deserve for the work they have done in expanding humanity’s knowledge of genetics.

I also appreciate the fact that Kean does not shy away from the more controversial aspects of genetics. It’s no secret that tangling up race, intelligence, and/or sexual orientation with genetics is just asking for trouble, but Kean discusses them anyway. While he does celebrate the means by which genetics has trumped racism, he also emphasizes how even the latest information can be twisted by anyone with an agenda, and he cautions the reader to be on the lookout for anyone who may try to pull a fast one on the world at large. While this is true for any of the sciences (or any aspect of intellectual inquiry for that matter), reading Kean’s book makes it clear why genetics hits us where it might hurt the most. Genetics is what makes us who we are, both as individuals and as a species, and any information, however small, can be used – and twisted – by anyone who thinks it will help their cause. The cause may be noble, but it may not be, either, and it is against the latter that Kean cautions the reader. He recommends skepticism as a useful tool for both the scientist and the reader, because it is only a skeptic’s eye that will catch anything that looks wrong.

Overall, The Violinist’s Thumb is a very entertaining and very informative book. Kean covers the history of the study of genetics (including the macabre and the gruesome), and follows that up with what genetics looks like today, and shows what scientists are learning now may lead to in the future, addressing some controversies along the way. Explanations are clear and very lucid, and this time around his writing skills are such that even without illustrations (unlike in The Disappearing Spoon), concepts are easily understood and visualized. If Kean does write a third book, on whatever topic that might prove to be (though it will surely be related to science), I certainly hope it is of the same caliber as this one, because the world could certainly do with more books like it.

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