The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean

Written by Donna


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September 13, 2012

The Violinist's Thumb, Sam Kean

The Violinist’s Thumb, Sam Kean

As someone who religiously worked the gen ed requirements at my liberal arts college to avoid taking anything that might even remotely have smelled like a real science class, the idea of me reading a book about genetics, DNA, and cells of my own volition probably makes no sense to anyone who knows me.  It certainly made little sense to me when I dipped into my first Sam Kean book, The Disappearing Spoon, 3 months ago on the advice of my daughter.  “Seriously Mom, you’ll like this.  It’s easy to understand.  It was written for people like you.”  I suspect that was code for “dumb as a rock” about anything involving real science, but to humor her, I gave it go.  And all I’m going to say is this: if someone had explained the periodic table (the subject of The Disappearing Spoon) and how chemistry works to me like that, my high school experience with chemistry might have been more than a series of unfortunate explosions.  I might have even liked it.

So naturally, when I was told that Kean’s book on genetics was forthcoming, I offered to get it for her, knowing damned well I wanted to read it myself.  A little background for you might be useful here—said daughter is currently studying what are known as the biomedical sciences in college—biochemistry, molecular and cell biology, microbiology—and the last three years for me have been a major struggle as I’ve valiantly tried to understand what in the name of James Joyce she’s talking about.  The breeze going over my head has been pretty stiff.  So when I took on The Violinist’s Thumb, it was with the hope that I’d finish it with some faint idea of what exactly it is that she does in the lab.

My hope was fulfilled.  Kean takes his reader easily from the dawn of genetics (Gregor Mendel and his pea plants) and evolutionary theory, wades through all the false starts, wacky theories, frauds and geniuses, and arrives to the present day, carefully outlining not only how all this stuff works but also why it works, and how, exactly, we got from Darwin to the Human Genome Project, all in an anecdotal style filled with interesting stories about the scientists who boldly theorized their way through the biological underbrush to clear a path for others.  Some of these scientists are well-known still today, and others are not exactly household names.  Some were ridiculed in their own time by their peers.  Many of them worked in appalling conditions with inadequate materials (don’t eat anything while you read about The Fly Boys, seriously).  All of them contributed, however accidentally, to our current knowledge.

Kean has a knack for explaining complex subjects in a simple way.  I, for example, have never really quite grasped what exactly DNA is or where it lives in my body.  I know that now.  I’ve wondered what the odds are that I might, like my maternal grandmother, develop leukemia.  I know that now too.  If you’ve ever wondered how they can retro-diagnose long-dead people through DNA, you’ll get your answer.  Still not sure whether Evolution is a bunch of hokum or the real deal?  Read this book.

Kean does not exactly shy away from the Evolutionist vs. Creationist debate here, which I appreciated, but he’s not writing this book to prove something one way or another either.  He’s here to talk about science, not religion, but it would be cowardly of him to not at least mention the issue.  So he does touch on the ongoing battle (although he also doesn’t say, “okay, now I’m going to touch on the ongoing battle between Evolutionists and Creationists”—he just quietly does it) but as I said, that’s not his reason for writing this book, and his position isn’t going to offend anyone.  He lays out the case for Evolution mainly by explaining what Darwin got wrong and what he got right, provides plenty of evidence, and explodes one or two of the more preposterous arguments against it, but he won’t be drawn into some sort of name-calling debate.  He does go into some fair detail about how Darwin was received in his own time, and how genetics almost relegated him and Evolution to the dust bin in the early 20th century.  It’s a fascinating story, and it certainly underscores, again, how these social debates span centuries.  If Genetics is true, then Evolution must be wrong.  Turns out, it’s not so simple, and gee, maybe that other argument isn’t so simple either.

Likewise fascinating are the tales of some famous people whose genetics almost surely contributed to their early demise: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the artist, and Paganini, the violinist of the titular thumb, and a few others.  Kean doesn’t include these stories to sensationalize his topic, but to illustrate various points (Lautrec’s family’s penchant for marrying cousins, for example, certainly contributed to his deformities) about how we are what our family genetics history has made us.  But equally important, and often overlooked, is how our family genetics are shaped by culture and environment (and in the latter case, how it’s not).  That pesky science—it infiltrates everything!

So what the reader ends up with here is a serious look at genetics and DNA that will please the scientific reader without dumbing the subject down too much, but told in a way the average, unscientific person can understand—a tricky, tricky tightrope to cross, to be sure, but Kean does it with flair. Likewise, there’s a historical perspective at work here—from Mendel’s basic cross-breeding experiments to the difficulties experienced by female researchers to the current ethical questions concerning the patenting of genes—that helps sharpen the focus.  Kean is a witty narrator (his footnotes are small gems in and of themselves, filled with funny turns of phrase) who seems to have hit upon a successful formula for helping get difficult-to-swallow medicine to go down both easily and tastily.  I highly recommend taking a bite and seeing if you like it.  I personally couldn’t put it down, and I’m looking forward to whatever subject he might want to tackle next.  And I want to thank him.  Now, when my daughter talks about extracting RNA from a zebra fish, I actually know what that is and why it’s important.

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  1. dichroic

    Thanks for this; I have recced The Disappearing Spoon to my MIL to suggest to her book club. She’s a retired chemistry teacher; the other club members keep choosing literary books she’s not too fond of* so I thought it would be nice for her to have one in a subject where she’s the expert.

    *She’s trying to broaden her horizons; IMO a lot of the books they’re choosing are the sort that take themselves so seriously they convince others to do so whether or not it’s justified.

  2. donna

    This will likely appeal to her as well–the two books form a nice duology, and I’m actually glad I read The Disappearing Spoon first–it helped with the chemistry stuff in this book.

  3. Ashley

    Do you think it would be appropriate for high school students?


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