Looking for literature of life
May 15, 2010 9:09 AM   Subscribe

Recommend me fascinating, intelligent and neutral reading regarding biology, biochemistry, or medicine.

Last week, the New Yorker ran an absolutely excellent article on cancer research - turns out it was a Gladwell piece, but it lacked Gladwell's classic sense of blind wonder and disorganization. (The article isn't available online, but its abstract is located here. What I particularly enjoyed about the piece was its lack of pretention, and accessibility from all levels of knowledge. I know a good deal about biology, and never found the article to be overly simple. Surely there has to be more writing like this: writing that describes work in the biological field in a way that's not overly technical, yet assumes that the reader is intelligent. It can be short-form in articles, recurring short-form in regularly updated blogs, or long-form in books. I'm looking for something to satisfy my fascination with biological concepts in a way that will lead me to intellectual fulfillment, not a cheap sense of spectacle. Any suggestions? (I've also enjoyed Ridley's Genome for what it did with this, though I didn't enjoy his "sequel", Nature via Nurture nearly as much.)
posted by Bleusman to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I suggest Donna Haraway. She writes about the science and philosophy but her background is a PhD in Biology.
posted by jardinier at 9:19 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Complications, by Atul Gawande, is a fascinating collection of essays on medicine, some of which you may already have seen if you read the New Yorker. Much of it is more about the practice of medicine than the biology of it, but there are case studies on obesity, nausea, unexplained pain, and infection that may be more what you're looking for. Gawande does a good job of balancing good, compelling writing with solid research. (I think he was a surgical resident at the time.)
posted by serathen at 9:19 AM on May 15, 2010

Have you read anything by Stephen Jay Gould? For instance, "Bully for Brontosaurus" or any of the other collections (except not "Ever Since Darwin", the first and worst).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:30 AM on May 15, 2010

I suggest Oliver Sacks - he's written a bunch of very accessible essays and books on neuroscience and botany.
posted by janell at 9:34 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've gotten a few in the Best American Science Writing series, they are pretty good. Not always neutral, but cover a wide range of topics. It's not exclusively biology, but the ones I read contained a fair amount of it.
posted by Gorgik at 9:39 AM on May 15, 2010

Dawkins: Selfish Gene, Extended Phenotype
McNeill: Plagues and Peoples
posted by K.P. at 9:49 AM on May 15, 2010

Lewis Thomas has written a few terrific books about medicine, not so much in the "here is a story" vein but in a "here are my reflections about a topic" which is a little different, but I think very captivating. He is a terrific writer. The books I have read and loved are

- Lives of a Cell
- Medusa and the Snail
- The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher [which is really one of my favorite books of all time and I have a hard time with favorites]

I haven't read his other titles. Richard Selzer also has a similar book called Mortal Lessons in the same general tone.
posted by jessamyn at 10:27 AM on May 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nature might have some articles available online that you'd enjoy.
posted by belau at 10:29 AM on May 15, 2010

Horace Freeland Judson's book, The Eighth Day of Creation is an excellent history of the early years of molecular biology.
posted by sciencegeek at 10:32 AM on May 15, 2010

Science News - current research in article form, biweekly updates; accessible and sophisticated for the length.

You can still subscribe to them as a physical magazine, too.
posted by coffeefilter at 10:40 AM on May 15, 2010

I really enjoyed this book by Carl Zimmer. He blogs as well.
posted by emumimic at 11:37 AM on May 15, 2010

Dawkins isn't "neutral". He tends a bit to the pugnacious, and has a definite agenda when he writes.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:21 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Carl Zimmer. Also, David Quammen and E.O. Wilson. FWIW, I didn't find Dawkins's science writing at all agenda-driven, unless "This is science; it is beautiful and maddening and we'd better damn well understand it" is an agenda.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 12:46 PM on May 15, 2010

Great suggestions so far! I've marked the ones along the vein I'm looking for as best answers.

For the person who suggested Sacks: I've read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and found Sacks' prose to be written in a way that values spectacle over science, which I wouldn't have minded as much if his tone matched that: it just seemed dry and clinical while the content said "look at how cool the brain is!" Do you think I'd enjoy any of his other works more than that?
posted by Bleusman at 12:50 PM on May 15, 2010

Seeing Voices by Sacks is a great look into the world of Deaf culture if you can get through the bazillion footnotes and is much more science-writing and geared a little less towards a popular audience.
posted by jessamyn at 12:54 PM on May 15, 2010

Some scattered suggestions:

A Commotion in the Blood by Hall is a fascinating look at the history and science of immunotherapy for cancer. It's quite balanced and talks about both the successes, and the countless failures of the field.

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman expounds upon the intricacies of clinical practice, and reads much like Atul Gawande's writings in Complications.

Sherwin Nuland is a general surgeon and historian of medicine at Yale, and has written a number of excellent lay books integrating the biology of medicine with its history, including Doctors, How We Live, and How We Die.

The Puzzle People is a first-person narrative of the experiences of Tom Starzl as he pioneered solid organ transplantation.

Billion Dollar Molecule on the search for a better anti-rejection drug.

The Microbe Hunters is a classic look at microbiology, and a number of high profile scientists attribute their interest in biology to this book.

Grand Rounds is a weekly collection of interesting posts from a number of biomedical bloggers who range from students to physicians to patients.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 2:44 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

You will love Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi. He explores the variety of human forms and their genetic basis using examples from history (bearded ladies, siamese twins, pygmies, castratos, etc). An amazon reviewer said this which I think is exactly right: "Mutants could have been turned into a freak show by a lesser writer or one with the desire to titillate, but Leroi handles the subject directly and with the right level of sensitivity.". I finished it having learned a lot, and I already study physiology and genetics, and it was great fun to read.

I also really enjoyed the Selfish Gene by Dawkins. It's not controversial or biased in the same way as his later works but instead made me think about biology and how I approach my own research problems in a different way. I don't necessarily agree with all of it but I value the different viewpoint and flexibility of thinking.
posted by shelleycat at 3:59 PM on May 15, 2010

I liked Mary Roach's book "Stiff: The Curious lives of Human Cadavers". An easy read and an interesting approach to medicine/biology/etc. Funny too. Haven't got to her other books yet but I plan to soon.
posted by MsKim at 4:58 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

"The Trouble with Testosterone" and other books by Robert Sapolsky. He's fantastic!
posted by Knowyournuts at 5:38 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've really enjoyed Nick Lane's style of writing. I've read two of his books and would highly recommend them, particularly Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life.
posted by sciencemandan at 5:57 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eisner's For Love of Insects is a fascinating memoir of his career and it shows you the joy of science in that he finds these insects, asks fairly simple questions and then follows the questions into some really neat science. The writing is good.
posted by sciencegeek at 4:29 AM on May 16, 2010

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