The best books on genes

Many authors have picked their favorite books about genes and why they recommend each book.

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The DNA Book

By DK,

Book cover of The DNA Book

With DNA testing becoming increasingly popular in millions of households these days, children are being exposed to the topic at an early age. The author does an excellent job at describing the concept to kids (and to adults, if you are like me, because let’s face it, DNA science is complicated!). With a mix of bold illustrations and photos, we learn what DNA is, how it is responsible for who we are, how we can catch criminals with DNA, genetic engineering, and much more. There are no guesses. No fables. No secrets. Just easy-to-understand facts wrapped in a colorful package. There is something refreshing about that.


Who am I?

The Complete Book of Aspen is based on my DNA experience. I was crushed after taking a DNA test to learn that the man who raised me was not my biological father. It rocked the foundation my life was built upon. Suddenly I was struggling with my identity, wondering why I am who I am. This led to a deep dive into DNA-related books. I read everything I could, from DNA science to memoirs to novels whose characters were affected by DNA discoveries. I liked seeing how these brave souls handled their heartbreak. Not only is the subject fascinating, but it’s also comforting to know, fictional or not, that we're never alone.


I wrote...

The Complete Book of Aspen

By Danna Smith,

Book cover of The Complete Book of Aspen

What is my book about?

When Aspen’s best friend gives her a DNA test kit, a half teaspoon of spit is all it takes to discover her entire life has been a lie.

Learning that her beloved late father was not her biological father—and that her mother had deceived her—ignites a wild storm of emotions. Aspen struggles with her identity and the burden of being the gatekeeper of this closely guarded family secret. When her mother refuses to reveal her biological father’s name, Aspen sets out on a courageous journey to find him. A heartbreakingly hopeful young adult novel-in-verse by award-winning author and poet, Danna Smith, based on her true DNA experience. 

Genome

By Matt Ridley,

Book cover of Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters

It is hard to believe that Matt Ridley’s grand tour of the human genome was published back in 1999. Yet even today, more than two decades later, Ridley’s engaging, chromosome by chromosome investigation of our genetic make-up remains a marvel that has never been equaled. From the genes that enable the most basic chemical processes in our cells to those that determine our height and eye color, the mysterious “junk DNA” that lives between our genes, and speculation about the ways that genes affect personality, behavior, and society, Ridley brings science to life in this engaging and timeless book.


Who am I?

Though my undergraduate degrees are in electrical engineering and English, I have always been fascinated by the natural world. When I was a kid, my mother -- herself a mainframe computer programmer who loved her college biology courses -- bought me a microscope. I used it to peer at everything from the microscopic inhabitants of the canal behind our South Florida home to the onions and celery that we were having with lunch. Now I’m a law professor, but in addition to patents and property, I also teach about genetics and medical ethics. I think it’s really important that we all understand something about how the world works, how the law regulates it, and how we can try to change those aspects of it that aren’t working well.


I wrote...

The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA

By Jorge L. Contreras,

Book cover of The Genome Defense: Inside the Epic Legal Battle to Determine Who Owns Your DNA

What is my book about?

The Genome Defense is a gripping, behind-the-scenes account of the landmark legal battle in which the ACLU ended the practice of patenting human genes in America. Through interviews with more than a hundred lawyers, activists, scientists, doctors, and patients, Contreras brings to life the science, law, and politics behind this epic contest between a group of civil rights advocates and the powerful biotech industry. 

Patent law is often viewed as a dense, hyper-technical field that is understood only by a few specialist lawyers with scientific or engineering degrees. But patents, and the companies that own them, affect our everyday lives -- they determine what products we can buy, how much they cost, and whether they are likely to improve in the future. The story of AMP v. Myriad Genetics shows how ordinary people can change even the most complex laws when the stakes are high enough.

The Century of the Gene

By Evelyn Fox Keller,

Book cover of The Century of the Gene

Genes have variously been described as selfish and controlling—as providing a blueprint or a program for development—as even “the cell’s brain”. These descriptions of genes get in the way of our understanding of what genes actually do—and what they don’t (and cannot) do. Evelyn Fox Keller provides an antidote to the simplistic notions of genes that permeate our society and infect our scientific discourse. She carefully walks us through the history of the field and provides us with a much more realistic view of the intricacies of DNA. By the end of this marvelous book, you may not even think that genes are a thing at all.


Who am I?

