The Disappearing Spoon, a podcast collaboration between the Science History Institute and New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean, returns for its third season on March 8, 2022.
To celebrate, our producer, Padmini Parthasarathy, sat down with Kean to talk about his book The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code. This interview is a great companion piece for the new season of The Disappearing Spoon, which tackles all sorts of strange and interesting stories about the geniuses we know well—from Einstein and his great scientific blunder that turned out to be correct, to Monet and the cataracts that almost made him put down his brush forever.
Listen as Kean talks about violin protégé Niccolo Paganini, whose genes were both a blessing and a curse, the scientific arms race that led to the mapping of the human genome, and the sometimes-murky lines between human and non-human.
Alexis Pedrick: Hi, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. We’re the hosts of Distillations.
AP: We’re dropping in to let you know about a great podcast made in collaboration with Distillations. It’s called Disappearing Spoon. The first episode of season three will air on March 8th. This season tackles Einstein great scientific blunder that turned out to be correct, Monet’s landscapes and the cataracts that almost made him put down his brush forever, and more. The episodes are gonna be available at samkean.com/podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Just search, Disappearing Spoon.
LBD: To celebrate the new season are produced, Padmini Parthasarathy sat down with Sam Kean to talk about his book, The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code.
AP: This interview is a great companion piece to the upcoming season. Sam talks about the violin protégé, Niccolo Paganini, whose jeans were a blessing and a curse, the scientific arms race that led to the mapping of the human genome, and the sometimes murky lines between human and non-human.
Padmini Parthasarathy: We’re talking today about Violinist Thumb, a book that you wrote, published in 2012, correct?
Sam Kean: Yes. So I guess it’s a decade old now. Yeah.
PP: Could you talk a little bit about what inspired the book overall?
SK: Yeah, a couple of things inspired the book. I had been writing a lot about genetics for various publications, and I had come across a lot of really cool, interesting stories about things that were going on with the human genome at the time.
What really got me excited was that we had finished the big rush to complete the human genome. And we were now starting to get into some of the side, uh, branches of genetics. So you could really dig into things like genetics and archeology. People were using genetics and art. Talking about genetics and computing, things like that.
So it was really a chance to kind of spread, uh, widely and look at a lot of different areas of genetics and really what the field was becoming. ‘Cause everyone knows about genetics and medicine, but there’s a lot more out there to it. And I just thought it would be a fun book to write and get all those stories in one place.
PP: As a, a follow up to that, since the book was published in 2012, is there any way that you would’ve updated the book or anything that’s kind of changed in DNA research since you wrote the book?
SK: Yeah. There’s one big thing that’s really changed the entire DNA research field, and that is CRISPR, which is the ability to easily and quickly edit genetic material, usually DNA. So CRISPR’s really, really changed the day-to-day life of how things get done in the lap.
So that is one thing I would’ve included in the book had it been around at the time. And I actually find CRISPR really interesting, because you see, in a lot of cases, rivalries in genetics. I don’t know if it’s just because it’s a really hot field or if it’s all coincidence, but you saw the Watson And Crick versus Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin rivalry back in the fifties.
Then right around the year 2000, you saw rivalry between the government’s human genome project and the private sector’s human genome project. And then with CRISPR, you saw another rivalry where you had scientists at University of California at Berkeley, uh, kind of fighting with scientists at Harvard over who really discovered it and who dis- who did it in human cells first, things like that.
So, something about genetics just seems to breed these rivalries. And in addition to all the amazing things CRISPR can do in the lab, I thought it was interesting that there was this human side coming out as well.
PP: Yeah, that’s a really interesting point. I think, to follow up on that, it seems like the arc of the book, you know, from Mendel’s discovery of genes at the beginning to epigenetics at the end, complicates the story of DNA as this answer to science’s biggest questions.
And I’d assume that most people kind of know the basics of DNA from biology class, but in your book you explore everything from gene swaps, to knot theory, to the many genes and other complicated factors that contribute to various diseases.
And then one of the anecdote that you mentioned just as you alluded to is this sort of intellectual arms race that led to the complete sequencing of the human genome, which was resourced by billions of dollars of funding. And I’m wondering, what do you think stakeholders and maybe the general public were hoping for? And why do you think we wanna pin all of our hopes on DNA?
SK: I think there are a couple of reasons people get so excited about DNA. Uh, and in fact it was sort of hyped this way in the mid-nineties and late-nineties, because we sort of assume that once we understand how DNA works, we can quickly solve all medical diseases. And obviously that did not come to pass, not even close.
