The best books to make you think about biology

Why am I passionate about this?

I have long been fascinated by how very complicated things can arise from comparatively simple ones, because it seems counterintuitive that this is even possible. This led me to lead a life in science, researching how a whole human body can come from a simple egg, and trying to apply what we learn to make new body parts for those who need them. Though much of my professional reading consists of detailed research papers, I have always relied on books to make me think and to show me the big picture. I write books myself, to share with others some of the amazing things that science lets us discover. 


I wrote...

Book cover of Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself

What is my book about?

Where did I come from? Why do I have two arms but just one head? How is my left leg the same size as my right one? Why are the fingerprints of identical twins not identical? How did my brain learn to learn? Why must I die? Questions like these remain biology's deepest and most ancient challenges. A convergence of ideas from embryology, genetics, physics, networks, and control theory has begun to provide real answers.

Life Unfolding tells the story of human development from egg to adult showing how our whole understanding of how we come to be has been transformed in recent years. Highlighting how embryological knowledge is being used to understand why bodies age and fail, Jamie A. Davies explores the profound and fascinating impacts of our newfound knowledge.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

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

Jamie A. Davies Why did I love 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.

By Stuart A. Kauffman,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In what will certainly be one of the key works in the emerging science of complexity, Kauffman here presents a brilliant new paradigm for evolutionary biology. It extends the basic concepts of Darwinian evolution to accommodate recent findings and perspectives from the fields of biology, physics, chemistry, and mathematics. The book drives to the heart of the exciting debate on the origins of life and maintenance of order in complex biological systems. It focuses on
the concept of self-organization - the first time this concept has been incorporated into evolutionary theory. The book shows how complex systems, contrary to expectations,…


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

Jamie A. Davies Why did I love 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.

By Bert Hölldobler, Edward O. Wilson, Edward O. Wilson

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Superorganism promises to be one of the most important scientific works published in this decade. Coming eighteen years after the publication of The Ants, this new volume expands our knowledge of the social insects (among them, ants, bees, wasps, and termites) and is based on remarkable research conducted mostly within the last two decades. These superorganisms-a tightly knit colony of individuals, formed by altruistic cooperation, complex communication, and division of labor-represent one of the basic stages of biological organization, midway between the organism and the entire species. The study of the superorganism, as the authors demonstrate, has led to…


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

Jamie A. Davies Why did I love 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.

By James Lovelock,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this classic work that continues to inspire many readers, Jim Lovelock puts forward his idea that the Earth functions as a single organism. Written for non-scientists, Gaia is a journey through time and space in search of evidence in support of a radically different model of our planet. In contrast to conventional belief that life is passive in the face of threats to its existence, the book explores the hypothesis that the Earth's living matter influences
air, ocean, and rock to form a complex, self-regulating system that has the capacity to keep the Earth a fit place for life.…


Book cover of A New Science of Life

Jamie A. Davies Why did I love 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.

By Rupert Sheldrake,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A New Science of Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

**The fully revised edition of Rupert Sheldrake's controversial science classic, from the author of the bestselling Dogs That Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2021!**


After chemists crystallised a new chemical for the first time, it became easier and easier to crystallise in laboratories all over the world. After rats at Harvard first escaped from a new kind of water maze, successive generations learned quicker and quicker. Then rats in Melbourne, Australia learned yet faster. Rats with no trained ancestors shared in this improvement.

Rupert Sheldrake sees these processes as examples of morphic resonance.…


Book cover of Cat Zero

Jamie A. Davies Why did I love 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]. 

By Jennifer L. Rohn,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Sexism, Secrets and Science: Cat Zero by Jennifer Rohn

Scientist Artie Marshall is perpetually underfunded, relegated to a damp basement, and besieged on all sides by sexist colleagues. Added to that, she is immersed in a messy divorce. But she’s never been happier, studying an obscure cat virus that nobody else in the world seems to have heard of – or cares about.

Everything changes when local cats start dropping dead and Artie’s arcane little research problem becomes worryingly relevant. Matters get worse when people start getting infected too.

Working with her right-hand man Mark, her vet friends and her…


You might also like...

Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

By K.R. Wilson,

Book cover of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

K.R. Wilson Author Of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Novelist Reader History enthusiast Occasional composer Sometime chorister

K.R.'s 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

When King Priam's pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there - one crossover. He’s been a Hittite warrior, a Silk Road mercenary, a reluctant rebel in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn't die, and he doesn't know why. And now he's being investigated for a horrific crime.

As Stan tells his story, from his origins as an Anatolian sheep farmer to his custody in a Toronto police interview room, he brings a wry, anachronistic…

Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

By K.R. Wilson,

What is this book about?

Long-listed for the 2022 Leacock Medal for Humour

When King Priam's pregnant daughter was fleeing the sack of Troy, Stan was there. When Jesus of Nazareth was beaten and crucified, Stan was there - one cross over. Stan has been a Hittite warrior, a Roman legionnaire, a mercenary for the caravans of the Silk Road and a Great War German grunt. He’s been a toymaker in a time of plague, a reluctant rebel in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, and an information peddler in the cabarets of post-war Berlin. Stan doesn't die, and he doesn't know why. And now he's…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in biology, evolution, and philosophy?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about biology, evolution, and philosophy.

Biology Explore 202 books about biology
Evolution Explore 145 books about evolution
Philosophy Explore 1,649 books about philosophy