Even though I am a scientist who has written over 130 scientific articles, I have a longstanding passion for scientific books that are written for non-scientists. I love books about science, no matter how distant they are from my area of expertise. To me, the best science books convey the excitement of science and scientific thinking in an accessible manner, but without pandering or dumbing things down. My favorite books tackle big ideas and respect the reader’s intelligence. My choices here reflect my core interests in biology, evolution, and behavior—and the aesthetics of science, too. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.


I wrote...

Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution

By Mark S. Blumberg,

Book cover of Freaks of Nature: What Anomalies Tell Us about Development and Evolution

What is my book about?

In most respects, Abigail and Brittany Hensel are normal American twins. Born and raised in a small town, they enjoy a close relationship, though each has her own tastes and personality. But the Hensels also share a body. Their two heads sit side-by-side on a single torso, with two arms and two legs. Abigail and Brittany, and others like them, open an extraordinary window onto human—and animal—development and evolution. 

In Freaks of Nature, Blumberg turns a scientist's eye on the oddities of nature, showing how a subject once relegated to the sideshow can help explain some of the deepest complexities of biology. What we need to understand, Blumberg argues, is that anomalies are the natural products of development, and it is through developmental mechanisms that evolution works. 

Genes in Conflict

By Austin Burt, Robert Trivers,

Book cover of Genes in Conflict: The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements

The biggest strength of the gene’s-eye view is that it helps us make sense of things that seem impossible to understand from the perspective of individual organisms. One example is selfish genetic elements. These are genes that in one way or another have hijacked the system by which genes are replicated and passed on to the next generation. This ability allow them to spread in a population, even if they are harmful to the organism that carries them. I was given Burt and Trivers's book as an undergraduate by the professor who would later become my PhD advisor. That was over ten years ago, but every time I pick up this book I am reminded of how awestruck I was. Selfish genetic elements and genetic conflicts are a weird and wonderful world and Genes in Conflict is the best guide there is.  


Who am I?

I’m an evolutionary biologist and a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, Sweden. My research focuses on the biology of genetic conflicts and what they can tell us about the evolution of conflict and cooperation more generally. I develop population genetic theory and perform comparative analyses to ask how and why such conflicts occur and how they fit into models of social evolution. I also work on the foundations of the so-called gene’s-eye view of evolution, also known as selfish gene theory. I studied at Edinburgh and Toronto and was a postdoc at Cornell and Harvard.


I wrote...

The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

By J. Arvid Ågren,

Book cover of The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

What is my book about?

Few phrases in biology have caught the imagination of professionals and laypeople alike the way Richard Dawkins's ‘selfish gene’ has done, and it changed how both groups thought about evolution. The debate over the value of taking a gene’s-eye view of evolution has raged for over half a century and it pitted 20th-century Darwinian heavyweights such as John Maynard Smith and W.D. Hamilton against Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in the pages of Nature as well as those of The New York Review of Books. My book is about that debate and I explore the origins and developments of the gene's-eye view: what it is, where it came from, how it changed, and why it still evokes such strong emotions. 

The Gene

By Siddhartha Mukherjee,

Book cover of The Gene: An Intimate History

Genetic science is so new and so specialized that it almost has its own language, and yet it is changing the way we understand life and death, and bringing a new kind of medicine that will radically alter health and medicine in future generations. Mukherjee is the best of science writers, deploying beautiful metaphors to help readers grasp this complex subject.


Who am I?

I am a journalist and author who has been lucky enough to follow my curiosity wherever it led – from politics and presidents to climate change and crime. Most of my books explore a theme that fascinates me – the tension between science and religion, faith and reason, that is a defining challenge of our era. I have a deep respect for science, but, like most, an amateur’s understanding of it. The global pandemic has confirmed the need for accessible science writing to help us bring our understanding in line with what’s going on in the labs.


I wrote...

VIRUS: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hjacking of America’s Response to he Pandemic

By Nina Burleigh,

Book cover of VIRUS: Vaccinations, the CDC and the Hjacking of America’s Response to he Pandemic

What is my book about?

Virus is a short book assessing what went wrong with the government response to the pandemic, what went right with the landmark COVID mRNA vaccine science, and the roots of the culture of conspiracy theories and disregard for expertise that has delayed our national recovery.

Quality Investing

By Lawrence A. Cunningham, Torkell T. Eide, Patrick Hargreaves

Book cover of Quality Investing: Owning the Best Companies for the Long Term

If you want to own stocks for a long time to go after those 100 baggers, you’ll need to own quality assets that you don’t need to trade frequently. This book will give you an important framework for how to evaluate business quality. There are good discussions here on competitive advantages, pricing power, industry structure, and brand strength, among other things. The book has plenty of examples and is not long or hard to read.