We found out that genetics, and especially the translation from genetics into understanding of disease, and then understanding into clinical treatments, that those steps were a lot harder to take than we realized. And it’s been a disappointment for a lot of people within the medical that they now have all this data, there’s just a wash in data nowadays, but it really hasn’t translated into that many treatments for patients.
So I think there is some frustration within medicine. At the same time DNA, and especially the ability to quickly sequence DNA, has really rewritten much every other field of biology, as well as rewriting archeology and other fields. So it’s kind of strange in that the, the impetus for it was to figure out how to cure diseases. And it’s been a disappointment there, but it’s been a huge boon for pretty much every other field in biology.
So I don’t think it’s fair to say the human genome project was a flop or something like that, it’s just that its most profound effects were not in the fields that we anticipated at the time.
PP: A theme that you kind of developed throughout the book is the sometimes murky distinction, you know, kind of following from the point you’re making about, uh, the developments, um, that we kind of got from the human genome project, this distinction between human, like, wha- what makes us us and non-human. And you write in the book about, like for example, the existence of 8% of our DNA coming from viruses and the sometimes mutually beneficial relationship that may have contributed to that. How do you think about this theme as you explored the DNA that makes us us?
SK: That was something that shocked me. The, I remember exactly where I read that bit of information for the first time. And it blew my mind that so much of our DNA was actually old, broken down, virus DNA. And it really does blur the distinctions between us and them. And you start to think about your biology in a much different way when you realize how little of it is the classic DNA gene that produces a protein. We have scads and scads of DNA that doesn’t do what we always thought it did. And a lot of it does come from other creatures.
So I shows that the boundaries between us and them are a little more fluid. And we have to kind of think about ourselves in a larger picture. One thing that really excites me and excites a lot of people about DNA is how universal it is, how it works the same way in all known forms of life. And this is another example of that, kinda the unifying theme of life where it shows you that you have to understand the DNA of other creatures in order to understand how our DNA works as well.
PP: Another reoccurring theme, according to the path’s DNA took, I guess, one of the pieces of evidence that you allude to coming out of the human genome project is that evolution leading to us humans was, wasn’t inevitable. And we nearly didn’t make it like several times.
And you also kind of do a nice thing where you mirror and trace the near extinction of ideas kind of in tandem with that. Like when, you know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was almost thrown out, for example. Could you talk a little bit about that, the ideas kind of almost going extinct as well as, you know, us?
SK: Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that parallel, but that’s interesting. Yeah. So at one point in our past, human beings very nearly when extinct. If you look at our DNA, we have a lot less variety in our DNA, if you look at the entire human population, than chimpanzees and gorillas do within their population.
And that’s kind strange since there’s only a few tens of thousands of those creatures and there are seven billion humans. But again, we have much less variety in our DNA because we experienced what’s called a genetic bottleneck sometime around 75 to 80,000 years ago.
No one knows quite why. I kind of float some popular theories in the book, but for some reason, our population numbers crashed and crashed pretty hard. And you know, if things had gone a little bit differently had there been a tough winter or something like that. It’s conceivable that human beings could have gone extinct.
So the rise, so to speak, of human beings across the world and our kind of conquering the planet was definitely not inevitable. It could have gone the other way and, you know, intelligent life might never have come to the heights that it is nowadays on earth.
And there is a parallel there with ideas in science. I explain how Darwin’s theory, a couple of decades after his death, really was not doing very well. I think nowadays we look back and say, oh, there was this big triumph and, you know, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey. Everyone knew how great his theory was. They appreciated it and so on.
But again, a couple decades after his death, people were really skeptical that Darwin’s theories could explain a lot about life on earth. The big reason why is that we didn’t think the earth was old enough for the slow, gradual process of evolution that Darwin always emphasized. We thought the earth was much younger back then. And what people believed was that Darwin’s theories were simply too slow. They did not work fast enough.
And in fact, genetics was seen as a rival to Darwin’s theory, because when you had a mutation in a gene, while suddenly creatures can change very quickly, they might get a whole new body plan, people assumed, or they might change colors or get a third eye or something. You can see evolution in theory moving very quickly with that.
So for a long time, genetics and Darwin’s theory of evolution were seen as rivals of each other. And took a lot of work, uh, not only in biology, but things like geology too, in order to reconcile the two and to show how they really dovetail quite nicely. So it’s not just people, but ideas can almost go extinct as well, even great ones.
