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A Brief Summary and Review
on 21 July 2012
*A full executive-style summary of this book is now available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com.
In a sense the story of DNA has two strands. On the one hand, as the blueprint of all that lives and the mechanism of heredity, DNA tells the story of life (and the history of life), from the smallest, simplest microbe, to we human beings, who have managed to figure all of this out. Of course, there is still much about DNA that we don't know. But given that we didn't even know of its existence until a lowly Swiss physician and biologist named Friedrich Miescher stumbled upon it in the 1860's, you have to admit we've come a long way in such a short time. And this is just where the second strand of the story of DNA begins: the story of our unraveling the mystery. While perhaps not as grandiose as the story of life itself, this detective story is significant in its own right, for it has transformed how we understand all that lives--including ourselves. This is especially the case given that the latest chapters in this story have revealed not only our own genomic blueprint, but the (deeply daunting) fact that we have the power to change this blueprint and thus became the masters of our own future as a species. While each of the strands of the story of DNA could fill a book in their own right (if not several), the author Sam Kean has managed to weave the two together and fit them both in his new book `The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code'. Kean's project may seem like a particularly tall task, but he manages to pull it off by way of focusing in on only the main (and/or juiciest) moments and characters throughout.
Kean divides his tome into four parts. The first part explores the basics of DNA and heredity, and the earliest discoveries thereof. Here we are introduced to the aforementioned Miescher, as well as Gregor Mendel, who teased out the basic laws of heredity using his famed peas. We also learn of Thomas Hunt Morgan and his team of eccentric lab assistants who managed to marry Mendelism (genetics) with Darwinism (evolution by natural selection) to develop the theory of genetic evolution, which stands as the main pillar of modern biology. We also learn about genetic mutations and how these glitches are the key to evolution. Sadly, these glitches also have their downside, which we witness through the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who had the terrible misfortune of being in the blast area of both of the nuclear bombs that the US dropped on Japan at the end of WWII.
Part II of the book explores DNA's role in the beginnings and evolution of life. In particular, Kean focuses on the major leaps in evolution, from the first microbes, to microbes with complex internal specialization, to multi-celled organisms with specialized cells (which includes all plants and animals), to mammals, to primates, to us. All of this may sound very technical, but Kean manages to keep the story lively with tales of northern seafarers encountering angry polar bears (and learning that biting into their innards can be just as deadly as them biting into yours), and Soviet scientists embarking on a project to create humanzees (yes, that's a cross between a human and a chimpanzee).
Part III of the book turns to human DNA in particular, and what sets us apart as a species. Here we learn how our DNA reveals that our species has passed through several genetic bottlenecks--meaning there have been numerous occasions where our numbers have dwindled to near-extinction levels, with the latest bottleneck occurring as little as 70,000 years ago. This has left us with far less genetic diversity than most other species, including our closest living relatives, the chimps (compared to whom we also have two less chromosomes). We also learn about some of the genes that have contributed to the evolution of our big brains--the one thing that separates us most as a species. Finally, we learn about the role that DNA plays in our peculiar attraction to art.
The fourth and final part of the book gets into the intricacies of the structure of DNA, and how our unraveling these intricacies (through the work of Watson and Crick, and the Human Genome Project) has allowed us to manipulate life forms. While these discoveries have opened up enormous opportunities, they have also led to some very poignant questions about just how we should be using this knowledge--especially when it comes to ourselves and our own species. As our knowledge of DNA increases (currently at a rate that exceeds Moore's Law) these questions will only become more pressing moving forward.
Given the remarkably wide range of his subject matter, Kean's work runs the risk of becoming as tangled and sprawling as a string of DNA. However, the author does manage to keep the sprawl to a minimum (for the most part). Also, the science does get a bit thorny at times (the odd visual would have helped), but again, Kean mostly succeeds in making some very complex science easy to understand; what's more, Kean's clever and very down to earth use of language adds some nice flavor to the dish. A full executive-style summary of the book is now available at the website newbooksinbrief dot wordpress dot com; a podcast discussion of the book will be available soon.