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Did Richard Feynman have a brother?
June 30, 2009 3:09 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to learn about biology. Can you recommend some books to get me started?

I've only done secondary school (ie, high school) biology and my background is in history, so I'm fairly ignorant of the subject, but I've always been interested in it.

What I'm looking for are recommendations for books that will introduce me to the topic – my specific interests are in zoology and evolution, so advice there would be great, but I'd like a primer on the whole field as well.

I really enjoyed The Selfish Gene, but more because of its discussions of animal behaviour than genetics, so that might show you what I'm looking for. It would also help if the book(s) are enjoyable to read – a textbook might have some great information in it but be horrible to read. What I want is to be able to think like a biologist, understand what it is that's going on in the field today, and learn about the how (and why) living things work.
posted by SamuelBowman to Education (21 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
He famously feuded with Dawkins about both evolution and religion, but Stephen J. Gould is well worth a look. In particular his books Wonderful Life and Full House are good reads about evolutionary biology.
posted by TedW at 4:45 AM on June 30, 2009

I highly recommend Life: The Science of Biology by Purves. It's a textbook but very approachable and a good read. New copies are expensive, but I see Amazon has several used copies under $10.

Purves story: he mandated his book in the course he taught, but was classy enough to let students line up to collect a refund on his royality (it was $2 or $3 per copy). Except those students in ROTC, whose book was already "paid for by the military-industrial complex."
posted by exogenous at 5:12 AM on June 30, 2009

A Short History of Nearly Everything is a very entertaining summary of the sciences for the layperson. It actually focuses mostly on physics, but there's several chapters on biology as well. I can't recommend it enough.
posted by zardoz at 5:36 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Microcosm, by Carl Zimmer, was a good read. You can read some of the excellent pieces on his blog first, to see if you'll like his style. I've also heard that Parasite Rex is good.

Ed Yong also has a collection of his blog posts out as a book. Peruse a few of them online, then buy the book if you like it.

Both are great at distilling the really interesting parts of science into layman's terms.
posted by chrisamiller at 5:43 AM on June 30, 2009

I really enjoyed The Selfish Gene, but more because of its discussions of animal behaviour than genetics

In that case you might enjoy The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. It expands this idea to encompass human behaviour.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 5:44 AM on June 30, 2009

Well, biology is a vast subject but to concentrate on evolution and zoology I would recommend the following for evolution:

Almost like a Whale, by Steve Jones

What evolution is, by Ernst Mayr

I prefer the latter, but they're both give pretty good coverage of evolution.

If you're interested in human genetics/evolution then have a look at these two:

Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body , by Armand Leroi

Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, by Matt Ridley
posted by jonesor at 5:51 AM on June 30, 2009

2nding The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. Also, another book by Steve Jones that gives a great laypersons overall introduction to evolution is Darwin's Ghost.

After you get into it a little more the genetics might become more interesting to you. If so, Jonathan Weiner has a couple of slightly more challenging books - The Beak of the Finch and Time, Love Memory.

If you get so into it that it becomes an overriding philosophy of life then go for E.O. Wilson's Consilience.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 6:10 AM on June 30, 2009

I know the title of this post was kind of intended as a joke, so I apologize if this comment is too much of a derail, but Richard Feynman did (does, actually) have a sister, Joan.

Since you're interested in science, you might be interested in this bit of her work, which connects solar activity to water levels in the Nile between the years 622 and 1470. (If you happen to have access via a university library or something, you can find the original paper here.)
posted by dseaton at 6:12 AM on June 30, 2009

E.O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life is definitely worth a read. And absolutely, absolutely anything by Stephen Jay Gould for evolutionary biology. (Trivia tidbit: Wilson and Gould had a long-running debate over sociobiology/evolutionary psychology. But both are excellent reads!)
posted by pemberkins at 7:22 AM on June 30, 2009

