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

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.

The books I picked & why

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

By James D. Watson,

Book cover of 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.


Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

By Matt Ridley,

Book cover of 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.


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

By James Shreeve,

Book cover of 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. 


The Gene: An Intimate History

By Siddhartha Mukherjee,

Book cover of 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.


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

By Walter Isaacson,

Book cover of 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.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in genetics, DNA, and genes?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about genetics, DNA, and genes.

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity, Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, and The Century of the Gene if you like this list.