A Biological Sciences Reading List by a Library-Haunting Student

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 mabey

  • 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.

emerald planet

  • 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

  • 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 money

  • 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

  • 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.

mismeasure of man

  • 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.

Evolutionary Biology:


  • 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

  • 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.

selfish gene

  • 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

crack in creation

  • 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

  • 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…

epigenetics revolution

  • 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 scientists

  • 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).

von humboldt

  • 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

  • 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.


variety of life

  • 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.

Molecular Biology:

life on the edge

  • 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 Anthropocene:

the sixth extinction

  • 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

  • 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.

Systems Biology:

the music of life

  • 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.

Burned Up Beech


In the park behind my parents’ house, there is a beech tree with a burnt out heart.

This park is really two suburban parks established in the 19th century by munificent local mill owners as a place for their workers to go other than the pub on weekend afternoons. Over the years the parks have fused. Together they grade into the surrounding woodland, these remnants of an older place from which the parks were carved and held in a suspended state, all else shorn and shrouded under houses.

Paths are threaded through the wood; heavy rain causes the clay to shift under the soil and the path occasionally slumps into the river. Trees are pulled in as well, swept away or up turned with their great roots to the sky. An Anthropocene Scene; the trees have plastic bags tangled into them like trapped ghosts. And little bags of dog poo decorate the trees like Christmas decorations, left by those without the patience to find a bin. But the growth-stretched skulls carved 15ft up a tree trunk hint at a deeper history.

This beech tree is situated behind a running track. It is a subliminal space; amateur athletics to the back, to the front the uncanny knocks of woodpeckers. Wild and illicit, but mundane and suburban as well. Beside the beech is a fallen brethren. Someone decided this trunk should have been planed into a seat, to this the woods have sent hyphae and added shelves of bracket fungi. There is a little clearing in front of my tree, a perfect setting for a ritual.

I walk these woods alone at strange and secret times, tapping out the same route year after year so that I do not really travel through space but instead through time, seeing each tree change its face for a new season. My ritual is ecological and personal, I move through time as it changes nature and changes myself.

Others have other rituals in this place, events I do not see but find evidence of. In cucumber-cool summer mornings I find crushed cans, little plastic baggies and the charred remains of a fire in the clearing. It is a natural place to congregate. A wild tamed no place to loosen your mind with drink and drugs.


I’ve always known the tree as having a gaping black wound from its roots stretching two metres up the tree and through the bark, pith and heartwood. All that the fire has left is a centimetres thick crescent at its back. I do not know when it happened, when the heartwood burned. It must have been quite a scene, flames licking up the trunk; fire ascending. I don’t blame who did it, I know the tempting itch of fire on wood is one sometimes not easily overcome. When the ash settled, what remained was a top heavy tree. Above a mostly intact stumpy trunk and branches, but below supported by the fragile inches of tissue that link the rest to the roots.

But this does not mean the tree is dead.

Trees are resilient in a very different way to animals. Lacking the choice of a quick escape all plants are hardy, but trees’ bulk prevents them from taking the cowardly annual option. They must retain their trunks all year, feeding the living tissue stored sugars and minerals. Whilst leafless, the tree starves until spring budding. Unlike vertebrates who tuck stem cell deep into the bone marrow, plants keep their stem cells under the bark throughout the tree. This means the idea of the individual blurs when we considered plants. For many plants, a part can break off and use its stem cells to form a new, cloned whole. These stem cells allowed my beech, horrifically mauled, to still put out leaves for another spring and nuts for another autumn. Though the heartwood is burnt, the name is deceptive. For a tree is not run by the heart, or anyone part. If the xylem and phloem course through the remaining tissue, the plant can endure, adapt and bloom once more.

The beech’s cavity is large enough for me to stand inside. The air changes, gone is the fury and wet-cold of the winter wind. Where the heartwood once is still and warm. The sounds of the woods are muffled.

I think of Ariel imprisoned and tormented in the pine and how different this is. I would have the tissues knit over me and take me in and we will grow together, a full canopy.

But chimerism is no solution. I meet this tree so often as it is a thing living despite unspeakable damage done to it and I want to learn from it, not join it. I want to know endurance in a harsh world where harsh things are done; I want to know how to have been burned and keep living.


