The best biology books on the deep history of life on earth

The Books I Picked & Why

The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it Is?

By Nick Lane

The Vital Question: Why is Life the Way it Is?

Why this book?

As a student, I was enthralled by Jacob Bronowski’s TV series The Ascent of Man. He talked about the origin of life and the first experiments that tried to reconstruct how life began. This made me yearn to know not the lab test-tube chemistry I was studying but the chemistry of living things and the earth itself. Since then the knowledge gained of this deep chemistry has surpassed my wildest dreams and my ambition has been to share it. 

Nick Lane and his co-workers have traced the most plausible origin of life in the mysterious white chimneys – first predicted and then discovered at the bottom of the Atlantic in 2000 – which vent warm gases and minerals with a composition related to the nanomachinery of life to this day. Lane is not only a leading figure in this research but one of the most accomplished popular science writers. I think this is his best and most ambitious book, one that I don’t hesitate to compare with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in terms of its impact and fruitful insights into the way forward.


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Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution

By Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan

Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution

Why this book?

In this book, Margulis offers a thrilling radical history of the earth and our role in it. She is famous as the protagonist of the theory of the origin of complex life that involved one bacterium engulfing another: one which, heretical in its day, has now been proven to the satisfaction of all biologists. It is a human bias to care only about what we can see with the naked eye, but Margulis’s passionate vision reveals how throughout earth history bacteria have been the vital organisms that hold the web of life together. Microcosm is a rich guide to the astonishing 4 billion year history of the earth and a necessary corrective to the sapiocentric hubris that believes our species to have the right to planetary dominion. 


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Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

By Jared Diamond

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Why this book?

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond poses the questionWhy did Pizarro and his men conquer the Incas instead of the other way round?” and then proceeds to answer it, launching in the process the new deep human history informed by biology. Diamond’s innovation is to focus on the natural resources available on each continent when humans began to domesticate crops and animals around 12-13,000 years ago. Domestication occurred independently on several continents but Eurasia had an advantage in possessing a similar climate along very long stretches of a 3000-mile east-west axis, facilitating the spread of new domesticates. Similarly, the resources for domesticating animals were skewed strongly on different continents: the horse evolved in North America but was extinct across the whole of the Americas when Europeans arrived, whereas Eurasia had not only horses but the forebears of cattle pigs, sheep, and goats. The consequence of course is our history since 1492 when Columbus reached the New World. 


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Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

By David Reich

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past

Why this book?

Two mysteries that fascinated me for decades are solved in this book. How is it that the main European languages and northern Indian languages including Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Marathi share a common ancestral language? And why do most Europeans, a significant proportion of northern Indians and some African cattle herders, share the ability to drink milk in adulthood when most East Asians can’t? 

The ability to sequence ancient DNA has transformed our view of human prehistory in less than 10 years and David Reich is the acknowledged leader in the study of human migrations using this technique. The answer to the two questions lies in the Yamnaya, nomads originally from the vast grassland steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas, who extensively used horses, drank their milk, drove chariots, and from around 2000 BCE spread rapidly across Western Europe, and down into northern India, bringing with them the mutation that allows milk to be drunk in adulthood and also the proto Indo-European language that produced almost all the modern European languages.

Reich’s work and this book represent the most dramatic archaeological breakthrough since radiocarbon dating. 


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Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable

By Paul G. Falkowski

Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable

Why this book?

For me, the most enthralling revelation of recent biology has been that living cells really do contain engines: protein structures more complex than a petrol engine, with moving parts. One is even a nano electric motor with a rotor. This is known in exquisite detail thanks to the miracles of modern imaging and gene and protein sequencing. This nano machinery developed billions of years ago in bacteria and is little changed today in all living cells. Falkowski updates Margulis’s work from 20 years earlier with these modern marvels. These nano engines run photosynthesis in bacteria and plants and give all living things their energy.

The relevance of the bacterial nano engines for the environment rests in their role in modulating the great cycles of the elements carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and a few others as they pass through the soil and rocks, the oceans, living things, and the air. Life’s Engines is visionary in bringing to light the feats of what my late colleague, the sculptor Tom Grimsey, called Giants of the Infinitesimal.


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