DNA. It’s in all of us but did you know it tells a story? Both of the human race and its own story of discovery. The Violinist’s Thumb is not only an introduction to the science of DNA but a trip through history from Mendel to the Human Genome Project and Neanderthals to crazy cat people.

My knowledge of DNA comes from high school biology, Jurassic Park and numerous crime shows and books, so I’m by no means in a position to understand high-brow scientific tomes. Instead, Sam Kean manages to entertain and educate. The conversational tone dips into more technical territory now and then but just as you think it’s about to go over your head, it returns to an amusing anecdote. I fell I have a better understanding of how DNA works and how it’s shaped us as humans.

I learned so many fascinating facts. That there could be a biological reason that otherwise sane people turn into crazy cat hoarders; toxoplasma gondii (a parasite caught from cats) will release dopamine into the brain when the infected individual smells cat pee. So cats make them happy. The case study here, were a couple that held the world record for most cats in one home; 689! I could go on all day about the things I picked up but I need to leave some for you to discover yourself.

What is often left out of scientific history, are the people behind the discoveries. We may know all about Mendel’s peas but not that his research was destroyed because of his politics and not his science (I’m pretty sure his fellow monks were appreciative of his pea improvement). It’s also quite common for geneticists to try and explain historical figures through their genes, what does Einstein’s brain say about his genius? And there was a wonderful section about Toulouse-Lautrec, whilst his family’s inbreeding was tragic, his disadvantages probably led to his art. Just as a genetic condition blessed and blighted the title’s inspiration, virtuoso violinist, Niccolò Paganini.

My only grumble was a couple of errors that should have been picked up by an editor. We cannot possibly be 8% not human and only 2% human; that just doesn’t add up. I know that the author meant 8% virus DNA and 2% unique to human DNA, but it wasn’t worded that way and for a scientist, maths should be important. There was another similar thing, where he stated “virtually all animals” and then excluded all mammals in the same sentence. Virtually all would imply mammals to most of us, would it not? There may have been other slip-ups but these were surrounded in paragraphs that included things I wanted to quote and realised they didn’t make sense when I looked more closely. The fact that I still think this a five star read, shows you how much I got out of it.

The Violinist’s Thumb is published by Doubleday in the UK and is available now in hardback and ebook formats. Kean has chosen to use endnotes over footnotes, so this shouldn’t be problematic for digital editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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