The best books to make you think about biology

Jamie A. Davies Author Of Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself
By Jamie A. Davies

The Books I Picked & Why

The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution

By Stuart A. Kauffman

Book cover of The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution

Why this book?

This book comes at biology from an unusual angle, ignoring fine details and instead of going for the deepest underlying principles of life as seen by a dyed-in-the-wool theoretician. When I read it, I felt I was like being given 'X-ray specs' - an ability to see beyond the surfaces at which we mostly work to hidden mechanisms of order, control, and evolution. I have never seen biology the same way since, and this book changed my research and teaching immediately and lastingly. The writing is superb but still demands concentration and commitment because the concepts may be alien at first, but any reader willing to give the book time and a bit of effort will be richly rewarded.


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The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies

By Bert Hölldobler, Edward O. Wilson

Book cover of The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies

Why this book?

We, who live in one clearly delineated body, think we know what an organism is. Social insects challenge this, making us wonder whether the organism is the ant or the anthill. This book, about how individuals add together to make a new being at a larger scale, is fascinating for biology but also nudges us, as readers, to ask questions about what lives are being led within us, by all the cells that make us, and also whether we are ourselves part of a being so much larger than ourselves we cannot see it for what it is any more than one ant can see the colony for what it is. Reading this made me much more open to the idea of multiple, nested levels of being.


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Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

By James Lovelock

Book cover of Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth

Why this book?

This beautifully written book continues to exert massive influence, in politics as well as science. The author applied physiological thinking to the ecosystem scale and saw evidence of a global entity with the characteristics of a self-regulating, self-repairing organism. Like the Superorganism choice above, this book made me start to think at different levels at the same time, and see yet more wonder in our amazing planet.


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A New Science of Life

By Rupert Sheldrake

Book cover of A New Science of Life

Why this book?

When I was an undergraduate, the editor of Nature called this book "the best candidate for burning there has been for many years". I therefore rushed out to buy a copy to see why, and I have treasured the book and recommended it ever since. Almost every idea between its covers is wrong, but marshalling evidence to refute the ideas makes readers ask the most fundamental questions about biology and why they believe what they do. I am eternally grateful to Sheldrake for making me justify my opinions properly, with evidence, not just because they were what I read or heard in some classroom. And he will do the same for anyone else: heretics like Sheldrake are really important for testing mainstream science.


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Cat Zero

By Jennifer L. Rohn

Book cover of Cat Zero

Why this book?

This is the best scientific novel I have ever read. The story is fiction (not 'science fiction' in the sense of fantasy, but a story that could easily take place in the real world right now), but its portrayal of how science is done, by a bunch of completely believable characters, is really true-to-life. It's a great way for young people considering a research career to taste what they are really like, and a great way for everyone to ask why we do science the way we do, while enjoying a well-paced multi-layer story, that is written with real wit. [Declaration for transparency: I know the author as a scientific collaborator, but this is nothing to do with my recommendation of her fiction]. 


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