The Reification of Gender

The Socially Porous Brain Case. Illustration by Laura Cooper.

Some of my earliest memories of school life have within them the division between two groups of child; boys and girls. This split often didn’t feel enforced by adults or ourselves. Even in reception classes I recall a subtle difference, felt rather than known, between these two ways of lumping bodies and minds. Subtle beginnings are where the thin edge of a larger wedge become established. The majority of children in the West seem to pass through the stages from oblivious infant to a perceptive practitioner of their gender so smoothly and consistently that it looks like the unfurling of an innate biological capacity. Even children who know they are gender non-conforming often grasp wholesale the stereotypes of the gender they weren’t assigned at birth rather than pick the best of both. Though the crudest manifestations of gender diminish after the age of seven or so, these gender stereotypes stick with us in adulthood. From the consistency of this diverging behaviour, it has been argued that it is caused by a similar dimorphism inside the heads of people of different genders. Some then imply that these differences are unavoidable. Brain activities marches out into the world as behaviour, and no amount of good intentions can stop this, so the argument goes.

The precise details of the things in the brain that cause gendered behaviours have changed over time, as Cornelia Fine details in Delusions of Gender. From Victorian ideas about the small size of the female brain to more recent conjectures about high male foetal testosterone levels and the larger female splenium of the corpus collosum better linking the ‘verbal’ and ’emotional’ parts of the brain, many specific neuroanatomical differences have been argued for. But there is little evidence for any of these differences being robust or significant, or even real. However, rather than address each proposed difference on a case by case basis, more sociologically minded neuroscientists and psychologists such as Fine have looked to the root of this argument.


In his book The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould writes about the fallacy of reifying intelligence. This is where we take the abstract and complex concept of human mental activity and reduce it to the simpler concept of intelligence, defined narrowly as doing well in specific intellectual tasks. It is treated as a single thing, this is reification. This implies that there must be an intelligence ‘centre’ in the brain we can pinpoint. But this thinking is fallacious, as it attempts to reduce the multifarious ways human mental states can manifest, the qualities of which are determined by your upbringing, your society, your biology, your reaction against all three as well as dashing of randomness, into a single biological entity. This fallacy then grafts itself onto another fallacy, that what is biological is innate. Therefore, the argument goes from intelligence the thing to the spatial thing that permits intelligence to the innateness of intelligence. Sweep away the subtleties of the social world, here is reductive biofatalism.

And thus also with gender. The reification of gender to a brain thing takes us down the path of reductive biofatalism. The differences in male and female brain development, whatever this may be, is said to mean that the female infant’s brain unfurls as a wonder of intuition and empathy, whilst the male’s is honed into a systematising machine. The seed and pathway of this unfurling is determined, and nothing good-natured liberals can do will change this, so the argument runs.

But such an argument would only work if the social environment had no impact on the brain during development. This is far from true. We humans owe our great cognitive power to our brain’s extraordinary malleability in response to the environment. Without this no human culture would be possible, as how else could we learn our mother tongue? Psychological changes must produce or be caused by changes in the brain. To suggest anything else would be to throw aside five hundred years of material science and resort to crude ideas of the immaterial psyche. Some seem to forget this easily, but it is undoubable that the brain is sculpted by the world it forms in. From the extremes of foetal alcohol syndrome to the subtle every day instance of memory, the brain changes constantly in response to the environment, social and otherwise. In Cornelia Fine astute image, she refers to the “psychologically permeabl[ity of] the skull that separates the mind from the sociocultural context in which it operates”. The skull is not a fortress against the environment, but a porous psychological veil through which society can impinge into the deepest recess.

How does this relate to gender? It does so because of the subtle and unsubtle ways in which the sex of a child is stressed from birth. For most, a newborn is a gender first and a name second. Even a child raised in a so called ‘gender neutral’ way will likely know their gender. Drawing on the subtle clues their parents let slip and the attitudes of others they will realise what being this gender means in their society. Children between about five and seven years seem to me to be the most gender-fixated of all humans, probably because they have little else going for them. Gender gives them membership of a particular identity club rich in tropes to take on and satisfy their yearning for a social identity when the identity labels of available later like lawyer, heavy metal fan, socialist, bisexual etc. are unavailable. Thus the cues about what being a girl or boy means are picked up and followed and the child self-socialises themselves into their gender role. Of course, this is often not so perfectly smooth as this, but most do achieve consolidation into this role.