PP: I feel like that comes up in so many interesting ways throughout the book, um, especially towards the end with, uh, epigenetics and kind of camera story and, you know, pulling out the old ideas and kind of thinking about the manu as new evidence kind of emerges. And they may conveniently fit a political narrative and they don’t know quite what to make of it, but there is something kind of valid there.
SK: So Paul Kammerer was a really interesting case. He was a biologist working in Europe in the early-1900s. And he came across evidence for some unusual behavior, especially in toads, where they seemed to change very quickly, generation to generation, much more than genetics could explain.
And a lot of people saw his work, uh, retrospectively as possible evidence of something called epigenetics. Epigenetics has been a really hot topic because it allows genes to have a little bit more flexibility. So essentially, epigenetics turns genes on and off. It turns the volume up or down on them. So genes aren’t just on or off all the time. It adds some subtleties, some shades of gray to how genes work.
And that’s exciting for biologists, especially because they can see how behaviors can change genes and how they function in a way that allows for quicker forms of evolution. So you see it with, you know, trauma, or drug use, or just daily experience, genes flipping on and off due to epigenetic effects.
And Kammerer seemed to be, some people argue, yes, some people argue, no, he seemed to have stumbled upon on these effects much earlier than anyone realized what was actually going on. Uh, there is some question that he might have committed fraud in sort of explaining, uh, different things about the toads, but no one’s ever quite pinned down what happened in his case.
And he ended up sadly, uh, killing himself because of the reputational damage that he suffered when people tried to expose him as a fraud. It’s a really interesting case of how someone could be so far ahead of their time e- to the point where they suffered for being so far ahead and it ended up hurting them badly in the end. He was very involved in politics.
And that’s another thing that you see popping up with genetics several times, is genetics, I mean, it gets dragged into left wing politics. It gets dragged into right wing politics. It really has been sort of a political football back and forth. Uh, you had the Nazis famously talking about eugenics and how, you know, our DNA was basically our destiny. And you couldn’t get rid of what they call the stain of your DNA. Things like that the stain of your, your genetics.
Whereas you had in the Soviet Union, uh, people, some very prominent scientists there did not believe that genes existed. They believe that environment controlled our behaviors completely and that there was no genetic basis for anything. And they actually outlawed genetics in the Soviet Union for a while. And if you practice it, they would throw you in jail.
So, because genetics touches on human behavior, it is something that has been politicized over and over. And still that happens to this day.
PP: Right. And I think it’s interesting because it, um, kind of flies in the face of, probably the perceptions that people have about genetics as this kind of definitive answer that’s outside of politics, um, rather than being within it and pot- potentially supporting certain views, um, of humans and human behavior.
SK: Yeah. It’s really a distinction between the facts and how you interpret them. Because you can look at genes and there is something sort of objective about them. There’s a certain sequence of DNA, A, C, G, and T. They produce a protein, they do something within a cell, they’re on or off at certain times, but it’s a big leap from those little tiny bits of DNA to human behavior, and especially human behavior within a society. There’s just a lot of room there for people to push their agendas no matter what they are.
PP: The title reference for this book comes from an anecdote that you include about the virtuoso violin player Niccolo Paganini. You describe him as being able to, quote, “Wrench his thumb across the back of his hand to touch his pinky,” Which I tried. It’s very hard, um, “and breaks sturdy crystal saucers with his fingers.” But the source of his virtuosity, arguably his genes, may have also explained his poor condition later in life. Could you talk a little about this idea of the curse as well as the kind of virtuosity?
SK: Yeah. Paganini was essentially the greatest violinist who ever lived, uh, every king, every emperor, every queen wanted Paganini to come play for them because he was so good. Uh, he was active in Europe in the very early-1800s. And, I mean, there were stories about him selling his soul to Satan in order to get his talent. That is how good he was.
But sort of one of the non-fiction reasons that he was so good was he had these amazingly flexible hands. So he could stretch his pinky and make a right angle with the rest of his hand. Or he could put his hand down flat on a table and actually touch his pinky and his thumb behind his hand. Which is not only hard to do, it would be very disturbing to see, I think, in person, if someone could actually do that.
So he could do things you should not do with your hands in polite company, but then made him an amazing violinist because he could stretch his hands incredibly wide. He could do fingerings that one else at the time could. So it really did give him a boos with, uh, his violin playing.
And from a modern perspective, it’s almost certain that he had a genetic disorder of some sort. Because he could bend his elbows the wrong way. His knees bent backward. So he had hyper mobility in his joints, probably due to a connective tissue disorder. They don’t really know which one, but there are some strong candidates out there.
