Forbes’s choice of best popular biology books of 2016

As I’m out at a meeting in Los Angeles (with a hotel room having a lovely view of the LAX runways–seriously, it’s cool: photo at bottom), I can’t really post much on science, which requires reading a paper several times and then having a lot of time to write about it. So for today’s biology fix, let me just leave a link to an article in Forbes, where GrrlScientist names her ten best popular science books of 2016. Rather than list them, I’ll give her photo of the group. She gives longer descriptions in her text:


Now I haven’t read any of these yet, though Matthew Cobb reviewed Mukherjee’s book in Nature, where he gave it a mixed but generally positive assessment. A book about domestic cats, The Lion in the Living Room, is, according to GrrlScientist, largely about toxoplasmosis, in contrast to a book I once wanted to write—one about the biology of house cats and how it reflects evolution in their ancestors. (I believe that book has also been written, but I can’t remember its name.)

Several of the books appear to be about the “inner lives” of animals, but the one I want to read most is Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? [2016, Granta Books; Amazon US; Amazon UK].

If you’re a birder, you’ll want to see GrrlScientist’s list in Forbes of “The 12 best books about birds and birding in 2016.

And the view from my room—the runways of LAX:


h/t: Amy


  1. Posted January 14, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink


  2. Derek Freyberg
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if the cat book you’re thinking of might be “The Tiger in the House”, subtitled “A Cultural History of the Cat” by Carl Van Vechten. You can buy it on Amazon, or read it free on It’s a classic; but it was published in 1922, so I don’t think it would talk about evolution.
    I’m ready to try Mukherjee’s “The Gene”, despite the somewhat negative reviews on part of the science – his “The Emperor of All Maladies” was fascinating, and I’m grateful that cancer treatment has moved on in the past 50 years.

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      There’s also The Tribe of Tiger (1994) by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, which investigates the natural history of housecats, their social relations with other cats, and their behavioral affinities with their wild cousins. I highly recommend it.

      • charitablemafioso
        Posted January 14, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for the title, Gregory. I need to go find the book now.

        • Claudia Baker
          Posted January 14, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

          Me too!

  3. Carl S
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    I’ve only read 3, had decided against one (re D*gs, based on reviews I’ve read); my personal opinions:
    deWaal: Excellent. science finally getting past the narrow views of the Behaviorist School (as I understand it), as well as realizing that many restrictions on methodology have hampered our learning about animal behavior.
    Wulf: Excellent. How is it that I and so many others knew so little about the remarkable Mr. Humboldt (despite his prior fame, which has given his name to places, animals, ocean currents, etc.)?
    Mukherjee: So-so. Epigenetics (the kerfuffle of which I first read here) is a very minor part of this book. But this is a history, and as an interested non-scientist, I think about 3/4 was a review of stuff I knew, some of which I learned in HS and intro college biology 45-50 years ago. For an up-to-date biologist, it’s probaby >95% review, and a long book.

    • Carl S
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Add: Muhkerjee’s Emperor of All Maladies was great, and well worth reading IMO.

      Forgot I’d started Montgomery’s Soul of an Octopus. They’re my favorite invertebrate, but I couldn’t get into this book–like too much non-fiction I seem to encounter regularly, there’s a lot of fluff and a lot of personal stuff, so a lot reads like it’s more about the author than the subject. My 2 cts.

    • Christopher
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I enjoyed de Waal’s book for similar reasons as yourself. It was a fascinating look at the two schools of thought concerning animal cognition and, as any good book does, it made me track down some of the works he cited in order to dig a little deeper. He always treats his subjects with respect without going overboard with the dreaded anthropomorphism.

      I put Wulf’s book on my must-buy list after listening to her interviews on a couple of BBC radio 4 programs. I admit I had not really paid much thought to Von Humboldt, keeping him in the periphery, but I am now eager to explore his life and contributions in more detail. Time and money permitting, I’ll pick it up soon. I haven’t read or even heard about the other books, excepting Mukherjee’s, but I am somewhat disinclined to bother with it, as I can count no fewer than 32 purchased but as yet unread books in my immediate vicinity.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        after listening to her interviews on a couple of BBC radio 4 programs.

        Oh, that reminds me that I missed this week’s “In Our Time.”

        • Christopher
          Posted January 14, 2017 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          Being on the “wrong” side of the pond, I resort to the podcast.

    • Marilee Lovit
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      I liked the Wulf book and agree that I also wondered why I knew so little about Humboldt. Darwin read Humboldt while he was on the Beagle!

  4. W.Benson
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I have Andrea Wulf’s book on my shelf, next to F. B. Churchill’s “August Weismann” (2015), but haven’t read it yet. The Weismann book, although excellent, is exclusively for masochistic biologists.

  5. Posted January 14, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    How unusual. There is another book just out on octopuses and consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith. It is called Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.

    Has anyone read it? (Looking for a recommendation, or to be steered away.)

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know that book, but I’d flagged “The Soul of an Octopus” as being a damned alluring title.

    • Diane G.
      Posted January 16, 2017 at 12:46 am | Permalink

      Read the NYT review of the Godfrey-Smith book a week or two ago and it sounds fascinating.

  6. Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Could the cat book you are thinking of be “The Character of Cats: The Origins, Intelligence, Behavior, and Stratagems of Felis silvestris catus” by Stephen Budiansky?

  7. Mark R.
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    So many books, so little time.

  8. ladyatheist
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I’ve added a few to my to-read list! It’s great to see books for non-scientists being published and being written about in non-science sites too. The world needs this.

  9. Steve Pollard
    Posted January 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    The only one I’ve read so far is Wulf on Humboldt: a fascinating story, and a real eye-opener for me. My only criticism would be that her narrative sometimes resorts to sweeping statements that over-simplify or even elide what Humboldt was trying to do. But she does provide extensive references and sources to back up her judgements.

  10. chris moffatt
    Posted January 15, 2017 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    “The lion in the living room” does have 14 or so pages devoted to toxoplasmosis – out of about 230 pages. Hardly “mostly about….”. Grrlscientist seems a little dismissive here.

  11. jwthomas
    Posted January 15, 2017 at 9:27 am | Permalink

    Missing from this list is “The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters,” by
    Sean B Carroll. Found on a number of best of 2016 science lists and a mandatory read for bio heads.

  12. Dominic
    Posted January 16, 2017 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    The Invention of Nature was a 2015 book!

  13. waqasahmad816
    Posted February 23, 2017 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Nice list as recommended by Forbes

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 24, 2017 at 3:52 am | Permalink

      I’ve read 3 of those!

      What is your native language? (Oh, and I didn’t see Forbes mentioned anywhere…)

      • waqasahmad816
        Posted February 25, 2017 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

        “Forbes’s choice of best popular biology books of 2016” The article shares information of best Biology books from Forbes. Isn’t that correct?

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 12:07 am | Permalink

          Yes, but it doesn’t say anything about the western novels you mention. 🙂 Did you perhaps just mean that your list is modeled on the Forbes biology book list? (I think something is probably getting lost in translation, here, though your English is very good. Also, just out of curiosity, is the type of western novel you recommend a popular one in Pakistan? 🙂 )

          • waqasahmad816
            Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

            Comment is posted for sharing biology book list.
            Link of western books is a recommendation if someone likes.
            All western books belongs to US/english Western writers. Don’t just brought countries matter here.

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