This whole process sculpts the brain. For women, as the child does the activities deemed feminine, the connections between brain regions and neural pathways involved with this strengthen and this becomes her life-long psychology and behaviours. This results neural dimorphic between men and women, but as far as I am aware the differences are not specific, vary between individuals considerably and don’t cause radical differences in cognition. This makes single-sex education due to neuroanatomical differences as logical as educating the children who learnt the violin at age 6 away from non-musical children.

Men and women do think differently, but this is likely entirely due to differences in the social environments of men and women rather than a sexually dimorphic ‘gender organ’ or physiological systems are the reifiers would have it. Rather than the gender binary being neuroanatomical a priori, the social gender binary is etched into the brain. But the reifer’s profoundest error is the idea of the autonomy of biological development. The womb is seen as a inviolable temple where the instructions of the genetic code are read out and post-natally the brain-case as sealed to the outside world. In contrast, I find Fine’s image of the psychosocially permeable skull a wonderful metaphor to think with. The body lets in all sorts of environmental influences in through its walls. Our development is not a soliloquy, but a cacophony of voices, each contributing different lines of varying importance which collectively take this human body and mind on life’s voyage through time.

The “Deep Otherness” of Plants: On Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl


I’ve spent much of the time since reading Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl in November pressing the book into the palms of anyone whom asks for recommendations. This is not because it is something tritely described as a science book which non-scientists can enjoy, as if this means it has been specially dumbed down. This book is not concerned with explaining scientific concepts about how the world works, which won’t attract a person not interested in thinking in causal mechanisms. Jahren is not concerned with detailed explanations of her work, instead the book starts prior to this and explores what draws us to look at the world with a curious mind, a thing we all inevitably do whatever our day job. It is more impressionist than explanatory, with the tautness and rhythm of literature, dealing with what drives a particular sort of person cram themselves into small lightless rooms with big questions and anxious hearts.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s autobiography of becoming and painfully establishing herself as a scientist. She works at the intersections of many disciplines and  could be described as a plant geochemist, one of the few scientists who spend their time sifting and sorting data extracted from rock samples to constructing landscapes millions of years gone. I enjoyed this spotlight on an under-hyped branch of science whose way of looking at the living world we all should learn from. Jahren and her colleagues see with the panorama of the palaeontologist and the eye of the environmental scientist for the interplay of living and non-living and so understand the environment as ever shifting, the present world should not be taken for granted.

Jahren structures chapters about her life and work around short vignettes about how plants live. Though she writes of the “deep otherness” of plants, plant scientists do find that the organisms so often on their mind inevitably colours their experience of their own lives. The perils and the struggles of life as a plant mirrors Jahren’s as a scientist, a woman and a person with bipolar disorder. For instance, a chapter on the curious S-shaped growth curves of corn which suggests the traumatic process of making seed is followed by a chapter detailing Jahren’s pregnancy; the emotional turbulence of going off medication in the first two trimesters and in the final trimester being formally barred from her lab as a “liability”. This juxtaposition is more than metaphor. What Lab Girl does best is to convey what it is like to think like a scientist, to have your mind percolated by your subject matter and methods until you yourself become entwined within it.

This is not to say Lab Girl is a romantic account. There are numerous horror stories about funding struggles, scrabbling enough money to pay the salary of Bill, her career long collaborator who spent much of the early days sleeping in the lab or his car. Bill is Jahren’s colleague, but they act more like siblings than two professional.They spend blissful nights in the lab constructing experiments and defrosting hamburgers, pepped up on a steady stream of dark humour. Rather pleasingly, both Bill and the many Mass Spectrometers Jahren has had in her life appear far more frequently than her husband. But Jahren does not dismiss family life, a scene towards the end of the books sees her refer to the two halves of her heart, both full when she puts her son to bed and goes off to the lab to put the half given over to science to use. She doesn’t see either side of her life as detracting from the other, they are all components of what she is.

