The best biology books

5 authors have picked their favorite books about biology and why they recommend each book.

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Evolution in Four Dimensions

By Eva Jablonka, Anna Zeligowski, Marion J. Lamb

Book cover of Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life

The traditional neo-Darwinian view of evolution understands inheritance in genetic terms, as the transmission of DNA from parents to offspring. Jablonka and Lamb argue convincingly that in addition to genetic inheritance, there exist three other inheritance systems in nature – epigenetic, symbolic, and behavioural – all of which play an important role in evolution. The book is not a work of philosophy in the strict sense, but rather a fascinating and conceptually-rich synthesis of a diverse body of empirical findings which, the authors argue, can only be accommodated by going beyond a purely geno-centric view of evolution.

Evolution in Four Dimensions

By Eva Jablonka, Anna Zeligowski, Marion J. Lamb

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Evolution in Four Dimensions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ideas about heredity and evolution are undergoing a revolutionary change. New findings in molecular biology challenge the gene-centered version of Darwinian theory according to which adaptation occurs only through natural selection of chance DNA variations. In Evolution in Four Dimensions, Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb argue that there is more to heredity than genes. They trace four "dimensions" in evolution -- four inheritance systems that play a role in evolution: genetic, epigenetic (or non-DNA cellular transmission of traits), behavioral, and symbolic (transmission through language and other forms of symbolic communication). These systems, they argue, can all provide variations on which…


Who am I?

I am Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bristol. I am interested in most areas of contemporary philosophy, in particular the interplay between philosophy and the natural and social sciences. Much of my recent work has focused on evolutionary biology, a science that is replete with implications for traditional philosophical debates about human nature, knowledge, and our place in the world.


I wrote...

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

By Samir Okasha,

Book cover of Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Throughout most of the 20th century, philosophy of science was a rather physics-centric pursuit. This began to change in the 1970s when philosophy of biology emerged as a distinct sub-field in its own right. My book offers a synoptic overview of this flourishing branch of philosophy, written in a way that presumes no specialist knowledge. The book’s aim is to highlight how pervasive philosophical issues are in the life sciences, and to show how philosophical analysis can be of use to the practicing scientist. Topics discussed included teleology and purpose in nature, altruism and human behaviour, the nature of species, and the concept of the gene.

Lives of a Cell

By Lewis Thomas,

Book cover of Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher

Another big picture mind-blazer. Thomas shows you how everything from a single cell and the social life of ants to human culture and a planet filled with life works. And he shows you this in breathtaking ways.  Ways that will forever change the way you see.

Lives of a Cell

By Lewis Thomas,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I’ve been called the Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and Freud of the 21st century by Britain’s Channel 4 TV and the next Stephen Hawking by Gear Magazine. My passion is flying over all the sciences, all of history, and a chunk of the arts and pulling it all together in a new big picture. I’ve called this approach Omnology, the aspiration to omniscience. Sounds crazy, right? But I’ve published scientific papers or lectured at scholarly conferences in twelve different scientific disciplines, from quantum physics and cosmology to evolutionary biology, psychology, information science, and astronautics. And I’ve been published in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, and many more.


I wrote...

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

By Howard Bloom,

Book cover of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History

What is my book about?

The Lucifer Principle is a revolutionary work that explores the intricate relationships among genetics, human behavior, and culture to put forth the thesis that “evil” is a by-product of nature’s strategies for creation and that it is woven into our most basic biological fabric.

Cat Zero

By Jennifer L. Rohn,

Book cover of Cat Zero

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]. 

Cat Zero

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.


Who am I?

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...

Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself

By Jamie A. Davies,

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.

Sex and Death

By Kim Sterelny, Paul E. Griffiths,

Book cover of Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology

This book is an engaging treatment of philosophical issues in biology, with a strong though not exclusive focus on evolution. Written by two leading practitioners, the book continues to be an excellent entry point into the subject despite being more than 20 years old. For any reader of my own book who wants more detail, Sterelny and Griffiths’ text is ideal. Chock full of real-life examples, the book offers an excellent model of how philosophy can engage with biology. Topics discussed include function and adaptation, reductionism, levels of selection, the “selfish gene” theory, and more. 

Sex and Death

By Kim Sterelny, Paul E. Griffiths,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Is the history of life a series of accidents or a drama scripted by selfish genes? Is there an "essential" human nature, determined at birth or in a distant evolutionary past? What should we conserve-species, ecosystems, or something else?

Informed answers to questions like these, critical to our understanding of ourselves and the world around us, require both a knowledge of biology and a philosophical framework within which to make sense of its findings. In this accessible introduction to philosophy of biology, Kim Sterelny and Paul E. Griffiths present both the science and the philosophical context necessary for a critical…

Who am I?

