Iintroduce my first-year course in genetics at University College London by telling the students that “this course sets out to make sex boring.” They look a little baffled, but after 24 lectures, they know exactly what I mean. Even so, in the compulsory questionnaire at the course's end, common complaints include “too many jokes” and “fewer silly stories, please.” Despite its real strengths, The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code is in danger of getting the same response.
To nonbiologists, a certain mystique often accompanies the term genetics, as if the concept itself is the path to understanding our individual fate when it comes to differences in sex, age and death, mood, faith, intellect, and more. A Google search for “scientists find the gene for” delivers thousands of hits—for musicality, health, wealth, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—which is surprising, given that almost no success has been found in tracking down the genetic differences responsible for even that highly inheritable characteristic, human height. Sam Kean, author of The Violinist's Thumb, is a much more dependable source of information, because he is willing to discount the many absurd claims that surround the subject. However, he—as have most modern authors—has overGoogled some of his dramatis personae to come up with ever more arcane tales to decorate—and sometimes even to obscure—his narrative.
From its earliest days, the study of inheritance has attracted eccentric characters. As a result, it is easy to accessorize its history with colorful protagonists and outrageous tales (I do it all the time). Kean succumbs to this temptation (perhaps because his parents were called Jean and Gene; I, myself, do not blame my interest in the subject on the fact that my mother was an identical twin). The book's title comes from his own clumsiness, which was revealed when he found himself too ham-fisted to learn the clarinet, in stark contrast to Paganini's extraordinary abilities on the violin—due not to a pact with the devil, as many believed, but to an inherited condition called EhlersDanlos syndrome, which damages collagen in the ligaments and leads to extraordinarily flexible hands, together with a host of unpleasant side effects.
Kean takes the historical tour of genetics from Mendel to Venter and beyond, and, everywhere, he finds anecdotes about the scientists, the frauds, and the charlatans who have accompanied the field from its birth. I did not know that Mendel smoked 20 cigars a day or that Venter once had a gun held to his head by his girlfriend's angry father (although I had read that he has long segments of DNA that are more often found in chimpanzees). Along the tour, Kean does not hesitate to make startling claims—for example, that artistic talent is like “throbbing-red baboon derrières,” a sexually selected character, as is manifest in Paganini's promiscuity and in Toulouse-Lautrec's penchant for prostitutes. The author's tendency toward agonizing metaphor is repeated, like a DNA sequence, rather too often (e.g., early primates were “milquetoast midnight bug-biters”). Scientists themselves share the same weakness, shown by the relentless jocularity of those who name Drosophila mutations: ken and barbie mutants have no genitalia, and the turnip mutant is stupid, whereas the sonic hedgehog mutant turns out, embarrassingly for those who discovered it, to be responsible for birth disorders and cancers in humans.
Fun and games aside, Kean reveals a deep and up-to-date knowledge of modern genetics in his book, which he weaves into an engrossing account that links apparently unconnected observations together in ingenious ways. He suggests that the eccentrics who owned 689 house cats were infected with Toxoplasma (a parasite that causes mice, who normally avoid cat urine, to regard it as a heavenly scent) and uses this scenario to introduce the extraordinary role of viruses in the human genome, which includes the possibility that their ability to make cells stick together may have led to the origin of the placenta.
The closing pages of The Violinist's Thumb reveal that the poisoned relationships among the great geneticists of long ago are sometimes mirrored in their modern equivalents and that both industry and the public still have an equivocal view of the threats and promises coded into the double helix. The Human Genome Project extracted vast sums of government cash with a vague promise that to read off the genome's message would lead to a new era of personalized medicine. In a world in which the simplicity of Mendel's peas has turned into the pea soup of epigenetics—in which gene and environment are intimately and perhaps inextricably mixed—that promise looks increasingly hollow, and this book is not afraid to say so. Rather like the genome itself, among all the redundancy, there is an important and engrossing message that this book manages, with considerable effort, to get out.