Sam Kean’s “The Violinist’s Thumb” traces the study of, and the discoveries in, genetics from Mendel’s time, 1860s to 1880s, until today, and looks at a lot of issues related to genetics that researchers and thinkers have explored. It is quite a fascinating narrative.
The book opens with the stories of the early researchers in genetics, including German scientist Frederich Miescher, who in 1871, discovered what we now call DNA; Gregor Mendel, an Austrian priest and scientist who began studying the inheritance patterns of genetically determined characteristics in peas and discovered both the existence of dominant and recessive genes and the laws of inheritance; and Charles E. Darwin, who discovered that genes change from one generation to the next, and that over time, some life forms survive while others do not. This led to the theory of natural selection, or evolution, and the publication of “The Origin of Species” in 1859.
Kean tells us that although Miescher discovered DNA, researchers did not really understand its meaning and working until the 20th century. Mendel was more or less forgotten until the early 20th century. Darwin was nearly forgotten in the late 19th century.
We read that at one time or another, a researcher would be the dominant person in genetics only to loose out to someone else. Such is the nature of fashion in scientific research and thinking - you are only as good as your last publication.
Chapter three gets quite technical in its discussion of the natures of DNA and RNA; the four nucleic bases of DNA, A (adenine), T (thymine), C (cytosine) and G (guanine); how these bases form various combinations and permutations; how cells copy their genes; how mutations occur; the double helix; and so on. This section might seem interminably long and difficult for you to get through if you do not have much of a background in the field and perhaps know only the Mendelian Laws. Actually, it is only six pages long, so when you come to read this passage, do not give up, for the going gets easier.
Having stated the basic theories of genetics, Kean, in the next 13 chapters, goes on to tell of succeeding discoveries, including the discovery of the double helix which was first described by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 and the mapping of the human genome in the 1990s. Kean tells us of the sometimes sordid competitions involved in this research. It seems as though scientists are not always good guys.
Kean tells us about the lives of 14 famous mutants from Pharaoh Akhenaton to President John F. Kennedy - what the natures of their mutation were and how they affected these individual’s lives. Incidentally, the meaning of the title, “The Violinist’s Thumb” is that the Italian violin virtuoso, Niccolo Paganini was able to perform such amazing feats because his genetic makeup permitted his hands to be particularly supple.
Kean considers various other questions related to genetics and inheritance. How important is brain size? What, if anything, about Einstein’s brain made him the genius he was? Since we have so many genes in common with the chimpanzees, why can we not cross breed and produce humanzees? What do our genetics tell us about where in Africa man’s ancestors originated and how did they manage to spread all over the world? What is the genetic relationship between modern Man (homo sapiens) and the Neanderthals (H. neanderthalensis), H. floresnsis (sometimes called the Hobbit, found in a cave in New Guinea) and H. denisova, (discovered in a cave in Siberia)? Why did H. sapiens survive when so many other species died out? (You will be surprised at the answer.)
Kean explores a number of other human issues from the genetic point of view, some of which you probably never even thought had a genetic basis. “The Violinist’s Thumb” can be quite interesting.
The few end notes are not the usual, dry source citations but little asides that add to our understanding and enjoyment of the text and you should give them a look.
While “The Violinist’s Thumb” can be quite technical at times, it can also be quite enjoyable to read because of the many ideas and personalities it explores, and because of Kean’s writing style. He makes up words and plays with words and ideas.
Christopher Banner is emeritus senior specialist in music at K-State and a Manhattan resident.