Bio reading list
Last updated on February 21, 2016
These books would be worthwhile for either people in molecular biology or biological engineering, or anyone else looking for an overview of how these fields came to be what they are today. These books are either not technical, or the technical material can be skimmed over without losing what you'll get out of the book.
The history of biological science and engineering is an ongoing interest of mine; I will update this list as my readings go on.
"Time, Love, Memory" by Jonathan Weiner (2000)
I suspected this book was going to be good from the moment I saw the font that's been used for the chapter titles. If you thought about that, and picked such a good one, you must have known what you were doing for the rest of it. (I realize the author doesn't necessarily choose these, but he must have at least been involved, and more than that, I want to think so.)
What a craftsman Jonathan Weiner is. This is a delightful exploration of behavior from the perspective of genes and simple rules: the "atoms of behavior". In the early 1900s it was a radical notion to think of behavior not from the perspective of the mind or will, as philosophers and psychologists had been doing for centuries. A small group of fascinating scientists, and principally Seymour Benzer at Caltech, are at the heart of the story of how we used molecular biology as a new lens.
Most of the work was done in fruit flies, and a theme that pervades the book is how much of that applies to us. Jonathan Weiner is even-handed when addressing this question and also the obvious fact that finding one or two relevant genes is not the same as achieving an understanding our experience of "time, love, or memory". In this aspect he is a refreshing counter to the constantly overeager scientific press.
Along with Horace Freeland Judson ("The Eighth Day of Creation", see below), Jonathan Weiner profits immensely from the fact that many of the scientists that did the work he describes are still alive. He cites interviews with over 150 biologists during his research for this book; it is especially clear that he came to know Seymour Benzer deeply both personally and professionally. The result is a lucid story of what he did, what it means to him now, and how others have received it and are carrying it forward.
If you want to get into it, pair this with Benzer, S. Behavioral mutants of Drosophila isolated by countercurrent distribution. PNAS 58, 1112-1119 (1967) and Konopka, R. J. & Benzer, S. Clock mutants of Drosophila melanogaster. PNAS 68, 2112-2116 (1971) - two of Benzer's early papers that started it all.
Thanks to Hayley Buchman and Grant "Tomkitten" Sanderson for telling me about this book.
"Brave Genius" by Sean Carroll (2013)
This is such a beautiful book because of its pairings: the development of molecular biology in the 1940s and 1950s against the backdrop of World War II, the French Resistance, and the early Cold War; Jacques Monod, a philosopher-guerilla warrior-scientist, with Albert Camus, a philosopher-rebel-writer; the role of scientists/intellectuals in their own fields with their roles in broader society. Sean Carroll is a professor of molecular biology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, and he writes about the science and scientists with expertise and love. My favorite scene from this book is the description of Monod's discovery of the famous "diauxie" in the Autumn of 1940. The technical details are fascinating by themselves, and even more so when Carroll makes you realize that Autumn 1940 was soon after the German invasion and occupation of France, during which Monod put his Ph.D. on hold to serve in the French army. When France surrendered in Summer 1940, he came back to the lab and discovered the diauxie; less than a year later, he again left the lab to become essentially a general in the French Resistance.
Thanks to Shrivats Iyer for referring me to this book.
"The Machinery of Life" by David Goodsell (2009)
A short and simple tour of stuff in cells: motors, skeletons, pumps, propellers, factories, proteins, DNA, and more. I think I would have enjoyed reading it whether I was in the field or not. But the real genius of this book are the illustrations Goodsell has created of the various structures: he uses what seems to be a specially-created style of drawing to show precisely what these things look like in a way that is also beautiful to look at. He really brings across just how many different machines there are and how literally packed cells are with them. A joy.
"The Eighth Day of Creation" by Horace Freeland Judson (1978)
This is a delightful and encyclopedic history of the central dogma of biology: the structure of DNA and how it replicates, how information is carried from DNA through mRNA to proteins, and how proteins are made and work. Judson, who wins a minor award for posessing perhaps the most gravitas-containing name of any author, interviewed virtually all of the important people that made it happen: Watson, Crick, Monod, Max Perutz, Lawrence Bragg, Arthur Kornberg, and over 100 others over nearly a decade of research for this book. He is generous enough to let their voices come through with long and often personal quotations from them.
"Chance and Necessity" by Jacques Monod (1970)
This book fortells so much: thinking of biology in terms of electrical engineering (Monod thinks of pathways as circuits, and enzymes as relays); the field of developmental biology (he speculates that simple interactions between proteins via gradients can produce larger structures, even tissues); and current work in synthetic biology to extend the genetic code (he asks whether we could reassign codons for new amino acids, a goal that has only recently been fulfilled). It's amazing how much of his speculation about how biochemistry might have first evolved out of the primordial soup is essentially the same as how we think about it today.
I enjoyed his discussions on philosophy -- it's too bad that scientists today often prefer to avoid the subject. He suggests that once humans developed even a simple language, it made intelligence into an evolutionary advantage, triggering an inevitable development of culture and ideas. His thoughts on the evolution of religions sound like peaceful versions of ideas later militarized by Dawkins.
Historically, knowledge and values both emanated from the same source: God. In Monod's world, knowledge now comes from science, but society still struggles to reconcile that with Divine values. He believes values, too, should stem from science: he reaches through science the same place that his existentialist friend Camus (he quotes Camus in the epigraph) reached by thinking about the absurdity of the world: that there is no predefined purpose, and therefore we must and are free to decide the most fulfilling path in life.
It's a shame that this book has gone out of print, but I can understand why: he can get preachy, is prone to escape into rants, and the writing can be stale. Still, this is an interesting window into the mind of one of the surprisingly deep people that built modern biology.