Bingo Square: Science!
I quite enjoyed Same Kean’s previous book, The Disappearing Spoon, so I am not entirely sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this – The Violinist’s Thumb was published in summer 2012 and I have a hardcover, so I’ve obviously had it for a while. I will say, at least part of the blame goes to the fact that around 2014/2015 I transitioned to primarily reading Kindle books so it hasn’t helped diminish the stack of physical books I have (and I still occasionally buy them). As a result, I have a lot of non-fiction in a format I don’t read as often – and I also don’t read non fiction in general as much as fiction.
In this book, Kean explores DNA and genes in 16 chapters divided into four topics. The first part is basically a mix of the history of the discovery of genes and DNA (two distinct things) with stories of scientists like Mendel and the fruit fly boys while also giving a general overview of what they each do. Even with Kean breaking it down into laymen’s terms, I still found myself a bit lost during chapter 4 which I would say is the most technical in discussing the structure of DNA and its components. The next part leads into the idea of mammals/animals, and what changes occurred in DNA and cell structure to allow for life to become so complex, with the third part of the book focusing on humans specifically. The final part contains chapters discussing the human genome project and other more current studies of DNA and genes, and what they might help solve going forward.
The best parts of the book were when Kean was discussing the real people behind the history, whether that be the scientists making discoveries and their occasional feuds, or people affected by special genes/syndromes. Naturally, for some of these, this involves some retro-diagnosis, and while Kean warns of this with other historical figures, for some it is rather clear. There were a few topics I had seen already in other scientific books and articles, such as the deadly polar kidneys and the Toxo parasite/virus thing that makes people cat hoarders, but I enjoyed how he tied all these tidbits together. While humans have learned much about DNA and genes and chromosomes in the last century, in many ways their discoveries have only lead to more questions as for many conditions genes interact with each other in undetermined ways. Certainly, for some it is easy to say what they do, but there is always the possibility of some other interaction or influence. Not to mention that DNA and nature like to break their own rules – there were quite a few instances where scientists suddenly had to grapple with the idea that something that went against all the rules they had figured out so far actually was really occurring.
Kean breaks things down as easily as possible and he also includes a few simply funny and amusing statements which help make this book approachable. At one point, he is discussing the fact that humans had to evolve a meat eating gene, even though research and anthropology finds show that humans were eating meat before that helpful gene evolved:
“So for millions of years we either to dim to link eating meat and early retirement, too pathetic to get enough calories without meat, or too brutishly indulgent to stop sucking down food we knew would kill us.” I mean I know which solution gets my vote – pretty sure we still eat things we know will cause health issues because they are just so good. I guess some parts of human nature never change.
Bingo Square: Science!
Bingo 4! 5th Column: Reading the TBR (To the Bright Edge of the World), Science!, History/Schmistory (The Huntress), Award Winner (Ancillary Justice), Summer Read (Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating)