The best books about genetics and psychology

Who am I?

During my undergraduate studies in psychology, we were never exposed to genetics. In 1970, I began graduate training in psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, which was one of the few universities that had a course about genetics in psychology. The course floored me, and I knew right away that I wanted to study genetic influences in psychology. At that time, psychology was generally hostile to the notion of genetic influence. Now, 50 years later, most psychologists recognize the importance of genetics. The DNA revolution is changing everything by making it possible to predict psychological traits using DNA alone. 

I wrote...

Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

By Robert Plomin,

Book cover of Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are

What is my book about?

What made you the way you are? – your personality, your mental health, and your cognitive abilities. Professor Plomin’s book, Blueprint, is the culmination of his 45 years of research trying to understand the genetic and environmental influences that make us different, our nature and nurture. He is one of the world's top behavioral geneticists who offers a unique, insider's view of the exciting synergies that came from combining genetics and psychology.

In Blueprint, he concludes that inherited DNA differences are the major systematic force, the blueprint, that makes us who we are as individuals. The power to read our DNA blueprint will transform science, society, and how we understand ourselves.

The books I picked & why

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The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature

Why this book?

First published 20 years ago by one of our best science writers, this book shattered the blank slate myth which dominated thinking at that time. The Blank Slate is a landmark against which I hope you will see how far we have come in recognizing the importance of genetics in psychology. The 2002 edition is still an excellent read but I recommend the updated 2016 edition with its new Afterword.

The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

By Adrian Wooldridge,

Book cover of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World

Why this book?

Genetics, meritocracy, and social mobility are often conflated. I was in awe of the breadth and clarity of this historical overview of how meritocracy overturned millennia of inheritance and patronage. The last half of the book diagnoses what’s gone wrong with meritocracy and suggests how it can be fixed. Adrian Wooldridge is The Economist’s political editor, which shows in the book’s brilliant and entertaining style.  


By Richard Powers,

Book cover of Bewilderment

Why this book?

This novel was short-listed for the UK Booker prize and should have won. It isn’t directly about genetics, but it is about autistic spectrum disorder, which is one of the most highly heritable developmental disorders. It’s a touching story of a somewhat autistic astrobiologist, recently widowed, who is learning to live with and love his 9-year-old son who is autistic. The father takes his son on imaginary trips to other planets with weird and wonderful life forms.   

Being You: A New Science of Consciousness

By Anil Seth,

Book cover of Being You: A New Science of Consciousness

Why this book?

I have been suspicious about the construct of consciousness, thinking that it was not scientifically tractable. This book changed my mind. It is written by a hard-core neuroscientist who turned my mental world upside down by showing that perception, both external and internal, is not an inner representation of reality. Perception relies on Bayesian predictions (best guesses) leading to ‘controlled hallucinations’ (including your sense of self!) rather than recreating reality. Consciousness is the ‘red pill’ that allows us to break out of the Matrix. Check out his TED talk with 12 million views.

Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science

By Stuart Ritchie,

Book cover of Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science

Why this book?

“Why most published research findings are false” was a 2005 paper that kicked off a crisis in science about failures to replicate, creating gaping cracks in the bedrock of science. Science Fictions explains this replication crisis and prescribes remedies. The book is written in an entertaining style, which led to its inclusion in the shortlist of the Royal Society Science Book Prize for 2021. Psychology is the poster child for the replication crisis. One of the things I like about genetics is that its findings consistently replicate, beginning with the fundamental finding that about half of the differences between people on psychological traits can be explained by inherited DNA differences.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the brain, nature versus nurture, and the scientific method?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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