Jahren does not make her bipolar disorder explicit for the first part of the book, no doubt mirroring its emergence in her life,though this did mean it took me a while to realise that her long hours and nocturnal lab habits are not typical, and shouldn’t be purposefully emulated. I’m cautious around first person account of bipolar disorder as they can be interpreted as glamourising mania and making it desirable for people who don’t have bipolar, which it ultimately never is. Thankful, Jahren avoids this.

On the flip side, except for her pregnancy, her bipolar or the stigma associated with it does not seem to have subtracted from her career significantly. I suspect however that Jahren was of the first generation to do so in significant number, as they would be doubly perceived as irrational and unscientific for being mentally ill and women. Jahren discusses the sexism she has faced, and locates its burden to the “the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be who you are”, the knee-jerk assumption of what a scientist can be which affects more or less all but the white European, wealthy middle-aged able-bodied man.

Whilst the title suggests the book’s subject is the “girl”, I think Jahren intended the stress to be on the “lab” in which the girl happens to be in. Jahren grew up in her father’s lab, and sees the labs she has built over the world as her home, a refuge from the outside world where she can be herself. The book is a love letter to the physical and mental space to think, play and discover that a lab of one’s own brings to the female scientist in particular.

Lab Girl is not a The Double Helix style account of one extraordinary discovery, Jahren sees science as work and herself as “like an ant, driven to find and carry single dead needles [..] and then add them one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it”. Whilst a science appears to be progressing in leaps and bounds from the outside, as seen from the individual point of view science stagnant with your budget or regresses as your work is made irrelevant.Whiggish narratives are irrelevant or dangerous on a day to day basis, so Jahren explores the pleasure of her work itself; to try to understand the logic of plants, from the inside. But the moments of discovery are beautiful when they happen, such as the blissful moment when Jahren is standing in the lab in the sunrise thinking herself the only one in the world with a newly discovered gem of knowledge, making her “unique existentially”.

As a young woman with designs on making a (increasingly circuitous) route into research science, I have absorb Lab Girl not as a manual for being a scientist, but rather as a suggestion of a way of being as a scientist, a path already flattening down the grass. A path which shows the principle is possible, but does not dictate the route. But it is more important to me as a showing how a life scientist can draw upon their subject – these strange ways of being as a way to reflect upon your own life, to use the subjectivity of another as a way to root yourself in the chaotic seas of your own subjectivity.

Innovation through Synthesis: the Methodology of Gregor Mendel


I wrote this essay for entry earlier this year for entry to the Galton Institute’s Mendel Essay Prize 2016, an essay competition open to British and Irish A-Level Students to write on Gregor Mendel and his legacy. I chose to write on what I identified to be Mendel’s principle contribution to biological thinking, a novel fusion of mathematical methods with biological subject matters, which in addition to furthering out understanding of inheritance and opening up the new field of genetics also provided a more rigourous mathematical framework which Biology has followed for much of the 20th century.

Abstract: Gregor Mendel is well known as the Moravian monk who in 1866 presented what became known as his Laws of Inheritance, later incorporated with Darwinian Natural Selection in the Modern Synthesis to form the basis of modern genetics. He is popularly seen as a model Baconian inductive scientist, however I will argue that Mendel’s true innovation was his synthesis of the two disciplines of combination theory and the study of inheritance. This allowed Mendel to describe a biological phenomenon using a mathematical model, a methodology adopted by that vast majority of 20th and 21st century scientists.

Scientific creativity is commonly seen as being either one of two apparently incompatible extremes. The first is that of logical creativity, whereby scientific discoveries are made and problems are solved through the use of logic and deductive and inductive reasoning. By this view, it is very likely that any particular theory would be postulated eventually, as all scientists use the same methods of reason and logic to reveal the same truths about the world. The other extreme is that of the creative genius, whereby the idiosyncratic cognitive patterns of a particular gifted individual allows, as William James writes, “the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another”.1 Therefore, it is very unlikely that two geniuses will ever construct exactly the same theory, as each will have different ways of connecting ideas, whereas the laws of logic are always the same.

