Book Review – The Violinist’s Thumb

If Nicollo Paganini, the titular musician of Sam Kean‘s “The Violinist’s Thumb,” had lived in the 1960s rather than the 1800s, the book may well have been named “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll.” According to period reports, the 19th century virtuoso was a dervish of womanizing, opium abuse, and brilliant concerts, haunted by recurring health problems that ended his career well before old age. This combination was often attributed at the time to Paganini’s purported pact with the devil, but if he had lived even closer to the present, it may have been attributed to a more scientific cause. Modern doctors have retroactively conjectured that the violinist suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue that would have given Paganini both his legendary flexibility and infamous ill health.

“The Violinist’s Thumb” by Sam Kean. Courtesy of Amazon.

Kean recognizes the timeless interest of Paganini’s story and makes it a key example of the book’s major theme: DNA influences our bodies, brains, and behavior in powerful and unexpected ways. From the implications of Neanderthal interbreeding for human immunity to the role of parasite genes in the addictions of animal hoarders, the author casts a wide net over the weird world of genetics. Equally comfortable with the scientific and human sides of his subjects, Kean’s writing is packed with juicily evocative (and humorous) details that illuminate larger biological concepts.

This penchant for anecdotes makes “The Violinist’s Thumb” often read like a collection of short biographies, very accessible and a bit eclectic. In perhaps the book’s best chapter, Kean weaves the personal lives of Thomas Hunt Morgan and three of his lab assistants around a solid primer on the discovery of chromosomal behavior. The details of Morgan’s relationships with his assistants (such as the time he bailed Calvin Bridges out of a sticky situation with a confidence woman) are fascinating in their own right, but Kean ensures that they also illustrate the progress of scientific discovery; in this case, Morgan’s American familiarity with his underlings meant he was more willing to listen to their good ideas than were many European investigators.

Although each individual story is told with great aplomb, Kean’s scattershot approach does leave the book feeling somewhat weak in terms of overall structure. At times, “The Violinist’s Thumb” can feel like a popular science textbook, covering a wide range of topics in genetics without fully uniting them in the overarching narrative of DNA’s human impacts. But more often than not, the engaging nature of the examples led me to forgive the author for his strong focus on particulars.

The book’s witty style makes it a quick and enjoyable read, stuffed with specifics that impress the reader and beg to be shared among friends. The science is solid throughout, but Kean’s discussions of its personal implications are what truly stand out. As the author concludes in his last chapter, “the most profound changes that genetic science brings about likely won’t be instant diagnoses or medicinal panaceas but mental and spiritual enrichment—a more expansive sense of who we humans are, existentially, and how we fit with other life on earth.”


A Woolly Issue – Deextinction of Mammoths

A little less than a week ago, a team of Russian scientists announced a startling find in the frozen wastes of Siberia: the complete carcass of a woolly mammoth, a relic from the most recent ice age over 10,000 years old. Although mammoths have been unearthed from the permafrost before, they are rarely recovered in such pristine condition, and never have they been found with liquid blood. Of course, there are only two words that come to mind when the blood of extinct species is mentioned: “Jurassic Park.”  The central conceit of Michael Crichton’s novel is that dinosaur DNA from blood trapped in amber-preserved mosquitoes is used to resurrect the Mesozoic beasts, with dire consequences.

While it’s unlikely that a herd of woolly mammoths will go rampaging through an ice age theme park anytime soon, it is becoming increasingly feasible that the genetic resources necessary to clone a mammoth will be developed. Blood itself is actually a rather poor medium from which to extract ancient DNA: red blood cells, or erythrocytes, do not contain any genetic information, and white blood cells, or leukocytes, are fairly fragile. In the words of Stephen Schuster, the biologist behind the sequencing of the mammoth genome, the genetic material in the mammoth blood is probably “as shattered as if you took a mirror and threw it on the floor.” Research is already in progress to clone a mammoth from bone marrow cells, which are more resilient and have better-preserved DNA.

A frozen baby mammoth, courtesy of National Geographic

Considerable amounts of effort are being invested in this project, but why (or is it even) a worthwhile investment? The “wow” factor of bringing back an extinct species is certainly a large part of the rationale. The sense of reaching back into the past, of letting people see something that hasn’t been seen for millenia, excites the imagination and draws attention to science in general. Conservation biology has a similar concept in the “flagship species,” a charismatic large animal that serves as a focus for  the ecological concerns of the general public. The plight of the manatee, for example, draws in attention and funding for the preservation of the Florida Everglades. Bringing back a mammoth would encourage a new generation of young scientists to explore the fields of molecular biology and paleontology. This kind of project may also put a more favorable public light on genetic technology, which has recently received a lot of negative attention due to the fight over GMO labeling and a recent Supreme Court case involving the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

Some scientists, like Jose Folch, see a bioethical imperative for work on de-extinction. Folch, whose team successfully cloned the extinct Pyrenean ibex (albeit one with a lifespan of seven minutes), believes that his work may serve as a basis “for future cloning-based conservation.” There is a sort of inherent justice in the thought that species wiped out by direct human impacts, like the passenger pigeon and the Steller’s sea cow, might one day be restored by direct human effort. However, there are many steps remaining between cloning an individual and reestablishing a population of an extinct species. Clones are genetically identical, and therefore rather vulnerable to disease or ecological stresses. Evolution and migration have shaped ecosystems in the absence of extinct species, even over the short timespans some have been extinct, and it is likely that not all species would fit comfortably back into their niches. A less obvious danger is the thought that with this sort of technology, the importance of traditional conservation is somehow reduced. Why bother with protecting existing species if we can call them back at will? Yet as scientists have continually learned, all species are connected; the loss of one obvious organism could have unforeseen effects on countless others, and it’s best to conserve as many as possible while we try to understand the web of life.