Oh, and for more of a layperson's approach, I can recommend David Quammen's books. One of my biology professors in college used chapters out of these books as some of our course readings, so there's at least one data point as to their quality.
posted by pemberkins at 7:26 AM on June 30, 2009

Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale was a great read and is a really good intro to a lot of different concepts in biology.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 7:37 AM on June 30, 2009

I would strongly second "The Ancestor's Tale" and "Almost Like a Whale", but I think it's a bit odd that a certain Charles Darwin has only been mentioned tangentially so far! There are so many reasons to read "On the Origin of Species", and if you do any reading online or on a portable electronic device, it's free too!
A couple of books I have really enjoyed that will give you some idea of where research is going today:
"Endless Forms Most Beautiful" by Sean Carroll. All animals start off as a single cell (a fertilised egg), yet will develop into one of an amazing array of complex and diverse final forms, with all the bits the right size and in the right place, and every cell specialised to perform a particular function. The study of how the hell this astonishing process can happen is Developmental Biology; Carroll has been an important researcher in the field for many years and his books are a delight to read.
"Before The Dawn" by Nicholas Wade (NYT journalist) is an attempt to summarise the way that molecular biology is adding to and changing our understanding of human evolution, history and society. It talks a lot about how our changes from ape-men to hunter-gatherers to settled modern city-folk go hand in hand with changes in our genes, and explains a lot of molecular biology and genetics along the way.
posted by nowonmai at 8:06 AM on June 30, 2009

When I read your title I thought of Richard Lewontin - for some reason I think of him as the Feynman of evolutionary biology; he has a sort of similar charm and intense intellectual energy. He's on the other side of the sociobiology argument from Dawkins and Wilson. He has a number of volumes of essays on evolutionary theory and philosophy of biology - not the easiest stuff in the world but very rewarding.
posted by yarrow at 8:50 AM on June 30, 2009

If you want to get into more nitty-gritty, I just got The Molecular Biology of the Gene, which is a textbook, but so far its very readable and good. Well-illustrated, etc. But I'm only in the beginning. I bought an international 6th ed. from and it was waaaay cheaper.
posted by jeb at 9:23 AM on June 30, 2009

Robert Sapolsky is one of my favorite science writers. He's easy to read, informative, and surprisingly funny. For animal/human behavior I'd suggest the short essay collections Monkeyluv and The Trouble with Testosterone. A Primate's Memoir is a great look at what it is like to be a field biologist.
posted by jenne at 10:38 AM on June 30, 2009

This is a little different than several of the other responses so far, but Parasite Rex, by blogger Carl Zimmer, is pretty fascinating. It's a great overview of the wide variety of parasites that live in organisms of all kinds, and touches on several different aspects of biology, especially ecology and animal behavior. It's written for the layperson, but does contain actual scientific content, and he goes around and interviews different scientists about their work, so that could fill in some of your thinking-like-a-biologist stuff.

(Also, a quick piece of advice: start thinking about how evolutionary principles apply to everything biological that you learn about. They are almost always relevant, sometimes in startling ways.)
posted by mismatched at 11:31 AM on June 30, 2009

MIT OpenCourseware has a few Biology video courses. If you haven't used the resource before, it is actually MIT putting up full sets of their information for a course and sometimes includes video recordings of all of the lectures from that class.
posted by jgunsch at 11:54 AM on June 30, 2009

I just got The Molecular Biology of the Gene, which is a textbook, but so far its very readable and good.

I agree, much better than the Genes [Roman numeral] series.
posted by exogenous at 12:25 PM on June 30, 2009

Stephen J. Gould's reputation among evolutionary biologists is less than stellar.
posted by zentrification at 12:30 PM on June 30, 2009

Thank you very much for the excellent suggestions! I'll be trying out quite a few of these over the summer.
posted by SamuelBowman at 6:10 AM on July 1, 2009

It's not universally 'less than stellar'. I also personally know evolutionary biologists who like and respect him and his works.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 7:23 AM on July 1, 2009

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