I am Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Bristol. I am interested in most areas of contemporary philosophy, in particular the interplay between philosophy and the natural and social sciences. Much of my recent work has focused on evolutionary biology, a science that is replete with implications for traditional philosophical debates about human nature, knowledge, and our place in the world.


I wrote...

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

By Samir Okasha,

Book cover of Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction

What is my book about?

Throughout most of the 20th century, philosophy of science was a rather physics-centric pursuit. This began to change in the 1970s when philosophy of biology emerged as a distinct sub-field in its own right. My book offers a synoptic overview of this flourishing branch of philosophy, written in a way that presumes no specialist knowledge. The book’s aim is to highlight how pervasive philosophical issues are in the life sciences, and to show how philosophical analysis can be of use to the practicing scientist. Topics discussed included teleology and purpose in nature, altruism and human behaviour, the nature of species, and the concept of the gene.

Biology as Ideology

By Richard C. Lewontin,

Book cover of Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA

People need less Dawkins in their lives and more Lewontin, whose thought-provoking, accessible writing about evolutionary biology stands in fierce opposition to the trend toward genetic determinism that seems to be the rage nowadays. We are not simply our genes, Lewontin says, because the effects DNA has on our lives are mediated by social and environmental factors, many of which we can influence. While it’s nominally about biology, I also read this as a critique of causal inference, generally. What we consider a “cause” reveals our ideological commitments to certain aspects of the world being maintained, and we should be careful what causal lessons we draw from data.

Biology as Ideology

By Richard C. Lewontin,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I studied statistics and data science for years before anyone ever suggested to me that these topics might have an ethical dimension, or that my numerical tools were products of human beings with motivations specific to their time and place. I’ve since written about the history and philosophy of mathematical probability and statistics, and I’ve come to understand just how important that historical background is and how critically important it is that the next generation of data scientists understand where these ideas come from and their potential to do harm. I hope anyone who reads these books avoids getting blinkered by the ideas that data = objectivity and that science is morally neutral.


I wrote...

Bernoulli's Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science

By Aubrey Clayton,

Book cover of Bernoulli's Fallacy: Statistical Illogic and the Crisis of Modern Science

What is my book about?

There is a logical flaw in the statistical methods used across experimental science. This fault is not a minor academic quibble: it underlies a reproducibility crisis now threatening entire disciplines. In an increasingly statistics-reliant society, this same deeply rooted error shapes decisions in medicine, law, and public policy with profound consequences. The foundation of the problem is a misunderstanding of probability and its role in making inferences from observations.

Aubrey Clayton traces the history of how statistics went astray, beginning with the groundbreaking work of the seventeenth-century mathematician Jacob Bernoulli and winding through gambling, astronomy, and genetics. Clayton recounts the feuds among rival schools of statistics, exploring the surprisingly human problems that gave rise to the discipline and the all-too-human shortcomings that derailed it. 

Book cover of A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology

A topsy-turvy look at biology from the point of view of the animals (and plants) that make it possible. Richly detailed and full of engrossing characters, from Darwin’s time up to the genetically engineered marvels of today.

A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology

By Jim Endersby,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Guinea Pig’s History of Biology as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved," Darwin famously concluded The Origin of Species, and for confirmation we look to...the guinea pig? How this curious creature and others as humble (and as fast-breeding) have helped unlock the mystery of inheritance is the unlikely story Jim Endersby tells in this book.

Biology today promises everything from better foods or cures for common diseases to the alarming prospect of redesigning life itself. Looking at the organisms that have made all this possible gives us a new way of understanding how we got here--and perhaps of thinking…


Who am I?

Sam Kean is the New York Times bestselling author of five books, including The Bastard Brigade, The Dueling Neurosurgeons, and The Disappearing Spoon. He edited The Best American Nature and Science Writing in 2018, and his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, and Slate. His work has been featured on NPR’s “Radiolab,” “Science Friday,” “All Things Considered,” and “Fresh Air,” and his podcast, The Disappearing Spoon, debuted at #1 on the iTunes charts for science podcasts.


I wrote...

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science

By Sam Kean,

Book cover of The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science

What is my book about?

From New York Times bestselling author Sam Kean comes the gripping, untold history of science's darkest secrets. Science is a force for good in the world—at least usually. But sometimes, when obsession gets the better of scientists, they twist a noble pursuit into something sinister. Under this spell, knowledge isn’t everything, it’s the only thing—no matter the cost. Bestselling author Sam Kean tells the true story of what happens when unfettered ambition pushes otherwise rational men and women to cross the line in the name of science, trampling ethical boundaries and often committing crimes in the process.

