The 10 Best Popular Science Books of 2016: Biological Sciences | @GrrlScientist
This list of popular science books is breathtaking and inspirational — so give yourself a gift of one or more of these books today
You may recall that I was a judge for the 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment popular Science Book Prize. I mention this because you may not know this, and also because this is the reason I’ve not shared reviews for any of the many books I’ve read this year to avoid creating an impression of bias.
Today, I continue my nearly-annual list of the best popular science books of the year (my first instalment is here). Today’s list is biology, a broad topic that includes books about evolution, ecology, animal behavior and the natural history of animals. (I do realize that each of these topic areas could easily qualify as a separate list, each with its own list of ten fabulous books, but those lists will probably come next year, after my crazy life has calmed down a bit!) Those of you who are wondering where all the excellent botany/plant books are, stay tuned because those are included in another forthcoming list!
These are ten popular science books in biology that I especially enjoyed.
Humboldt current, Humboldt county, Humboldt peak, Humboldt’s penguin … Humboldt … Humboldt … Humboldt … who was that person? If you live in Germany (as I do now), you hear his name a lot, but thanks to an ambitious cultural cleansing campaign after WWII, this highly celebrated naturalist, polymath and explorer has faded from memory in America and Britain, although he once was an international celebrity whose ideas not only changed the way we see the natural world but also gave rise modern environmentalism. In this meticulously researched and beautifully written biography, Andrea Wulf skilfully rescues Alexander von Humboldt from his undeserved obscurity as she chronicles his long and fascinating life.
In addition to winning the prestigious 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment Popular Science Book Prize and the 2015 Costa Biography Book Prize, this bestseller is more highly celebrated with writing awards than any popular science book that I’ve ever before read. If you read only one book this year, this is that one book.
This hefty tome is a captivating fusion of science and personal history, genetics, and mental illness. Written by Pulitzer Prize winning writer and cancer researcher, Siddhartha Mukherjee, this fascinating page-turner never disappoints, never “dumbs down” the material or concepts, and its momentum never slows, as the author shares the history of genetics from Aristotle up to today and reveals how genes define all living things. Although there are several inexplicable and surprising omissions (for example, Barbara McClintock’s discovery of “jumping genes”), and a superficial mention of epigenetics, this book is still an engrossing story of the history of the gene as an idea and as an entity. Everyone will love this book, but serious students of genetics and molecular biology will especially enjoy it.
The Gene was shortlisted for 2016 Royal Society Insight Investment science book prize.
As I’ve mentioned before, most people think humans are the epitome of intellectual achievement, but this opinion ignores the fact that cognition in other animals is different, and often incomparable, to ours. In this book, primatologist Frans de Waal explores the many sorts of animal intelligence and reveals how we have grossly underestimated their abilities. The author also tracks the evolution of ethology — the study of animal behavior — from its beginnings until the present day, and shares many impressive examples of animal cognition, along with relevant scientific research. This engaging book challenges our beliefs about animal cognition and provides necessary information so we can rethink our ideas about the nature of intelligence.
Evolution has certainly shaped a lot of strange creatures, most of which are unknown to the general public. As if sensing this empty niche, Matt Simon wrote his fun and informative book, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar. Conversational in tone and often humorous, the short chapters make this an ideal “subway read”. Although this book includes disgusting descriptions (but otherwise lacks much deep scientific detail), it will certainly appeal to younger readers and to non-specialists who are interested in some of the weirder aspects of nature.
The Lion in the Living Room is a critical examination of domestic cats, cat ownership and the human-cat bond. The author, herself a “cat lady”, remarks that, compared to all other domesticated animals, cats are really quite useless, because they are not especially skilled at performing any valuable services. This raises the perplexing question: how did domestic cats come to dominate every known habitat on Earth, from our cozy couches to the entire continent of Australia? Is this mind control? Um, well … The answer may be toxoplasmosis, a parasite that lives in feline intestines and infects rodents’ brains (guess how), making them unafraid of cats. This fearlessness makes them easy pickings for domestic cats (notoriously poor hunters), thereby providing toxoplasmosis parasites with the opportunity to infect yet more cats. Accidentally, due to our close association with cats, half of the world’s human population is also infected with toxoplasmosis. Although no toxoplasmosis-related behavioral changes have been documented in humans, the author argues that toxoplasmosis may underlie our fuzzy-minded obsession with cats. Wow, amazing! Cat people will either love or hate this book.
