The 9 best books about genetics
The takeaway: If you are set on understanding genetics, this wide-ranging list of books will provide you with a great start.
The history of the study of genetics is well documented in scientific literature and in spellbinding, page-turning best sellers. This history has been documented both by seasoned journalists and by the very people who played a role in key advancements in the field.
But with so many possible titles out there to pick from, where is a researcher, or even an interested bystander, to start? Here we lay out the nine best books on genetics—books you can read today.
Why read about genetics?
Genetics is a branch of biology that seeks to explain how traits are determined and passed down from generation to generation. Reading about genetics can teach you about DNA, chromosomes, and genes—the foundation of the genetic code—and how they give us traits. It can also shed light on diversity and variation among species, provide insight into health and disease, and point the way toward medical genetics.
Why learn about genetics?
Learning about genetics can help us understand our own health and how we can make healthy choices. They can also provide insight into cultures and species, help us to understand the world around us, and bolster our general understanding of science. But in the case of many of the books we present here, the opportunity is not simply to learn about the field—but instead it is to learn about those who played such a huge role in it and read the exact words they wrote.
What are the best books about genetics?
Here is a list of the nine best books about genetics:
"The Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin, who took his long flowing beard on the Beagle to the Galapagos Islands in 1835, found that several species of finches adapted to different environmental niches, and used this information to develop his theory of evolution. His collected thoughts on evolution were published in 1859 in this landmark book, which might rank among the most important works ever published. This book laid the foundations for evolutionary biology and the idea that populations evolve over the course of generations through natural selection, building on traits passed from one generation to another but based on variation that helps them survive and adapt to their natural world. The book challenged the popular notion of divine creation and ushered in a new understanding of our natural world.
"The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins
Richard Dawkins is an influential evolutionary biologist and atheist who argues that religious faith is a delusion and altruism is an evolutionary paradox. The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, is likely his most famous work, and it describes what Dawkins calls “selfish genes” and “replicators,” and goes into depth about the curious role altruism plays in selection. It has been called the most influential science book of all time and some have said it is the best book on genetics today.
"The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA" by James D. Watson
James D. Watson is an American molecular biologist who, with Francis Crick in 1953, co-authored an academic paper that described the double helix structure of DNA. The Double Helix, a bestseller published in 1968, is his autobiographical account of that discovery, and as such was an unusual book for its time. While notable for its personalized account of the structure’s discovery, its publication was not all roses for Watson—criticism over the years has included scientific appropriation and academic sexism, and the book created as schism between Watson and Crick. If you are looking for interesting background, this could be one of the best books to study genetics. Part of that appropriation was of work by Rosalind Franklin, whose famous #51 x-ray image proved that Watson and Crick’s double helix model was correct.
"Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters" by Matt Ridley
This 1999 popular science book uses the story of genes to explain the history of our species from the dawn of life into the future of medicine. Matt Ridley, a British science writer, former bank chairman, and former member of the House of Lords, details how chromosomes and genes play a role in disease, behavior, difference, and intelligence. Although the book is more than two decades old, its engaging narrative and timeless subject matter render it still important today. Want to learn about genetics but also have something accessible to a general audience? This is a best book on genetics for beginners.
"The Seven Daughters of Eve" by Bryan Sykes
Who says all great science books have to be non-fiction? This 2001 work by Bryan Sykes, a geneticist, is semi-fictional, and tells the story of human origin in Africa and how early humans dispersed, their DNA shifting along the way. The title, with the number seven, recalls the breakthrough classification into modern Europeans along seven mitochondrial haplogroups, with each group defined by a set of mutations in the mitochondrial genome and traceable along a person’s maternal line to a specific prehistoric woman. These women share a common maternal ancestor, known as the mitochondrial Eve, or the matrilineal most common ancestor of all living humans. The book was called “lovely,” “rollicking,” “clear,” and “fascinating” by The Wall Street Journal.
"The Language of Life: DNA and the Revolution in Personalized Medicine" by Francis Collins
Personalized medicine is the ultimate goal for many of those in the genetics field today, and this book describes how we are getting—and will get—there. Francis Collins is an American physician and geneticist who discovered many of the genes associated with diseases and who led the Human Genome Project. Collins was selected by Barack Obama to head the National Institutes of Health, and this book, now more than a decade old, helped cement his reputation for landmark discoveries. “His groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease,” said Obama.
"DNA: The Secret of Life" by James D. Watson
Yes, a double book nomination in this list for James Watson, who was the co-founder of the double helix structure of DNA and, along with Francis Crick, earned a Nobel for his efforts. While Watson’s earlier work, The Double Helix, may be better known, this book is worth a read, too. This book, published in 2003, tells the story of the molecule and its role in science and medicine as we have entered a period of modern genetics. The book is compelling and authoritative.
"The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee won a Pulitzer for his 2010 book, “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” This 2016 title, however, won its own share of awards, and made it to number one on The New York Times Best Seller List. This book details the history of genetic research, starting with Aristotle and running to today, and discusses the power of genetics to shape who we are as people. It goes much further, however, and chronicles Mukherjee’s own family history, including mental illness, while encouraging people to not let genes define who a person is or what sort of a future they are resigned to.
"She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity" by Carl Zimmer
Named Science Book of the Year by The Guardian and called “extraordinary” by The New York Times, this book chronicles how our evolving understanding of genetics plays a role in just about every part of society and in our own lives. Zimmer, an award-winning journalist who has contributed to stalwart publications and outlets such as National Geographic, Discover, and National Public Radio, delves into topics such as heredity and how our understanding of them has changed in light of modern breakthroughs such as CRISPR genome editing.
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