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I have many friends who are interested in Biology and want to know more about the subject in general (like a history of biology, from Darwin's theory, to DNA structure discovery, to the human genome project). Of course, I cannot suggest to them to read Alberts or Lenninger. Do you know whether such a book exist? I guess that a book that covers most fields of biology cannot be compiled, but even more focused book would do.

Let me try to narrow it down: something like the greatest discoveries in the field of biology (like this article) would be an interesting book to read.

I am not sure how appropriate this question is for SE, but I am sure that I will get the best answer here. Besides, it would be great if lay people can be more excited about biology and contribute to the site growth.

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I think that this question is too broad, book recommendations about very specific questions are fine, but these very broad ones tend not to work all that well on SE sites. This is really something that chat would be good for, though our chat is somewhat deserted right now. – Mad Scientist Jan 9 '12 at 7:10
@Mad Scientist: pretty much any SE site I've been on has a few questions like this. And they are generally CW. – nico Jan 9 '12 at 10:41
@Mad Scientist Didn't editing my question make it more specific? – Gergana Vandova Jan 9 '12 at 21:59

10 Answers 10

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It doesn't have very many reviews, but The Epic History of Biology sounds like it's perfect.

Flipping through the first chapter in the preview, it doesn't seem overly technical in any way, so secondary school-level knowledge is probably enough. If your associates have absolutely no biology experience, perhaps a run through a popular press book would provide all of the background necessary.

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I don't think the accepted answer should be a book that no one has actually read. I appreciate the "flipping through" that was done, but can anyone who has read the full book weigh in? If not, I'm uncomfortable that the community's best recommendation is based on a skim of the first chapter on Amazon. – yamad Jan 17 '12 at 17:44
@yamad I accepted this answer because the content of this book was the closest to what I was initially looking for. But the votes to the other answers should give you an idea of how good or well known the other books are. – Gergana Vandova Jan 17 '12 at 17:58
@GerganaVandova, I understand. But isn't the critical question how good this book is? I'm interested to know if any of the upvotes know more about this book and could give their thoughts. – yamad Jan 17 '12 at 18:10
@yamad Her operative question here was: "Do you know whether such a book exist?" I offered this based on the diverse list of topics it contains, I never claimed to have read it, and I was quite clear about that. – jonsca Jan 17 '12 at 18:19
@yamad Unfortunately, I haven't read any of the recommended books, so it would be nice if people upvoted because they did. I am also happy to change my accepted answer as soon as someone recommends something else. I also recommended a book which fits what I was looking for but I haven't read it as well. – Gergana Vandova Jan 17 '12 at 18:38

Some that just come to mind, in random order:

One cannot skip reading:

And, obviously:

And, for those interested in the evolution of the brain (and its quirks):

Not very DNA/evolution-oriented, but wonderful science books nonetheless:

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Most if not all of Sacks's books also appeal to lay people. "Island of the Colorblind" is particularly good. – jonsca Jan 9 '12 at 19:27
I agree that Sacks is a great author to dig into. Such great first-hand experiences. I am a big fan of Dawkins, and think his 'Selfish Gene' is excellent, although, I think his rigor might turn casual readers off in this volume. However, I find The Greatest Show on Earth much more readable - and available as an audiobook read by himself. (Selfish gene is also on audible, but I can't imagine it translating as well) – johntreml Nov 3 '15 at 15:45

A good recollection of the early days of micro and molecular biology is "The Eighth day of Creation"

It covers the early use of e. coli, the discovery of phage, transcriptional elements and the impact that DNA structure had. It's very comprehensive and really useful if you are doing molecular biology today.

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I had not heard of this - thanks for the recommendation. – Richard Smith-Unna Jan 31 '12 at 23:23
I don't know about useful, but it certainly brought things into perspective - it was required reading for our first year in the molecular biology PhD program. – dd3 May 2 '13 at 2:07
I think somewhere in your PhD you can stop and try to figure out how we know things and how the process of discovery happens in a broader sense which is really useful and fun. – shigeta May 2 '13 at 5:23

A fantastic book that covers the evolution of modern science since the Renaissance (including a great deal of biology) is The Scientists by John Gribbin. I found that by focusing on the people doing the science in the context of the society in which they lived, I got a much better understanding for why early scientists thought the way they did and researched the questions that they did.