Living a life that is dominated by scent is, in my opinion, truly alien — it is a world that humans can never fully understand. But that doesn’t stop the author, Alexandra Horowitz, a psychology professor who studies canine cognition, from trying. She embarks on a personal journey into scent and olfaction, which even includes her own hands-and-knees investigation into what her dogs are so busily snuffling whilst out for a walk. In addition to personal experiences, the book includes a spellbinding and detailed description of the anatomy and physiology of a dog’s nose, and provides a glimpse into the relevant chemistry and physics of scents, along with illuminating comparisons between between human and canine olfaction. This book will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.
There are more than 30,000 species of fishes — more than all birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians species combined. Although many people view fishes as mindless automatons that exist solely to be eaten, the author, ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, argues that we should recognize fishes as sentient individuals. He shares numerous scientific studies that reveal fishes to be thinking and social beings that actually are a lot like people. Based on these findings, the author then argues that we should reevaluate the moral implications of how we catch and farm fish. Considering that Balcombe is the Chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society Academy, this is a predictable argument, but, as a life-long fish-keeper and vegetarian, I do agree with him on this. After reading the research findings, you may agree, too. Surprisingly, this compelling book the first ever published that is devoted to fish behavior.
Octopuses are such peculiar creatures. Lacking a spine, possessing tentacles instead of hands, they are more closely related to snails than to humans, yet they are remarkably intelligent animals that can solve complex problems, and they even have distinct personalities and moods. Yet despite having a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, a tongue covered with teeth, and an all-too-brief lifespan, one such octopus, named Athena, became a close friend to the author, Sy Montgomery. This amusing and entertaining book — part memoir, part travelogue — is a love story with some science thrown in. Along the way, the author raises important questions about the nature of intelligence and relationships — especially between such vastly different creatures as humans and octopuses.
This book was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction.
What does it feel like to get stung by any one of a number of stinging insects? In this book, the author, who won the 2015 IgNobel Prize in Physiology, explores this question by using himself as the human pain meter who is stung, bitten or otherwise injected with poisons by a variety of hymenopterans (ants, bees and wasps). The appendix in the back rates these insects’ stings and includes some comparative descriptions of the sorts of physical pain each sting creates. After being stung in the corner of my eye by a paper wasp (pain level 1.5; “burning, throbbing, and lonely. [Feels like a] single drop of superheated frying oil … “) as a child — an notable sting that made my eye swell shut for one week — I’m curious what a bullet ant sting feels like (pain level 4.0; “[P]ure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”). Although, really, I do not want a bullet ant sting in the corner of my eye — I’d probably end up blind for life! Provocative book and topic, but the writing flits about, which is probably what one should expect from an entomologist who earns his living by chasing fast-moving stinging insects.
This unusual book focuses on the first of several long-term “cohort” studies — detailed accounts of the life histories of thousands of people born in Britain during one week in April 1946. Although some of the study subjects’ stories are presented (and yes, they are interesting), the main focus is the life stories of the researchers who worked on this long-term project (which also is interesting) and how the project was in constant danger of having its funding pulled, mostly due to politics, despite the many hundreds of scientific papers (and the many policy changes) that resulted. As the author emphasizes, some of the most important findings from these long-term studies might not even be discovered until the original principal investigators are dead. Most people will be totally captivated by this book, but I think it’s a must-read for politicians (especially those interested in UK government), statisticians and epidemiologists, and for practitioners the social sciences.
My other “best books of 2016” lists
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Originally published at Forbes on 11 January 2017.