Five books all Biology A level students should read

This is part one of a series of posts listing, in no particular order, essential reading for A level Biology students.

  1. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley

This is truly essential reading for anyone interested in biology. As the title suggests it is a compendium of ideas and thoughts pertaining to evolution and in particular how they might impact on being human. After reading it in the first year of university it immediately had a profound and significant effect on my understanding of the subject. Its many themes have stuck with me throughout and since starting teaching I have come back to it time and again as a source of inspiration for both teaching and improving my understanding of key topics within biology. Each chapter is written in an accessible style and abounds with humour. Whether pondering the absence of male bdelloid rotifers to discussing the Inca sun-king’s “house of virgins” Ridley writes with authority and clarity. Forgive my hyperbole but The Red Queen is among my absolute favourite books; even if you do not study biology put this on the top of your reading list!

  1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A book with a significant and poignant historical perspective, it looks beyond the science of the immortal HeLa strain of cells to explore the civil rights movement in 1950s America. Consequently this is a perfect recommendation for any student studying History and Biology at A level. Additionally the ethically dubious actions described would also promote great discussion beyond these two subjects. As a journalistic exposé and investigation into an appalling miscarriage of ethical justice it is superb. Furthermore it also highlights the incredible advancements that were made as a result of this malpractice and poses the question; do the ends justify the means in medical research? Beyond being a great book about biology this is also, as the Times reported, “as gripping and rich as any work of fiction you will read”. I am incredibly thankful to my former colleague who gave this to me as a leaving present and whole heartedly recommend it.

  1. Life Ascending: The Ten Greatest Inventions of Evolution by Nick Lane

As a Biology teacher I was amazed when I first read Life Ascending; it is almost a perfect accompaniment to A level Biology. Not only does the chapter-structure mean that you can dip in and out, reading sections that pique the interest at will, but at least six of the chapters are directly relevant to the subject specification. For example it is easy to see how DNA, Photosynthesis, Movement and Sight are connected to A level, but even The Origin of Life (respiration – see Nick Lane’s other cheekily titled Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life) and The Complex Cell (eukaryotic v prokaryotic cells) are germane to Sixth Form study of biology. I would, of course, argue that every chapter was relevant and incredibly useful in building up and linking together the big ideas in biology to create a schema for the subject. Perhaps the best epithet is from the aforementioned Matt Ridley “If Charles Darwin sprang from his grave, I would give him this fine book to bring him up to speed.”

  1. The Epigenetics Revolution by Nessa Carey

This is the book which smashes open the fascinating world of epigenetics. So you think DNA is a stable template that does not change? Think again. Carey describes plenty of inherently interesting examples, even if you weren’t interested in the underlying biology her writing would cause you to be absorbed in these well-written illustrations. One in particular is drawn from the Dutch Hunger Winter and suggests that malnourishment in early pregnancy increases the risk of obesity in not only the children of the malnourished mother, but her grandchildren too. Why? Obviously I would recommend you read Carey’s lucid and accessible narration to find out, but it is the seemingly magical interactions with the nucleotide bases that make up DNA itself that is epigenetics. To me the topic is the future of the subject and if students want to be part of this “revolution” this book is a must-read.

  1. Darwin’s Island by Steve Jones

Admit it, you’re thinking “Ah! The Galapagos Islands”. But no the title actually refers to Britain and is an outstanding account of the experiments Charles Darwin investigated in and around his home county of Kent. Jones writes with wit and enthusiasm, this craftsmanship is best illustrated by the fact that my favourite chapter is the final one entitled The Worm Crawls In which centres on soil.  In some hands thirty-two pages on this topic might drag, but once finished I was inspired to present an assembly on the humble earthworm. More than anything this book allows readers to see past the rightfully headline grabbing HMS Beagle voyage to cast an eye over the incredibly rich and detailed research that does not necessarily receive the credit it is due. As Jones points out Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands only lasted five weeks, compared to the forty years working in Britain.

Part tow in this series of recommended reads is Another book all Biology A level students should read.

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One thought on “Five books all Biology A level students should read

  1. Pingback: Another book all Biology A level students should read | tlamjs

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