Here's the blurb from the publisher:

In this ambitious new book, John Gribbin tells the stories of the people who have made science, and of the times in which they lived and worked. He begins with Copernicus, during the Renaissance, when science replaced mysticism as a means of explaining the workings of the world, and he continues through the centuries, creating an unbroken genealogy of not only the greatest but also the more obscure names of Western science, a dot-to-dot line linking amateur to genius, and accidental discovery to brilliant deduction.

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Thanks. It really looks promising. – Gergana Vandova Jan 10 '12 at 0:08

I don't know very many books that might be referred to as the Grand History of Biology or anything like that. That's...a big topic. Really big. How about some suggestions for good Biology/Medical History books accessible to lay people:

  • And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, an account of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S.
  • The Great Influenza, by John Berry, which is about the 1918 influenza pandemic.
  • The Demon Under the Microscope, by Thomas Hager, which is about sulfa and the development of early antibiotics.

Finally, I believe James Watson wrote a somewhat popular science-oriented account of the discovery of DNA, which would no doubt be interesting, though likely somewhat skewed in favor of his own awesomeness.

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Hmm, thanks but I was mostly thinking about Cell Biology or Molecular Biology oriented books. Watson wrote "The Double Helix", but this book is focused only on the discovery of DNA, which, although very appealing to me, is too narrow-scope. – Gergana Vandova Jan 9 '12 at 4:05
All of Watson's books are mostly about how many pretty girls he saw or met, and then secondarily about how he worked with lots of famous people. At some point he usually mentions a bit of biology, but it's tangential to the main theme of pretty girls. – Richard Smith-Unna Jun 15 '12 at 18:40

I just came across Understanding Biotechnology. There is one very positive and one very negative review. I haven't read the book myself, but it looks that it is exactly what I was looking for: the table of content includes topics like small history overview, genetic engineering, gene therapy, pharmacogenomics, etc. It might be even useful for people with biology background.

Has anyone heard about this book?

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By far the best book I've read on the history of biology is A Guinea Pig's History of Biology, by Jim Endersby. It tells the history of the field by focusing on experimental organisms and the contributions which were made by studying them. It has an engaging narrative style and the idea of focussing on organisms' stories is an excellent and original one.

However, the best resource there is on the history of science is the TTC History of Science lecture series. It comes in two parts:

  1. Antiquity to 1700 by Lawrence M Principe of Johns Hopkins University
  2. 1700-1900 by Professor Frederick Gregory of Harvard

The lecture series are VERY expensive - around $200 each. However, most good libraries will have them, and I strongly recommend getting hold of them if you can.

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This book, although a little dated, has given me an incredible appreciation of biology that I never gained in school:

What is Life? by Erwin Shrodinger

I am not a biologist, but I occasionally work on mathematical-biology and have training in physics and theoretical computer science. This book was much more accessible to me that other books on biology. Before reading the book I perceived biology as a collection of fun facts (what Rutherford would call "stamp collecting"). Shrodinger's presentation was well tailored to the typical reductionist and "everything must have a reason" thinking of a theoretical physicists.

I think the book does a good job of explaining the basics and providing intuition and grounding. The excited reader can then move on to more orthodox treatments.

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My two favorite books are Molecular Biology made simple and fun and Biotechnology for Beginners. Both are well written and fun to read. As their names suggest, the former covers the basics of biology and the latter covers the basics of biotechnology.

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There is a free video course "Modern Biology" at Carnegie-Mellon University's Open learning initiative. This is very technical and does not cover history of biology.

I quite liked D.A. Sadava's non-free video course Understanding Genetics: DNA, Genes, and Their Real-World Applications. This is Genetics and Molecular Biology oriented, but also not a book. It is suitable for a reader with high-school knowledge of chemistry. Maybe it contains too few basics, so it is also not for the absolute layperson. He starts with Mendel and mentions many other 20th-century researchers.

The author has co-authored one of those thick, expensive college-level biology textbooks as well.

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