One of the most frequently read posts on this website was my review of E.O. Wilson’s ambitious but flawed book Social Conquest of the Earth. But there are many more popular science books that I really love! So that’s what I”m writing about here.
Most popular science books have clear and enjoyable writing that explains some field or topic to a lay audience, but the best of them also have their own novel and exciting scientific ideas. Popular science books written by some particular authors (e.g. Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Bernd Heinrich, Jonathan Weiner, Carl Sagan) are guaranteed to be worth your time, but many others are hit-or-miss. So if you’re looking for books to read, here are my top 5 recommendations.
1. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. The book is about how to think clearly about adaptation. Probably the most important book on evolution since Darwin. It might fundamentally reshape how you think about almost everything. Every biologist should read it. Here’s a 4-min off-the-cuff version.
2. The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. Pinker is the best science writer, and here he covers some of the most controversial topics in academia. Are humans blank slates? Of course not. But Pinker does more than argue these points; he insightfully probes and dissects how the idea of the myth of the blank slate (and two other similar notions) have influenced science, our society, and what we think about many controversial social issues. Everyone should read this book. Here’s a taste from a TED talk.
3. Winter World by Bernd Heinrich. This book is about how organisms survive in the wintertime. There are a lot of “Wow, I-didn’t-know-that-cool-nature-fact!” books out there. In my opinion, this one is probably the best. For a more in-depth book on a narrower topic, read also The Mind of the Raven. The author is a fascinating individual: one of the greatest animal behaviorists and naturalists alive today, and he also “set American national records for any age in the standard ultramarathon distances of 100 kilometers, 200 kilometers, 100 miles, and longest distance run in 24 hours” [156 miles]. Quote from wikipedia.
4. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. This guy got a Nobel Prize for the work he summarizes here. There has been a recent wave of books on behavioral economics, how humans decide, what makes people happy, etc. This one is written by the guy who invented the field, so it’s no surprise that it’s the best by a large margin. A 2.5-min trailer here.
5. How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. The best science writer tackles the most difficult topic. And another short video.
Here are some other great popular science books by category…
- Mind of the Raven. Corvids are way smarter than most people realize.
- The Ancestor’s Tale. A book about evolution focusing on the organisms.
- The Extended Phenotype. This is a good philosophical biology book.
- The Beak of the Finch. This is a book about field studies documenting evolutionary change. Won a Pulitzer Price.
- Summer World. Sequel to Winter World. It’s almost as good.
- A Sand County Almanac. The classic book on conservation and ecology.
- Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You. I’m probably biased because I’m in this book. But this is a very funny and enjoyable read.
- Endless Forms Most Beautiful. About evo-devo
- Dark Banquet. Stories about vampire bats!
- The Forest Unseen. Excellent nature writing, about a tiny patch of woods and all that happens there.
Statistics (non-technical beginner books)
- Intuitive Biostatistics. the most important statistical concepts for biologists explained very clearly.
- R in Action. I learned how to use R using this book. It was perfect for me.
- Mont Carlo Simulation and Resampling Methods for Social Sciences. This might be really pushing it for non-technical, but this book is amazing. When a statistics book is written for social scientists, it often means it’s very easy to understand (always a good thing).
- The Better Angels of Our Nature. Wow. Steven Pinker’s latest masterpiece: a book about the history of violence. It will make you appreciate how good life is today. Read this book if you like big ideas, convincingly argued, that will change how you see the world.
- Incognito. Great book on the brain. Great writer.
- The Stuff of Thought. The best part of this book is about how people use indirect speech to negotiate social relationships. The chapter on swearing is pretty amazing too.
- The Language Instinct. This and the last are more Steven Pinker, I didn’t even think I was interested in language until I read this.
- Why Everyone Else is a Hypocrite. This is a very funny and very smart book on what evolutionary psychology looks like at it’s very best.
- Predictably Irrational. Lots of experiments. Fun to read.
- The Folly of Fools. Triver’s book on self-deception. Very enjoyable reading.
- Stumbling on Happiness. A good book on the psychology of happiness.
- Social— I’m listening to this one right now as an audiobook. So far, so good.
- The Origins of Virtue. About evolution of cooperation. A bit outdated now, but still great.
- Just Babies. A recent book on development of moral sense in children
- The Moral Molecule. A book about oxytocin
- The Altruism Equation. About history of a social evolution theory
Books on being a scientist
- Unweaving the Rainbow. This book starts with this classic line: “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Great stories by Richard Feynman. Every scientist loves Feynman.
- 101 Theory Drive. This is a great book about what being a mad scientist is like. Forget all that “sociology of science” stuff, I think this is the best sociological book on scientists. You will learn a bit of neuroscience, but also you will learn about the role of obsession, insanity, and delusional ambition.
- Time, Love, Memory. A book about behavioral genetics that reads like a thrilling novel. Very good.
Some good popular science essay compilations
- This Will Make you Smarter
- This Explains Everything
- A Devil’s Chaplain
- Oxford Book of Science Writing
- What if? [by the xkcd guy. Everything he does is pure gold. I haven’t actually read this book but I follow the essays online.]
A few other delightful books
- Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
- The Way of Zen by Alan Watts
- The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
- Waking Up by Sam Harris
- The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I think this must be the greatest pound-per-pound book about real altruism– a controversial children’s book with only 650 words. There are many interpretations. It is a simple story about a tree that gets happiness from giving, and a boy who only takes and takes. What is most interesting to me is the way we react to this stark and truly unconditional altruism. Is it beautiful and inspiring? Or it is alienating and unhealthy? Even though it is stated repeatedly that the tree is happy, many (most) readers choose to believe that the tree is just self-deluded and they instead find the whole thing increasingly unsettling as the book goes on. (“But how can it be happy if it’s just giving the whole time?”) Readers also become very upset at the boy character for his selfishness, his exploitation, and for his lack of appreciation and reciprocity. What does this tell us about our own human nature? Reading this book is a personal psychological experiment on inequity aversion and our ability to even imagine being an entity that thrives on altruism.
If you have your own recommendations for me and others, feel free to post them in the comments.
And here are some recent and relevant papers…
- An article about Bshary’s work on cleaner fish.
- a study on prosocial helping in rats
- Swarming occurs when promiscuous temperate bats mate before going into hibernation. These aggregations were originally considered to be chaotic and unstructured. A recent study found evidence that males and young bats both associate with each other during swarming.
- OT reduces sharing with strangers in marmosets
- does allonursing in meerkats serve a social function?
- a better way of classifying cooperative breeding birds provides insight into evolution of cooperation
- a hormonal study on alternative reproductive strategies in female mice
- a effect of kin selection on evolution of interspecific mutualisms
- marmots established fewer social connections than possible in larger groups
- male-male competitive helping in humans
- oxytocin and human bonding in dogs
- unrelated helpers at the nest do not signal or get punished
- subordinate dogs rarely challenge dominants suggesting a steeper dominance hierarchy in dogs than in wolves
- “we hypothesize that individual differences in prosocial personality traits are facultatively calibrated to variation in “embodied capital”—that is, knowledge, skills, or somatic traits that increase expected future fitness”
- “Cooperative systems are susceptible to cheating, but little is known about whether cheaters are successful in the long term. Ostrowski et al. examine the evolution of genes that mediate social cheating in Dictyostelium discoideum and find patterns of balancing selection, suggesting that cheating may be stable and endemic in natural populations.”