Gregor Mendel is popularly seen as the former; as a logical, deductive toiler. This concept of Mendel has it that, by carrying out many experimental crosses between plant strains, Mendel gained a large data set from which he logically coaxed out his Laws of Inheritance; making him a model Baconian inductive scientist.2 However, a closer reading of Mendel’s biography reveals that Mendel’s work was, as it is for all scientists, as much a product of his “standing on the shoulders of the giants” allowing him to “see further”, drawing on past scholarship in order to be creative. But crucially, Mendel’s creative innovation came through his ability to place one foot on the ‘shoulder’ of two different ‘giants’ and straddle the disciplines of mathematics and biology, and hence synthesis the two in an entirely novel and creative way.

Before Mendel, the study of inheritance was predominated by the idea of blending inheritance, whereby offspring inherited a combination all their parents’ traits, so would have an appearance midway between those of the parents. However, by the mid-19th century, other scientific disciplines had fallen in the path of an all-consuming “‘avalanche of numbers’”3. Therefore, it was arguably inevitable in this mathematically-fashionable context that another scientist would have applied some sort of mathematics principles to the problems of inheritance; indeed, both Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns did so independently, but not in so precise a manner as Mendel over thirty years earlier. The precision of Mendel’s Laws derived from his novel use of combination theory, which was taught to Mendel by its originator Andreas von Ettingshausen. Combination theory is a way of describing mathematically the arrangement of objects in a group in term of underlying laws, which Mendel readily understood and adopted.3 Therefore, Mendel’s innovation came in his ability to use his teacher’s tool to construct a mathematical model in the novel context of biological inheritance.

Though the destruction of Mendel’s experimental notes after his death means that the motivations for his experiments can only be guessed at, it is likely that Mendel approached the issue of inheritance with the hypothesis that the inheritance of particular traits was governed by underlying mathematical laws, derived from combination theory. In order to elucidate any laws present, Mendel had to use a deductive Newtonian, not Baconian, method: he first formulated a hypothesis and designed experiments to prove or disprove this hypothesis.4 The success of Mendel’s Newtonian methodology is shown by his ability to predict the ratio of pea pod colour in offspring produced by a monohybrid cross. Using modern terminology, Mendel’s experimental data shows that crossing together two heterozygous (Gg) green podded F1 plants produces F2 offspring with the phenotypic ratio of 3 green: 1 yellow, but with the genotypic ratio of 1 GG (green): 2Gg (green): 1gg (yellow), as the G (green) allele is dominant to the recessive g (yellow) allele. This F2 genotypic ratio can be determined using combination theory by simply multiplying out the F1 genotypes of Gg and Gg. Therefore, experimental observations confirm this mathematical model of the biological phenomenon of inheritance, permitting the adoption of this deductive, Newtonian methodology by much of 20th and 21st century natural science, to great success.

The Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific understanding consists of paradigms, or broad frameworks of theories. As experiments throw up anomalies in the current paradigm, the paradigm enters a period of crisis, leading a revolution after which a new paradigm is established.5 By synthesising the concepts of two different fields together, Mendel was able to creatively provide a revolutionary solution to the anomalies of blending theories of inheritance. Though Mendel lived in a period of interest in the application of mathematics, his ability to, as Robin Marantz Henig writes, “maintain […] two different mental constructs of the world simultaneously and apply […] the principles of one model to problems in the domain of the second”3 allowed Mendel to mathematically describe biological phenomena, a truly creative innovation not merely derived from inductive toil.

Mendel’s creativity does not fit neatly into either of the common conceptual extremes of scientific creativity. Mendel both carried out the “abrupt cross-cuts” of the genius in using combination theory to solve biological problems and underwent inductive toil to gather empirical evidence. Therefore, Mendel’s example suggests that scientific creativity cannot be achieved by one of these two extremes; rather only by combining logical problem solving with the “seething cauldron of ideas”1 of the mind of a genius can truly innovative and revolution science occur.

1William James in: Simonton, D.K. 2004. Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius and Zeitgeist. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.
2O’Hear, A. 1989. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. UK. Clarendon Press.
3Henig, R.M. 2001. A Monk and Two Peas: The Story of Gregor Mendel and the Discovery of Genetics. London, UK. Phoenix.
4 Schwarzbach E., Smýkal P., Dostál O., Jarkovská M., Valová S. 2014. Gregor J. Mendel – genetics founding father. Czech J. Genet. Plant Breed. 50 pp. 43–51.
5Kuhn, T.S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd Edition. London, UK, University of Chicago Press