Thanks to a compulsive library habit, a hideously long Goodreads to-read list and a habit of monitoring the literary press for new releases, I’ve gained a lot of knowledge about popular bioscience books. Therefore when looking for reading lists to prepare for university interviews, I found the lists unsatisfactory. Many of those released by universities were clearly written over ten years ago and not updated, or were drawn up based on a well stocked university library, full of expensive and hard to find books. I’ve spent the past few years mainly falling in and out of books which I’ve found in libraries, in a rather haphazard way. At the end of this all, I thought I should put my experience to good use and compile a suggested, and very unofficial, reading list for anyone interest in studying Biology, maybe at Oxford or Cambridge, so you don’t have to stumble around like I did. These are the books which I have been using to prepare myself to start my degree in Biological Sciences at Oxford University, so I hope they will be of interest to others.
All the books listed are available in the Manchester Public Library system and/ or in my old school library, so it should be relatively easy to find these books in other public or school libraries.
Plant Sciences: as I call it, “The queen of biosciences”.
- Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature by Richard Mabey – Mabey is more of an old-fashioned general naturalist than the narrow specialists. He mixes knowledge of plants learned in the field, folklore and history with a modern ecological understanding to create wide-ranging and very engaging and enjoyable book on the plants some view as pests and others revere. When so much of biological education is very lab-based, Mabey’s books, I also recommend The Cabaret of Plants, encourage you to break out of the lab and try to work out what that thing growing out of the pavement is trying to do.
- The Emerald Planet: How Plants Changed Earth’s History by David Beerling – A book on the pre-history of the plant world we see all around us. It is so easy to see plants as the green background to the interesting bits of nature that run fast and growl, but this book helps you consider plants as ecological engineers, that have shaped the planet in profound and fundamental ways.
- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – If pushed, I might say this is my favourite book, certainly my favourite memoir. It is an unusual book in that it is a memoir by someone who isn’t famous. Instead, the book lives and dies on the strength of its writing, which is outstanding. Jahren is a plant geochemist, and the book recounts her journey through academia as a rare woman and a person with bipolar disorder. It is about the drive to discover what it is like to be a plant and to unpick their history through analytical methods, and the very strong relationship she has with her collaborator, the eccentric Bill. Before I start to gush about how important it is, I will say I have written more on it here, now go and read it.
- Mushroom by Richard P. Money – A broad and entertaining look at the obscure and arcane ways of fungi, and the people who love them, as well as their vital contributions to ensuring that we are not waist high in rotting matter and can enjoy bread and wine.
Science and Society:
- Inferior: How Science got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini – A balanced treatment of some of the historical and current research on sex differences, showing throughout that people tend to be more complicated than reductive, biased science can lead us to believe.
- Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose – A more polemical book evaluating the claims of gene therapy, stem cell therapy and neuroscience to cure our ills and explain what we are, and refutes reductive explanations of ourselves. A book that shows the political underpinnings of scientific research and technologies.
- Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – On “neurosexism”, the prejudice that the brains of females and males are fundamentally different in a way that makes the binary sexes behave in stereotypical ways, and how this view relates to the research being done today, as well as a critique of the limits of what neuroimaging can reveal. A witty and well argued book, I’ve written more about it here.
- The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould – The Great Gould himself, this book is about how the study of intelligence has made intelligence into a thing that can be measured, whether skull size or IQ, without actually relating to what we would call intelligence in every day life, as well as conveniently making Western educated white men come out on top.
- Cuckoo: Cheating by Nature by Nick Davies – The brood parasite behaviour of the European cuckoo will come up on any course on evolutionary biology or animal behaviour, most of that research is the fruit of Nick Davies crouching in the Fens and doing his careful experiments to elucidate why the birds and doing what they are doing, year after year. It reads like a thriller, the reader is asked to both try to solve an evolutionary puzzle and to try and work out how they themselves might prove it. I’ve written more about this here.
- What Evolution Is by Ernst Mayr- A criminally underappreciated book. A clear and comprehensive look at the developments in evolutionary biology of the 20th century from the man who brought you allopatric speciation. In my opinion it should be treated on par with The Selfish Gene, especially as it deals with the matters of speciation and macroevolution that are largely missing from The Selfish Gene, which is more concerned with microevolution.
- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – Worth reading as it encapsulates the neo-Darwinian, some would say reductionist, consensus which held sway in much of Biology for the last forty years, though there is also plenty to disagree with if you see it that way. Read for the clarity of the arguments, and then get into arguments with people about it.
- The Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin – It’s easy to overlook actually reading The Origin if you’ve read a lot of modern work referring back to Darwin and know that outlines of his arguments. But actually reading The Origin allows you to appreciate Darwin’s thought processes and careful construction of arguments in the context of the intellectual environment he existed in, where many of the pieces of evolutionary theory were in place, but no one had joined them up. It is also interesting to see where Darwin went wrong, or more accurately was vague about, such as molecular basis of heredity.
- Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane – A good book to dip into to fill in any gaps in your knowledge, it is both comprehensive and innovative, as is all of Lane’s writing. The ten “inventions” are: the origin of life, DNA, photosynthesis, sex, movement (i.e. the cytoskeleton), sight, hot blood, consciousness and death. I also recommend Lane’s The Vital Question, which is a more wide-ranging look on research into the origins of life, which Lane is involved in.
Genetics and Genomics
- A Crack in Creation: The New Power to Control Evolution by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg. Fresh off the press, this book is about the major development in gene editing, the CRISPR/ Cas9 system from the researchers who lead the way. I’ve written more about it here.
- The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee – A sprawling history of genetics from the earliest days of Mendel through the molecular genetics era and the genetic modification revolution, charting the shift from explaining heredity to manipulating it. The section on epigenetics research is poorly explained, however, so I would recommend instead…
- The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey – An important corrective to vague, slightly mystical or unduly provocative talk about epigenetics, it sets out the field as a logical step from any basic knowledge of genetics, genes can’t all ‘talk’ at the same time, so gene expression must be regulated so that a skin cell is different from a neuron. It covers the range of epigenetic research from biomedical to plant science in a clear manner with useful diagrams.
History of Science:
- Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905- 1953 by Simon Ings – A History of Science in the last years of Imperial Russia and the first half of the USSR, with a focus on the fabled suppression of Western Mendelian-Morganist genetics and the glorification of the claims of the charlatan Lysenko. Also discusses the work of Pavlov, Vavilov (a hero of plant science) and the cyberneticists (whose world we live in).
- The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt The Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf – von Humboldt is an overlooked figure, but pioneered the sort of broad ecological thinking which could link the flora on two mountain tops on either side of the Atlantic. Without him, Darwin likely would not have been able to connect his observation of nature to trace their underlying cause.
- Survivors by Richard Fortey – About “living fossils”, and what they can tell us about the history of life. My favourite are the velvet worms, putative relatives of Hallucigenia.
- Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by Stephen Jay Gould – More Gould. This is about the Burgess Shale anthropod fossils, which living in the middle of the Cambrian. Gould argues that the disparate forms in the assemblage represent “evolutionary dead ends”, though some more recently research suggests they are closely allied to modern forms. But more interestingly, Gould goes from this to suggest that the set of taxa we see in the world now as here largely due to chance. Replaying the tape of life would result in a very different world, we were not inevitable. Certainly thought provoking, contrast with Simon Conway Morris’ The Crucible of Creation.
- Trilobite: Eyewitness to Evolution by Richard Fortey – Fortey spent many years in an obscure corner of the Natural History Museum in London, examining some very old fossils and using them to reconstruct past worlds. Fortey is a witty and clear writer and his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious.
- The Variety of Life: A Survey and Celebration of All the Creatures that Have Ever Lived by Colin Tudge – This book sorely needs a second edition, but the first from 2000 is an accessible introduction to taxonomy and cladistics in theory and in practice. You don’t have to read the whole thing (though it is very enjoyable to do so), but the initial sections on cladistics and Willi Hennig detail an important part of modern biology which gets very little popular discussion elsewhere.
- Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden – Though it sound sci-fi, quantum biology is simply the realization that quantum effects can influence the behaviour of biological molecules. An interesting, inter-disciplinary book.
- Feral by Geroge Monbiot – On rewilding, the reintroduction of once-native animals to a region to try to restore some of the wildness we have robbed them of, such as returning wolves or lynx to certain remote forests of Britain. The topic is still very controversial in conservation biology, and Monbiot draws on both conservation science and our connection to the wild world to support his position, therefore the book tends to polarise readers.
- The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts – About human-caused ecological disruption in the oceans, and what we can do to make amends. It is a topic that many can overlook in favour of the rainforests, so will definitely fill in some gaps in most people’s knowledge.
- Spillover by David Quammen – I read this whilst reading a book about life in North Korea and they were equally terrifying. It deals the “spillover” events which tip a non-human animal disease into a human zoonotic epidemic, and suggests what the future could bring. Quammen makes the sometimes clinical world of epidemiology as compelling as a thriller.
- The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee – Another one of Mukherjee’s epic histories of science, this one is on oncology and cancer research. US centric, but a thorough and well constructed narrative.
- The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert – On extinction in a world where human actions are coming to dominate the planet, Kolbert travels the world to explore how the ecological dynamics of the world are changing as the Anthropocene enters full swing.
- The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz – A critical look at the historical and environmental forces that got us into this mess, their overall message is that the Anthropocene was never inevitable, rather the environmental destruction we see was caused by choices made by those in power influenced by their ideological systems, and not due to individual human greed.
- The Music of Life by Bruce Noble – An antidote to The Selfish Gene, this book counter the claims of a reductionist biology with a look at the whole system, and how phenomena can emerge from all levels and feed back into the rest of the system, creating extraordinary biological complexity. An elegant and thought provoking book.