The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code

Sam Kean, Author
Sam Kean. Little, Brown, $25.99 (400p) ISBN 978-0-316-18231-7
Reviewed on: 02/13/2012
Release date: 07/01/2012
As he did in his debut bestseller, The Disappearing Spoon, Kean educates readers about a facet of science, in this case, genetics, with wonderfully witty prose and enthralling anecdotes. The book’s title, for instance, refers to the genetic disorder that afflicted—and aided—virtuoso violinist Niccolò Paganini, giving him “freakishly flexible fingers” and enabled him to play in ways most others could not. (It also caused him joint pain, poor vision, and other problems). Kean explains how scientists use DNA to better understand evolutionary relationships across the animal kingdom, to examine Homo sapiens’s relationship (both genetic and sexual) with Neanderthals. When Kean discusses the work of pioneers like Darwin, Mendel, Watson, Venter, and McClintock, he illuminates both the science and the politics of science. But he also reminds us to be wary of attributing too much to our genes. “We tend to treat DNA as a secular soul, our chemical essence. But even a full rendering of someone’s DNA reveals only so much.” Kean’s thoughtful, humorous book is a joy to read. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead & Associates. (July)
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