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

Who am I?

I studied chemistry at university but nature and biology are lifelong passions. I’ve researched and written about biology over three decades and published many articles and reviews, as well as the three books: The Gecko's Foot; Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage; and Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal, co-written with the sculptor Tom Grimsey. We are at a tipping point with climate change and the books I’ve chosen show how the convergence of chemistry, biology, and geology have provided the most dramatic revelations about life on earth and are the best guides to understanding and mitigating our current environmental predicament. 

I wrote...

The Gecko's Foot: How Scientists Are Taking a Leaf from Nature's Book

By Peter Forbes,

Book cover of The Gecko's Foot: How Scientists Are Taking a Leaf from Nature's Book

What is my book about?

The Gecko’s Foot is a pioneering book on bio-inspiration: taking some of nature’s most ingenious techniques – the nano bristles on the feet of geckos that enable them to walk on a glass ceiling; the self-cleaning lotus leaf that has spawned a new wave of water repellent materials, including self-cleaning glass; the holy grail of spider silk which is stronger than steel – as the starting point for new human technologies.

The most prescient chapter is one on engineering proteins from microbes, now a major growth point in devising carbon-neutral energy and materials production.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life

Why did I love 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.

By Nick Lane,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Earth teems with life: in its oceans, forests, skies and cities. Yet there's a black hole at the heart of biology. We do not know why complex life is the way it is, or, for that matter, how life first began. In The Vital Question, award-winning author and biochemist Nick Lane radically reframes evolutionary history, putting forward a solution to conundrums that have puzzled generations of scientists.

For two and a half billion years, from the very origins of life, single-celled organisms such as bacteria evolved without changing their basic form. Then, on just one occasion in four billion…

Book cover of Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution

Why did I love 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. 

By Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Microcosmos as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This title is back in print with a revised preface. "Microcosmos" brings together the remarkable discoveries of microbiology of the past two decades and the pioneering research of Dr. Margulis to create a vivid new picture of the world that is crucial to our understanding of the future of the planet. Addressed to general readers, the book provides a beautifully written view of evolution as a process based on interdependency and their interconnectedness of all life on the planet.

Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Jared Diamond,

Book cover of Guns, Germs, and Steel

Why did I love 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. 

By Jared Diamond,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Guns, Germs, and Steel as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why did Eurasians conquer, displace, or decimate Native Americans, Australians, and Africans, instead of the reverse? In this "artful, informative, and delightful" (William H. McNeill, New York Review of Books) book, a classic of our time, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond dismantles racist theories of human history by revealing the environmental factors actually responsible for its broadest patterns.

The story begins 13,000 years ago, when Stone Age hunter-gatherers constituted the entire human population. Around that time, the developmental paths of human societies on different continents began to diverge greatly. Early domestication of wild plants and animals in the Fertile Crescent, China,…

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

Why did I love 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. 

By David Reich,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Who We Are and How We Got Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The past few years have witnessed a revolution in our ability to obtain DNA from ancient humans. This important new data has added to our knowledge from archaeology and anthropology, helped resolve long-existing controversies, challenged long-held views, and thrown up remarkable surprises.

The emerging picture is one of many waves of ancient human migrations, so that all populations living today are mixes of ancient ones, and often carry a genetic component from archaic humans. David Reich, whose team has been at the forefront of these discoveries, explains what genetics is telling us about ourselves and our complex and often surprising…

Book cover of Life's Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable

Why did I love 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.

By Paul G. Falkowski,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Life's Engines as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For almost four billion years, microbes had the primordial oceans all to themselves. The stewards of Earth, these organisms transformed the chemistry of our planet to make it habitable for plants, animals, and us. Life's Engines takes readers deep into the microscopic world to explore how these marvelous creatures made life on Earth possible--and how human life today would cease to exist without them. Paul Falkowski looks "under the hood" of microbes to find the engines of life, the actual working parts that do the biochemical heavy lifting for every living organism on Earth. With insight and humor, he explains…

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Interested in evolution, prehistory, and microorganisms?

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