The best nonfiction books about genetics for the general reader

Who am I?

Though my undergraduate degrees are in electrical engineering and English, I have always been fascinated by the natural world. When I was a kid, my mother -- herself a mainframe computer programmer who loved her college biology courses -- bought me a microscope. I used it to peer at everything from the microscopic inhabitants of the canal behind our South Florida home to the onions and celery that we were having with lunch. Now I’m a law professor, but in addition to patents and property, I also teach about genetics and medical ethics. I think it’s really important that we all understand something about how the world works, how the law regulates it, and how we can try to change those aspects of it that aren’t working well.


I wrote...

The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA

By Jorge L. Contreras,

Book cover of The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA

What is my book about?

The Genome Defense is a gripping, behind-the-scenes account of the landmark legal battle in which the ACLU ended the practice of patenting human genes in America. Through interviews with more than a hundred lawyers, activists, scientists, doctors, and patients, Contreras brings to life the science, law, and politics behind this epic contest between a group of civil rights advocates and the powerful biotech industry. 

Patent law is often viewed as a dense, hyper-technical field that is understood only by a few specialist lawyers with scientific or engineering degrees. But patents, and the companies that own them, affect our everyday lives -- they determine what products we can buy, how much they cost, and whether they are likely to improve in the future. The story of AMP v. Myriad Genetics shows how ordinary people can change even the most complex laws when the stakes are high enough.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA

Jorge L. Contreras Why did I love this book?

This is where it all began.  In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick solved the mystery of the chemical structure of DNA. Their famous “double helix” laid the foundation for modern biochemistry. In his first-hand account, Watson displays not only scientific brilliance, but a deeply flawed personality. As he reveals in later writings, Watson came to regret many things, including his sidelining of Rosalind Franklin, whose x-ray images enabled him and Crick to decipher the elusive structure of the DNA molecule. The Double Helix illuminates not only one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century, but the seamy underbelly of the scientific enterprise, with its bitter rivalries, its enormous egos, and its very human participants.

By James D. Watson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Double Helix as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the two discoverers of DNA recalls the lively scientific quest that led to this breakthrough, from the long hours in the lab, to the after-hours socializing, to the financial struggles that almost sank their project. Reprint. 15,000 first printing.


Book cover of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Jorge L. Contreras Why did I love this book?

It is hard to believe that Matt Ridley’s grand tour of the human genome was published back in 1999. Yet even today, more than two decades later, Ridley’s engaging, chromosome by chromosome investigation of our genetic make-up remains a marvel that has never been equaled. From the genes that enable the most basic chemical processes in our cells to those that determine our height and eye color, the mysterious “junk DNA” that lives between our genes, and speculation about the ways that genes affect personality, behavior, and society, Ridley brings science to life in this engaging and timeless book.

By Matt Ridley,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Genome as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The most important investigation of genetic science since The Selfish Gene, from the author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling The Red Queen and The Origins of Virtue.

The genome is our 100,000 or so genes. The genome is the collective recipe for the building and running of the human body. These 100,000 genes are sited across 23 pairs of chromosomes. Genome, a book of about 100,000 words, is divided into 23 chapters, a chapter for each chromosome. The first chromosome, for example, contains our oldest genes, genes which we have in common with plants.

By looking at our genes…


Book cover of The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World

Jorge L. Contreras Why did I love this book?

The race to sequence the human genome was one of the greatest scientific contests in modern history. Though the story has been told many times, James Shreeve’s lively narrative account is among the best.  Shreeve illuminates the larger-than-life personalities who made headlines as the government-funded, international Human Genome Project raced against the venture-backed company Celera Genomics, which intended to profit from the genome. Like The Double Helix before it, The Genome War shows that science is a contest not only of intellect, but of ego, money, and luck. 

By James Shreeve,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Genome War as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The long-awaited story of the science, the business, the politics, the intrigue behind the scenes of the most ferocious competition in the history of modern science—the race to map the human genome.
On May 10, 1998, biologist Craig Venter, director of the Institute for Genomic Research, announced that he was forming a private company that within three years would unravel the complete genetic code of human life—seven years before the projected finish of the U.S. government’s Human Genome Project. Venter hoped that by decoding the genome ahead of schedule, he would speed up the pace of biomedical research and save…


Book cover of The Gene: An Intimate History

Jorge L. Contreras Why did I love this book?

Pulitzer Prize winner Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Harvard and Oxford-educated physician, illuminates humanity’s thousand-year relationship with its genes. Mukherjee intersperses struggles within his own family (every family has its genetic skeletons) with stories of the people who discovered how human heredity works: from nineteenth-century pioneers like Gregor Mendel and Charles Darwin to Francis Galton and the early twentieth century’s social eugenicists to the founders of Genentech and the stunning advances of the current century. No other book captures the sweep and majesty of the field of genetics, while at the same time illuminating the very human characters who advanced it over the years.

By Siddhartha Mukherjee,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Gene as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Selected as a Book of the Year by The New York Times, The Economist, Independent, Observer and Mail on Sunday

THE NEW YORK TIMES NUMBER ONE BESTSELLER
BBC RADIO 4 BOOK OF THE WEEK

`Dramatic and precise... [A] thrilling and comprehensive account of what seems certain to be the most radical, controversial and, to borrow from the subtitle, intimate science of our time... He is a natural storyteller... A page-turner... Read this book and steel yourself for what comes next'
Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

The Gene is the story of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in our…


Book cover of The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race

Jorge L. Contreras Why did I love this book?

The most recent book on this list, Walter Isaacson’s biography of biochemist Jennifer Doudna hits the big issues animating discussions around genetics today: our emerging ability to edit the human genome, the hopeful yet frightening potential for gene therapy and human enhancement, and the implications of COVID-19 and future pandemics on humanity. Isaacson illuminates these social and scientific issues through the lens of Doudna’s life, which also highlights the (very unsatisfactory) way that science has dealt with gender. Isaacson describes the young Doudna’s enchantment with Watson’s The Double Helix, despite its overt sexism, and how it inspired her to embark on a life in science. She eventually meets and works with Watson, whose professional trajectory slopes steeply downward after his Nobel in 1962.  But Doudna herself, whose own 2020 Nobel bookends the narrative, seems poised for even greater things.

By Walter Isaacson,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked The Code Breaker as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The best-selling author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs returns.

In 2012, Nobel Prize winning scientist Jennifer Doudna hit upon an invention that will transform the future of the human race: an easy-to-use tool that can edit DNA.

Known as CRISPR, it opened a brave new world of medical miracles and moral questions. It has already been deployed to cure deadly diseases, fight the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, and make inheritable changes in the genes of babies.

But what does that mean for humanity? Should we be hacking our own DNA to make us less susceptible to disease? Should…


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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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