Learning your A, C, G, and Ts

A review of The Violinist’s Thumb, and Other Lost Tales of love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code by Sam Kean

Curling tongues. Attached ear lobes, widow’s peaks, blue eyes or brown. They’re all familiar tropes from high school biology class, proof of the genetic family inheritance we’re all saddled with, for good or bad. DNA continues to amaze with its ability to create all of humanity with just its mix of four repeating amino acids: adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. But the story of DNA’s amazing versatility comes more fully to life in Sam Kean’s irreverent and informative The Violinist’s Thumb. The title refers to Niccolo Paganini, the nineteenth century virtuoso who wowed audiences with his seemingly impossible technique. But as DNA research has revealed, Kean notes, Paganini likely suffered from a genetic disorder that allowed for incredible flexibility in his fingers—but contributed directly to the violinist’s early death. Like his earlier book on the elements The Disappearing Spoon, Kean draws out the complexities of a potentially hard-to-understand concept by using the agonizing—and surprisingly amusing—history of DNA’s discovery. Although James Watson and Francis Crick will often be the first names to come to mind when DNA is mentioned, the discovery began much earlier, stretching back before Darwin to such Enlightenment thinkers as Jefferson and even some particularly hapless sixteenth century explorers. Characters include Gregor Mendel (familiar from many a high school discussion of his pioneering experiments on heredity), to Sister Miriam Stimson (a Dominican nun who sometimes ran into trouble with her massive wimple in the lab while working on the structure of DNA bases) to Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, the Soviet biologist who attempted to breed a chimpanzee-human hybrid with Stalin’s blessing.  

But aside from the somewhat casual tone of Kean’s writing and the range of people he profiles, the wonder of DNA remains constant. Even in the past few decades, research has revealed that a sizeable percentage of human DNA was absorbed from other microbes and that one of every two hundred males worldwide carries genes inherited from Genghis Khan. More recent is the discovery that the environment in which an organism lives may impact the expression of DNA, potentially affecting mental and physical health regardless of inherited genes (for instance, identical twins sometimes have different health issues as they age, in spite of sharing the same genetic sequence). There is even the possibility of using DNA for calculations, just as silicone does today. As the discovery of DNA’s secrets continues at a breakneck speed, the lingering question remains: how much do we want to know of our own genetic future? With more research, as Kean personally learns, the possibilities of understanding diseases opens up opportunities for cures—but also reveals what our own lives may hold for the future. Tackling DNA in a manner far beyond what high school biology would unravel, Kean proves that four letters can open up a world far beyond what we may have ever imagined.