Saturday, August 25, 2012

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


Little, Brown, and Company, ISBN 9780316202978, July 2012

This is a fascinating look at the history of genetics, both the science itself and the often quirky and peculiar personalities who moved it ahead. Sam Kean starts off with the story of his own parents--Gene and Jean Kean--and how their accidentally punny names both afflicted and fed his own interest in genetics.

That's merely the appetizer, though; the main course consists of the major breakthroughs in genetics, starting with Gregor Mendel, a wildly strong personality whose major work ground to a halt when he was elected abbot of his monastery, and whose notes (but not his published work, blessedly) were burned after his death, to avoid further scandal related, not to his scientific work, but to the tax dispute between the monastery and the Austrian government.

His work on inheritance and discovery of the basic principles of genetics was forgotten after his death, and not rediscovered until 1900, when Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns independently duplicated his work and then found his published papers. Darwin was unaware of Mendel's work, and when it was rediscovered, it was initially perceived as a major challenge to Darwinism. Darwin, like most after him until the rediscovery of Mendel's work, believed in "blended inheritance," rather than the discrete units of heritable characteristics and the essentially on/of nature of many characteristics due to dominant and recessive genes.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, we had the high-profile competition between Craig Venter and his for-profit Celera, and the non-profit Human Genome Project in the race to sequence the human genome. In between we had the adoption of Drosophila melanogaster (the common fruit fly) as the ideal vehicle for genetics research, Lynn Margulis' discovery of "jumping genes," and James D. Watson, Francis Crick Rosalind Franklin, and Maurice Wilkins' discovery of the DNA "double helix" structure.

It's a fascinating story, and very well told.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.