Those of you that know me personally can attest to how much I enjoy reading. During my lifetime I read hundreds of books, spanning a variety of genres, lengths, languages and complexity. In the past few months, I took an interest in books about science. It seemed fitting for a Neuroscientist in training to learn more about the most discussed topics in the scientific field. Although I ventured into branches of science such as astrophysics-I love Stephen Hawking and his theories about space-I asked myself a question: which popular science books should a Life Sciences student read while at university?
Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre
If you are a scientist in training, one thing you must learn is you will make mistakes. But what if those mistakes and misconceptions made it to mainstream media?
Ben Goldacre asked himself the same question and came up with Bad Science. As a science writer in The Guardian and a Doctor in Psychiatry, Goldacre debunks myths the media portray about science and the most recent discoveries. There are some key aspects he discusses in his book, but I will underline those that were the most entertaining for me.
One topic I enjoyed is how commercials on TV and magazines push beauty creams and anti-wrinkle cosmetics made of chemicals that should help with keeping young. Although some chemicals used are part of the skin structure, there is no scientific evidence the skin itself can absorb them and repair the damages of aging. The most worrisome aspect is the portrayal of science as complex and out of reach, while targeting young women, often under-represented in the scientific community. The implications are easy to deduce; women must be beautiful and young, but they need not understand what goes into the cream they buy.
Other themes I liked to read more about was the truth and lies about nutrition, the placebo effect and homeopathy. Overall, it’s an interesting book that makes reflect on the impact science has on the general population and the importance of correct and verifiable resources.
On The Origin Of Species, by Charles Darwin
Although this book does not need introductions, I think it is a nice addition to this list and a fundamental reading for Life Sciences students.
In his study, Darwin explores the concept of evolution by natural selection. Through his voyage to the Galapagos Islands, Darwin noticed the patterns and details of evolution by looking at the different varieties of finches living on the Islands. It took him years to perfect his theory and to gather the data necessary, but he finally published his studies in 1859. For years to follow, the Church discussed and opposed Darwin’s theories, as his findings were against Creationism-the belief God created every species as it is today.
My favourite chapters of the book are those which deal with the divergence of the species, the evidence for homologous structures in species that apparently have nothing in common-look into the pentadactyl limb-and the development of the vertebrate eye.
Leaving my views on religion on the side, I cannot fathom how people still try to debunk Darwin’s theories. Whenever I hear objections to evolution, I encourage reading this book. The explanations follow are logical, so it is also suited for students outside of Life Sciences and those who speak English as a second language.
The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins
Following from the previous book recommendation, The Selfish Gene builds its themes on the theories of George C. Williams's Adaptation and Natural Selection.
Dawkins refers to the "selfish gene", supporting a gene-centred view of evolution. He analyses behaviours in the animal kingdom-including those of humans-finding that genes for behaviours that improve the survival chances of close relatives are passed down to successive generations, thus spreading in the population.
The book’s purpose is ‘to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism’. The book explains how selfish behaviours ensure the group’s survival, but there are cases ‘in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals’. This not only explains why we can observe animals seemingly acting altruistically, but it also gives a fresh perspective on why we see certain behaviours in the wild.
Am I the only one shocked by the video of a hippo saving a gazelle from a crocodile? And who was baffled by the hippo killing the gazelle afterwards? Even though the act seems inexplicable, this book given insights on why the hippo behaved like it did. After reading it, I gave myself an answer: the hippo seemed to save the gazelle for an altruistic purpose, while it was only trying to get the crocodile off its territory. It then killed the gazelle, as the crocodile was gone and the only intruder was the gazelle itself. Those of you who know more about animal behaviour, feel free to give your explanation.
Although the book touches complex topics, the author himself reassures the reader by stating that people can follow the arguments even if they are outside of the field of Biology, while still being formative for those who need it for their degrees.
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky
From genetics and animal behaviour, let’s jump to human behaviour. Behave deals with the most puzzling question: why do we behave like we do?
Every human behaviour stems from a decision taken in a split-second. However, we cannot reduce an action to the action itself, as there are several factors affecting the way a person carries out an action. I’ll explain it better. The author affirms each decision starts from something happening in the person’s brain, but what triggered it? And what hormonal change occurred in days and weeks prior lead to that behaviour? Each time the author answers a question, he poses another, touching on genetic makeup, culture and environmental factors, ending with the evolution that occurred during millions of years.
The book opens with a dilemma; if you, the reader, could kill Adolf Hitler before he became a Nazi, would you do it? Would you kill a baby because of what he could become? The answer to this question is not as straightforward as it seems. Although the author is not defending Nazism in any way-on the contrary, he affirms he would have killed Hitler-he gives an in-depth explanations on social constructs like tribalism and xenophobia, hierarchy and competition, morality and free will, and war and peace.
I included this book in my list, even though it delves in complex topics such as neurobiology, endocrinology and genetics, because it does not polarise the conversation by judging the individual’s actions. The author takes a step back from the behaviour he analyses, talking from a scientific perspective while still not apologising the behaviour.
As a Neuroscience student, this book has proven useful to understand the point of view from which we can discuss certain topics. Although I have a particular interest in the subject, I think it is fundamental to understand how science should not depend on personal opinions, but on analysis and objective conclusions.
Spillover, by David Quammen
Today more than ever, understanding the mechanism by which illnesses can jump from animals to humans is fundamental. A spill-over occurs when a pathogen living in a reservoir animal comes into contact with a new host population. If an animal carrying a disease lives in contact with another species, the pathogen can evolve as much as it needs to infect a previously healthy animal of the different species.
David Quammen travelled around the world to track modern infections to their source. Throughout the book, Quammen asks himself why diseases jump from animal to animal and how we can prevent a pandemic. Although the books seems to predict the current situation, scientists around the world knew for years that a new pathogen would raise and infect humans. However, we did not understand the relationship between diseases and human populations until recently.
Quammen finds a common factor between the toughest diseases: where people live in close contact to the natural world, spill-over occurs. This is the case for Ebola, HIV, Hendra and SARS. People who work closer to forests and who eat wild-caught animals are more likely to be the new host organism for those pathogens that live in the wild.
More than an analysis of the diseases themselves, the book deals with how veterinary and human medicine can interconnect to find the answers to modern illnesses. Similarly to the previous recommendation, this book allows the reader to understand a fresh perspective from which we look at scientific topics. As with many other issues, studying illnesses and zoonosis needs to be addressed from different angles.
After looking back at the list I just wrote, I realise the books need to be read in the order I outlined. The thread connecting these books is how each one adds on the findings of the previous. Although this list is meant for students in the Life Sciences, it is also useful to those who are not in that field but still have questions about evolution, behaviour and the mechanism of diseases.