Who am I?

I have been investing in markets for nearly 30 years. I remember first being interested in the stock market after the 1987 crash. I read everything I could about Warren Buffett. And went on to study finance in college finishing magna cum laude (and later earned my MBA). I started my professional career as a commercial banker in the early 1990s. Then, I started my own investment newsletter in 2004 and compiled a strong track record over the next 12 years, wrote four books, and traveled all over the world in search of great investment ideas. I’ve appeared as a guest on TV and radio shows, as well as numerous podcasts. In 2019, I co-founded Woodlock House Family Capital where I currently manage a portfolio of global investments.


I wrote...

100 Baggers: Stocks That Return 100-to-1 and How To Find Them

By Christopher W. Mayer,

Book cover of 100 Baggers: Stocks That Return 100-to-1 and How To Find Them

What is my book about?

When I studied 100-baggers of the past, definite patterns emerged. In this book, you will learn the key characteristics of 100-baggers and why anybody can do this. It is truly an everyman's approach. You don't need an MBA or a finance degree. Some basic financial concepts are all you need along with a number of crutches or techniques that can help you get more out of your stocks and investing. The emphasis is always on the practical, so there are many stories and anecdotes to help illustrate important points. You should read this book if you want to get more out of your stocks. Even if you never get a 100-bagger, this book will help you turn up big winners and keep you away from losers and sleepy stocks that go nowhere.

The Meme Machine

By Susan Blackmore,

Book cover of The Meme Machine

Long before ‘memes’ became a synonym for catchy internet videos, they were a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his classic 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe a ‘cultural replicator’ analogous to the gene. In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore took this side-thought and ran with it. She argues that human culture in general, as well as specific phenomena such as the origin of language and cooperation, can best be seen through a ‘meme’s eye view’ of selfish memes competing to replicate themselves. Modern cultural evolution research remains sceptical of this rather extreme perspective, often thinking more in terms of benefits and costs to individuals or groups, but Blackmore’s book is thought-provoking and well worth a read.


Who am I?

I am Professor of Cultural Evolution at the University of Exeter, UK. In my research I use lab experiments and theoretical models to understand how human culture evolves. Since my undergraduate psychology degree I have always been attracted to big ideas about how evolution has shaped human minds. Yet evolutionary psychology, with its stone age brains frozen in time, seemed unsatisfying. This led me to cultural evolution, with its grand idea that the same evolutionary process underlies both genetic and cultural change. Humans are not just products of countless generations of genetic evolution, but also of cultural evolution. This view of humanity is grander than any other I’ve come across.


I wrote...

Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

By Alex Mesoudi,

Book cover of Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences

What is my book about?

Charles Darwin revolutionised biology by showing how his theory of evolution can account for the stunning diversity and complexity of life on earth. Over the last few decades, a growing group of scholars have argued that the same theory of evolution can also explain the stunning diversity and complexity of human culture, encompassing languages, religion, technology, economic systems, art, literature, science, and more. Cultural Evolution provides an accessible overview of this burgeoning field, explaining what it means to say that culture ‘evolves,’ and how evolutionary tools developed in biology can illuminate problems that have long bedevilled the social sciences and humanities. It also argues that just as evolutionary theory united and synthesised the biological sciences, it can do the same for the social sciences.

The Extended Phenotype

By Richard Dawkins,

Book cover of The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The Extended Phenotype I knew I wanted to become an evolutionary biologist. The book is the most ambitious articulation of the gene’s-eye view (a work of ‘unabashed advocacy’, as Dawkins put it). Less famous that The Selfish Gene, it also includes responses to the criticisms that The Selfish Gene received, which also made debates in theoretical biology seem so exciting. In many ways, that excitement has never left me. 


Who am I?

I’m an evolutionary biologist and a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University, Sweden. My research focuses on the biology of genetic conflicts and what they can tell us about the evolution of conflict and cooperation more generally. I develop population genetic theory and perform comparative analyses to ask how and why such conflicts occur and how they fit into models of social evolution. I also work on the foundations of the so-called gene’s-eye view of evolution, also known as selfish gene theory. I studied at Edinburgh and Toronto and was a postdoc at Cornell and Harvard.


I wrote...

