The best nonfiction books about genetics for the general reader

Jorge L. Contreras Author Of The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA
By Jorge L. Contreras

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By James D. Watson

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

Why 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.


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Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

By Matt Ridley

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

Why 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.


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

By James Shreeve

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

Why 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. 


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The Gene: An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee

The Gene: An Intimate History

Why 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.


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

By Walter Isaacson

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

Why 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.


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