“The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and ..." By Sam Kean

Oct 2, 2012

The next time someone does the unexpected and claims, “I couldn’t help myself,” don’t be so quick to write it off as a lame excuse. Turns out it may be written into their genetic code.

In his latest book, “The Violinist’s Thumb and Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code,” Sam Kean offers a fascinating glimpse into how all those A-C-G-T combinations strung along the famous double helix control more than our eye color or inclination toward being left-handed. A lot more.

Through true-yet-mind-boggling anecdotes of real people and events, Kean connects genetics and DNA with a variety of health issues, artistic flair, cat hoarding, cannibalism and even babies born with tails. He also explores theories relating to brain size and intelligence, the decidedly un-identical traits of identical twins, the dangers of generations of inbreeding, and attempts to crossbreed humans and other mammals, including chimpanzees.

The title refers to one specific anecdote, the story of famed violinist Niccolo Paganini, whose unnaturally loose joints made his hands “freakishly flexible.” Kean hypothesizes that Paganini suffered from a genetic disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and indeed his lifelong health problems seem to confirm that diagnosis.

As with his previous bestseller, “The Disappearing Spoon,” which dealt with the periodic table, Kean doesn’t hesitate to sprinkle in some serious history and hard science. In language easily digestible by the masses, he explains how DNA has evolved through the millennia and what may lie in store for the future.

He also clearly explains how the science of DNA evolved from the early genetics work of monk-cum-scientist Gregor Mendel of pea plant fame and naturalist and evolutionist Charles Darwin to the later research of Friedrich Miescher, Barbara McClintock, James Watson, Craig Venter and many more.

In this highly entertaining and enlightening book, Kean guides us through many of the oddities buried deep in our genomes and shows how recent advances have allowed us to make more sense of it all.