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I think I've done this before but what the heck
If you had to recommend five non-fiction biology texts to SF writers with the goal being SF that doesn't make one want to beat the authors in question while screaming obscenities at them whenever their fiction veers into matters biological, what five non-fiction biology texts would you pick?

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Er, what sort of biology, and what sort of errors? If you're talking about evolutionary biology, that would deserve a separate category, I would think. If it's stuff like biomechanics, metabolism, etc, that would be something else.

You've got 5 books. You could cover both - the goal isn't perfect education so much as covering the most common stupid obvious mistakes.

But do these mistakes cluster? I see a lot of the "Their psychology is completely explained by the fact they're apex predators" type of nonsense. But I haven't seen too much of the "they breath CO2 and exhale oxygen" or "their bones are made of diamond" stuff. Still another category of errors seems to be in the field of ecology. But how many errors can you give me dealing with microbiology in sf? Or biochemistry?

Lynn Margulis' and Karlene V. Schwartz' Five Kingdoms.

Robert Axelrod's Evolution of Cooperation

Gregory Bateson's Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

James Lovelock's Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth.
Anybody who thinks that Bateson and Lovelock are New Age spiritualists has not read and understood these books. This includes many bookshop owners and even some fans. It's true that they're less than rigorous -- Bateson in particular -- but they are not invoking magic to explain things. There are probably better, more recent explorations of their ideas I'm not aware of.

And for a close up glimpse of the sheer overwhelming complexity of it all, Peter Raven's textbook, Biology of Plants.
[I see he's also done a general biology text, but I haven't read it.]


If I'n allowed a sixth, Gerhart and Kirschner's Cells, Embryos and Evolution.

I read The Extended Phenotype when I was a kid and was impressed by it, and have occasionally wondered whether it was just my undeveloped critical faculties. I remember him being more ev-psychish than some.

I think Extended Phenotype is really good, and pretty much neutral about the interesting/dodgy questions w.r.t. human evolutionary psychology. (For calibration purposes, I am very sympathetic to the idea of ev. psych., but obviously the current implementation attracts many people on the crackpot-asshole spectrum.)

— It occurs to me that Bonner's Evolution of Complexity could be on the list too, but I'm not sure what it should displace.

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The asshole spectrum doesn't read the real trade publications

Unfortunately, there are definitely counter-examples.

though, come to think of it, whether they read and understand the real trade publications is a nice question.

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Sadly, Kanazawa has published thoroughly bad ev. psych. stuff in such venues as Intelligence [*] and Journal of Theoretical Biology, as well as specialized journals for evolutionary psychology. I find the JTB episode especially galling, not only because it was a remarkably discreditable performance, but also because I've refereed for the journal.

[*] A journal which I think is as ideological, in its own way, as anything from the Templeton Foundation, but certainly part of the professional scientific literature.

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Zoology errors like what? I'm currently reading it and enjoying it quite a bit, though I admit that my knowledge of animals and zoology is just about nil.

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I am inclined to blame the referees.

Charles Darwin: Origin of Species.
RIchard Dawkins: The Selfish Gene.

Both of them are outdated to various extents, but they give a good idea of the kinds of questions you can ask about evolution.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, by Sean B Carroll.

A little more modern overview of evolution and development.

Some decent introduction to viruses, because this ends up covering epidemiology, physiology, evolution, immunology, and several other fields. I haven't read it yet, but Michael Oldstone's Viruses, Plagues, and History is probably a good starting point.

Microcosm, by Carl Zimmer. A starting point for bacteria and molecular biology

Good question. Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene should be in there, along with something by Jack Cohen. Maybe just his "How to Build an Alien" article in New Scientist would do. I'd also include Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life and Simon Conway Morris' The Crucible of Creation. They're looking at the same discoveries and drawing different conclusions from them, so they show how scientific controversy works. I'd also include Guns, Germs, and Steel. I know there are problems with the history in it, but the biology is pretty sound. It at least gets you thinking about issues that a lot of SF writers ignore completely.

I have problems with the biology in GGS, actually; he is so determined to put *all* differences on the back of environment that he ignores and occasionally outright rejects the idea of self-selection for said environment, wanting to entirely attribute the racial benefits to entirely external points.

Carl Zimmer's Evolution, or alternately The Tangled Bank.
Colin Tudge's The Variety of Life.
Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life is terribly outdated, but it's still probably the best lay introduction to the Cambrian explosion.