The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

By J. Arvid Ågren,

Book cover of The Gene's-Eye View of Evolution

What is my book about?

Few phrases in biology have caught the imagination of professionals and laypeople alike the way Richard Dawkins's ‘selfish gene’ has done, and it changed how both groups thought about evolution. The debate over the value of taking a gene’s-eye view of evolution has raged for over half a century and it pitted 20th-century Darwinian heavyweights such as John Maynard Smith and W.D. Hamilton against Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould in the pages of Nature as well as those of The New York Review of Books. My book is about that debate and I explore the origins and developments of the gene's-eye view: what it is, where it came from, how it changed, and why it still evokes such strong emotions. 

She Has Her Mother's Laugh

By Carl Zimmer,

Book cover of She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

Carl Zimmer's authoritative writing, grounded in both science and journalism, reads and captivates like a page-turner novel. Written for a general audience, Zimmer's rich exploration of the history and controversies surrounding how we pass genes and associate traits from one generation to another also offer insights into a field of science central to social and cultural issues related to ancestry, race, sexual differences, evolution, as well as inherited traits and diseases.


Who am I?

K. Lee Lerner is an author, editor, and producer of science and factual media, including four editions of the Gale Encyclopedia of Science and the Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security. His expansive writing on science, climate change, disasters, disease, and global issues has earned multiple book and media awards, including books named Outstanding Academic Titles. An aviator, sailor, and member of the National Press Club in Washington, his two global circumnavigations and portfolio of work in challenging and dangerous environments reveal a visceral drive to explore and investigate. With a public intellectual's broad palate and a scientist's regard for evidence-based analysis, Lerner dissects and accessibly explains complex issues. 


I wrote...

Biotechnology: In Context

By Brenda Wilmoth Lerner, Adrienne Wilmoth Lerner, K. Lee Lerner

Book cover of Biotechnology: In Context

What is my book about?

Life is ancient, grounded in the physics, chemistry, and evolutionary biology of Earth. In contrast, today's biotechnology marshals new ideas and techniques with the potential to reshape the planet and life itself. The problems facing the world in fighting hunger, pollution, and disease cry out for innovative scientific solutions. For many, biotechnology offers a beacon of hope. For others, the manipulation of life sounds like a siren's song of peril.

The Orchid and the Dandelion

By W. Thomas Boyce,

Book cover of The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Sensitive Children Face Challenges and How All Can Thrive

Thomas Boyce not only has impeccable credentials as a pediatrician, academic, and epidemiologist, but he also has deep personal history motivating his writing of The Orchid and the Dandelion. That is, he not only knows this topic, he feels it. On top of all of that, he writes with a warmth and poetic sensitivity so often lacking in evidence-based books like this. Boyce writes about orchid children being exquisitely sensitive, so they absorb their environment and thrive under the right circumstances, becoming remarkably insightful and creative. Under adverse circumstances, however, orchid children wilt. Dandelion children, by contrast, are more resilient and can accommodate more adversity without showing too much harm. Another interesting dimension Boyce explores is how the family, school, community, and society can all have an impact on an orchid child’s development.


Who am I?

I love prickly children. I was one myself, and I’ve quite a few of them in my family. I’ve also worked with desperate families over the years, children who are out of control, parents feeling overwhelmed, nobody knowing what to do to find the calm and loving core of connection we all yearn for. I feel the suffering these authors document—the child’s sense of being misunderstood and punished unfairly, and the parent’s desperation. So, when I read a book that offers intelligent and caring solutions driven by science, compassion, and experience, I share it with everyone who will listen. I’m delighted to have a chance here to do that.


I wrote...

Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change

By Dona J. Matthews, Joanne Foster,

Book cover of Being Smart About Gifted Learning: Empowering Parents and Kids Through Challenge and Change

What is my book about?

Being Smart about Gifted Learning is for parents, grandparents, teachers, and others who want to support young people in developing their strengths. It describes the Optimal Match approach—matching learning opportunities to children’s interests and abilities—grounded in neuroscience and developmental psychology, and based on current evidence about how giftedness develops. Readers describe it as a book “about embracing opportunities to encourage children’s strengths and nurture their well-being.” Topics include neural plasticity, equity, diversity, tests and assessments, creativity, homeschooling, neurodiversity, social-emotional issues, and more.

The ideas are illustrated with real-life examples and recommendations, showing the reader why and how to provide the resources and learning opportunities children and teenagers need to thrive in a rapidly changing world.

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