A New Science of Life

By Rupert Sheldrake,

Book cover of A New Science of Life

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.

A New Science of Life

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.…


Who am I?

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...

Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself

By Jamie A. Davies,

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.

A Door Into Ocean

By Joan Slonczewski,

Book cover of A Door Into Ocean

Microbiologist professor Joan Slonczewski loved Dune (as do I), so she decided to create a living world with no dry land (which would work) instead of a living world without free water (which, sadly, wouldn’t...). Shora, colonised by an all-female human society, and maintained in continual creation (but untamed) by Shoran microbiologists, is dangerous, beautiful—and threatened by the Evil Empire of Profit. Gripping, harrowing take on how to win a war, save the world, and utterly renounce violence all at the same time.

A Door Into Ocean

By Joan Slonczewski,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Door Into Ocean as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Sharers, a race of women living on the planet Shora, who reproduce by parthogenesis without males, are suddenly faced with the technological and cultural invasion of men from space.

Who am I?

I’m fascinated by the sciences, and I love mysteries. I’m too lazy, unfocused, and poor at math, ever to have been a scientist, and I’ve never been tempted to try a career as a detective. Instead, I’ve spent my life pursuing fairytales, thrillers, ghost stories, and even horror and romance — as long as there are mysteries involved. By now I see the patterns and rhythms, and set-pieces that appear again, and again, and I can point them out to you (as long as you don’t mind knowing how the story’s been made). But I never get tired of the endless variations on this theme of finding things out. 


I wrote...

Proof of Concept

By Gwyneth Jones,

Book cover of Proof of Concept

What is my book about?

On a desperately overcrowded future Earth, crippled by climate change, the most unlikely hope is better than none. Governments turn to Big Science to provide them with the dreams that will keep the masses compliant. The Needle is one such dream, an installation where the most abstruse theoretical science is being tested: science that might make human travel to a habitable exoplanet distantly feasible.

When the Needle’s director offers her underground compound as a training base, Kir is thrilled to be invited to join the team, even though she knows it’s only because her brain is host to a quantum artificial intelligence called Altair. But Altair knows something he can’t tell. Kir, like all humans, is programmed to ignore future dangers. Between the artificial blocks in his mind, and the blocks evolution has built into his host, how is he going to convince her the sky is falling?

Book cover of The Greatest Adventure

To take a break from his day job as Professor Emeritus of Higher Mathematics at Caltech, Eric Temple Bell (John Taine was his pen name) wrote a series of science fiction novels that dealt, not with mathematics, but largely with biology. Any of these are still quite readable today, and notable for their discussion of biology and related fields when most writers of science fiction were focused on physics and space travel.

The Greatest Adventure deals with mutated dinosaurs in Antarctica, which sounds like something out of a 1950s horror film but which Bell uses as the basis for an investigation into science and not schlock. I suspect he utilized the pen name John Taine so as not to embarrass his supercilious colleagues in the math department (or possibly himself).

The Greatest Adventure

By John Taine,

Why should I read it?

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


Who am I?

I started collecting science fiction as a teenager. As a collector, as opposed to just a reader, you come in contact with stories that considerably predate what you find for sale in stores. This led me to books from the 1930s and much earlier. John Taine was one of only two SF writers I encountered from the 1920s and 30s whom I still found enjoyable (and exciting) to read (the other was E.E. “doc” Smith).


I wrote...

Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera

By E. E. 'Doc' Smith,

Book cover of Triplanetary: Science Fiction, Adventure, Space Opera

What is my book about?

The argument rages: did Dune influence Star Wars and if so, how much? Or was the primary influence on Star Wars the Flash Gordon movie serial? Or 2001: A Space Odyssey? The question is moot, since the granddaddy of them all was the Lensman series of novels.

The first of these, Triplanetary, appeared in the Jan-April 1934 issues of Amazing Stories. It’s all there: multiple intelligent alien species, an evil empire bent on galactic domination, people with heightened mental abilities, gigantic battles in space; all set against a vast galactic background. The science is primitive and so are some of the characters, but the action and scope carries you along. When much of science fiction was struggling to tell stories inside the solar system, Smith was ranging across the entire galaxy. Adjusted and fixed up, all six of the main Lensman novels are still readily available—and for a reason.

Gaia

By James Lovelock,

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

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.

Gaia

By James Lovelock,

Why should I read it?

1 author 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.…

Who am I?

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...

Life Unfolding: How the Human Body Creates Itself

By Jamie A. Davies,

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.

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