I do not have a good recommendation for biochemistry, but that's an obvious topic to cover. Similarly, you'd want a good text on evo-devo.

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yes: texts.

not that I am hopeful. if an Adam Roberts can't be bothered with Physics for Poets, I doubt a Paolo Bacigalupi would bother with a Biology for Bowlers book.

I was reading over the recommendations people made in this thread, and it was troubling me that "biology" seemed to be reduced to only evolution and genetics. Your list is good because it actually covers the rest of the field, the parts in which one studies how animals and plants and cells and colonies work.

I agree with the praise for this list, but on the other hand, the biology that SFF writers get Terribly, Terribly Wrong is generally either evolution or genetics.

I know next to nothing about Biology, but Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle is interesting, and Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature is gorgeous and squeeful.

There's a lovely documentary about Haeckel called Proteus; you might find it squeeful as well.

Gould's The Mismeasure of Man is the ONE book you'd start with (seriously, no one else got this in before I did? wth? you guys suck), then move onto more Gould because he's a hoopy frood with a large bibliography.

I'm currently going through a collection of his essays called The Flamingo's Smile, which the Nivenian "SCIENCE: UR DOIN IT RONG" SFF writers should read on general principle - pretty much every essay in it deconstructs a stupid notion I've seen SFF writers express, ranging from theories underpinning scientific racism (the entire Chain of Being theory is deconstructed over the course of a few essays, which is kinda important for SFF writers because the Chain of Being is basically Telelogical Evolution arrived at via Intelligent Design* - AKA "wot SFF writers think evolution is") to the very notion that Portugese Man O' Wars are in fact jelly fish (the large floaty sack at the top of a Man O' War belongs to a completely different phylum from the tentacles - so no).

I would throw at least 10 copies of it straight at Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's heads if given the chance.

* one essay takes apart a theory that is as far as I know, the only example of the "Argument from drawing pictures of a chimp walking on two legs with the aid of a walking stick" rhetorical mode

I like Gould a lot (those two books in particular) but whenever he gets mentioned, people who know more evolutionary biology than me start laying into what seems to be his fairly extreme non-adaptationist stance, and accuse him of misrepresenting the field in his popular works. And then I can't decide how many of these people have a legitimate beef and how many are just racists incensed by the anti-racist stuff. I think some of both, actually.

EvoPsychic racists and gender essentialists is a fair characterisation imho - he's also prone to treating Darwin as a human rather than heroic figure (which pisses off some of the Anti-IDers off because they see it as undermining their work), plus the very existence of punctuated equilibrium undermines a fuck ton of potential graduate thesis that are just long winded and unfalsified wankfests that try to argue a Just So story that has little to no evidence supporting it, so he's lost the idiot vote among the field.

But as a non-fiction writer you'd throw at SFF to stop them in their worse abuses of the field of biology, being too much of a non-adaptionist isn't a bad thing.

Yeah, the idea that you could even in principle get non-adaptive changes in the course of evolution is a good one to stress to SF writers.

Biology completely upends all notions of what is hard SF. The SF writer who impresses me the most with his understanding of how genes work is, of all people, Samuel R. Delany. To say he is not known as a hard SF writer is an understatement.

Triton? Speaking of Gould, I have a copy of "Full House" I like to loan out which I think gets at the heart of a lot of basic sf misunderstanding of evolutionary biology.

One set of people who seem to dislike Gould are - oddly - libertarians. I really have no idea why. Well, Friedman seems to think that Gould "disrespected" him, but that's Friedman for you.

Yeah, Triton. He has a character give a speech about genetics, sex, gender and development that sounds decades ahead of the time he was writing, to my ears at least.

Libertarians dislike Gould because (a) he was a lefty, and (b) many of them are heavily invested in notions of race and sex differences as genetic and immutable.

If sex and race and indeed class are defined primarily by genetics and unalterable, then that means that the Glorious Libertarian Meritocracy will, by a happy coincidence, have all the racial, sexual and class dynamics the current non-libertarian unfairnessocracy has which libertarians like on several levels.

Well said. Permission to post to metaquotes?

Delany believed that height differences between the sexes was principally mediated by differences in nutrition -- this is why you have planets with 7+ foot women and 4.5+ foot men in some of his work.

There's also a line in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand about dry patches on knees or elbows (my memory is a little hazy which) and the narrator wondering what evolutionary pressure caused that adaptation. Gould would -- and quite rightly in my opinion -- roll his eyes.