But even though it helped make him a great violinist, it did probably damage his body overall to the point where he was often sickly and weak. Um, people with these ailments, they can lead normal, healthy lives up to a point, but they do suffer as they get older, ’cause their body essentially wears down.
So it was kind of a, it, it kind of made and broke him in the sense that, yeah, it helped him make him a great violinist, but it might have hurt his health in the end and ended up damaging him overall.
And one reason I actually really like this as the title story, and I used it as the title story for the book, is that there’s some really good lessons in there about genetics and really where genetics is going. Because one thing I do emphasize is that, okay, you know, he had these amazingly flexible hands, and they did help him become a good violinist, but there were environmental things going on as well. Because Paganini was a very hard worker. He loved playing and practicing music. And he grew up in a time that rewarded violinists, and rewarded the kind of music that he could do.
So it wasn’t just that he had these amazing hands, it was his environment, his temperament, everything coming together in sort of a perfect storm to make him an amazing violinist. And if you talk to scientists nowadays, they don’t talk as much in terms of individual genes. Uh, they talk more in terms of gene environment interactions. So how genes are expressed in a particular environment.
And it’s really that interplay of genes and the environment that helps explain a lot about how genes work. And also explains a lot of things about human beings, human behavior, stuff like that. So I do think that’s a really good lesson kind of encapsulated just in the person of Niccolo Paganini.
PP: Right. That kind of inter play of nature and nurture some sort of integration or something that’s emerging.
SK: Yeah. Scientists nowadays don’t talk so much about nature versus nurture. They talk about nature and nurture, how the two of them work together. So that old debate has kind of been, um, I, I guess it’s like the old, uh, thesis, syntheses, then synthesis, where they kind of come together like that.
PP: Right. That also reminds me of, of the genes versus evolution, uh, Mendel versus Darwin thing that was kind of happening towards the beginning there.
SK: Yeah, exactly. It’s another case where two things that seem to be an opposition, once you kind of look at it a little deeper, deep in your understanding of it, they actually seem to support each other more than anything.
PP: Um, another kind of interesting related dichotomy to this, actually, that I, I noticed you kind of exploring is the, um, kind of disagreement between scientists about incremental versus accelerated change. Which, funnily, I, I found really compelling how it was mirrored in the scientific community and like the personalities of some of these scientists, like you have Thomas Hunt Morgan, who, you know, never wants to stray away from the evidence. And then these kind of maverick scientists like Lynn Margulis who, you know, really throws things at the wall. Um, and could you maybe talk a little bit about how these who tendencies have worked in science together, sometimes in tandem, sometimes not?
SK: You do see something popping up over and over in the history of science, is that there’s always this tension between the people who wanna sort of hue to the facts and be very cautious and careful, and the people who are willing to make big leaps. And I think you do need both of these types of people. Because sometimes science just doesn’t advance. You need a maverick to come, in like Lynn Margulis, to shake things up a little bit, to put some bold theories forward.
Even when their theories aren’t correct, and Margulis’s were correct, but even when they aren’t correct, they get people thinking, they shake things up, they make you see the world a little bit differently. So those big ideas are really important to help drive science forward.
At the same time, you can’t just rely on big speculative theories because that, if you do that, you’re just gonna be… I mean, it’s sort of like string nowadays. If people know that, it’s just untethered from any sort of reality, it’s kind of its own little world where people are just scribbling down equations that don’t necessarily relate back to anything that’s happening in the cosmos.
And science can fall into those traps sometimes, where people are just working on things that don’t have any connection to reality. And that’s where the people who hue close to the facts come in, because they demand evidence. They want to know, well, you’re saying this, but prove it. Um, show me that this is actually the case.
So you do need those kind of hard-nosed, hardheaded people, uh, to make sure that we control our flights of fancy and that we don’t just sort of run off and kind of, uh, get lost in our own pleasant little theories.
PP: Thank you so much for your time.
SK: Well, thanks for having me. If people want more information, they can go to samkean.com/books. And I have a podcast as well, at samkean.com/podcast.
LBD: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.
AP: Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine.
LBD: You can find our videos, stories, and every single episode at distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
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LBD: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr, Rigo Hernandez, and Padmini Parthasarathy. And it was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer.
AP: The Science History Institute remains committed to unveiling the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow.
LBD: For Distillations, I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
AP: And I’m Alexis Pedrick.
LBD & AP: Thanks for listening!