Gould... spun a lot of his personal viewpoints in evolutionary biology using a style of argument that bordered on the dishonest -- which side of the border depends on one's ability to perform telepathy on a dead man.

As the science has settled, it's become clearer that Gould was arguing a lot of orthogonal points because we didn't have a good strong theory of how inheritance plus variation leads to differences in development. Now we do.

His race and IQ stuff, that's solid, same as his anti-creationist stuff. In my darker moments I wonder if Gould's personality in academia made it easier to spot the jackassery in the NEGROES ARE STUPID/JESUS RODE A DINOSAUR camps.


how inheritance plus variation leads to differences in development

Are you thinking of evo-devo stuff here, or something else?

Including but not limited to that. Molecular biology is almost an afterthought for Gould -- he champions Kimura and his neutral theory of molecular evolution. But that was a long time ago: Kimura came up with it in 1968. We can pinpoint selection events versus neutral changes in the genome now, and hazard much better explanations about the why.

Part of this is due to Gould's background as a paleontologist: he was obsessed by the limits of what external form could tell him. These days, we're slowly but surely decompiling the source code -- and it's not that slow, either. I remember books from the early 1980s containing much of the known sequence data up to that point. What will the structure of evolutionary theory look like when we have everything under the sun [*] sequenced and analyzed for its historical and functional content? How much of Gould will be relevant then?

[*] what fraction of "everything under the sun" necessary to surpass the 50th percentile of understanding I leave as an exercise for the reader.

I've got nothing to add---I loved Dawkins' The Selfish Gene and The Ancestor's Tale both, and learned a lot from them, but I am not widely read in that area. That would be why I have my library account open in another browser window and am furiously saving recommendations to my books-to-borrow list. Thank you for posting this.

The first three books I've named are just really good overviews that everybody can read and benefit from. The last two books cover areas -- neuroscience and designer pathogens -- that are of particular interest to SF writers and readers.

The Eighth Day of Creation: the Makers of the Revolution In Biology
by Horace Freeland Judson

(This from 1979 and a classic, of course, but still the essential history of the emergence of molecular biology.)

The Changing Role of the Embryo in Evolutionary Thought: Roots of Evo-Devo
by Ron Amundson

(Evo-Devo is evolutionary developmental biology, of course. Amundson covers 200 years of the changing ways scientists have dealt with biology, and this book could well become a classic in my opinion. It benefits from the fact that Amundson is a philosopher, not a biologist, and has a good mind.)

Full House
by Stephen Gould

(Gould is Gould)

i of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self
by Rodolfo Llinas

(Most SF writers are three decades behind where neuroscience and consciousness research actually is -- and this definitely includes Peter Watts in Blindsight, though at least he tried. Llinas, one of modern neuroscience's founding fathers, takes his readers through the whole thing in thi shsortish book fairly plausibly from bottom to top: neurons to brain to mind. You'll never think about consciousness the same again -- nor commit the fallacy of expecting there to be any imperative for AIs to 'wake up.')

by Ken Alibek

(Alibek was the chief scientist in Biopreparat, the former Soviet Union's vast decades-long bioweapons project and he was/is also essentially a glorified pathologist/hustler. So there are areas of fabrication and ignorance in his account. Nonetheless, this is the only public account we have of the Soviet bioweapons project and it is in its broad outlines truthful -- and in some case falls short of the full truth. See the chapter titled 'Bonfire' particularly and the passage beginning on page 263 especially, where the 'young scientist' -- he's unnamed in the book, but his name is Serguei Popov -- does his presentation of a novel biological weapon. Essentially, Greg Egan was not making anything too radical up in his biological SF in the 1990s.)

Mark Pontin

In addition to the fine recommendations above, I'll add some more:

David Quammen's "The Song of the Dodo"
This covers island biogeography, which is basically how plants and animals get weird when they're (a) isolated and (b) exposed to extreme selection. It seems like this type of situation comes up a LOT in scifi, so understanding how it operates here on Earth seems like a good first step.

Jonathan Weimer's "Time, Love, Memory"
Talks in depth about the genetic roots of behavior, specifically as studied in fruit flies - what can and can't be explained by our genes?

Joan Roughgarden's "Evolution's Rainbow
Covers a lot of ground about the biology of gender. In the second half, it turns into a bit of a screed, but the biological information is solid.

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