Essential reading for a biologist to be?

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Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby GuppyPal on June 11th, 2011, 7:10 pm 

I'm majoring in biology and plan on going on to get a PhD and become a true biologist. What are some books and/or articles which are essential to my reading? Richard Dawkins? Stephen Jay Gould? Ernst Mayr? E.O. Wilson? ??? Those are some big names who come to mind... how about others? And what works by these big names are best (Gould and Dawkins have MANY books)?

Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Thanks
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby spoonman on June 12th, 2011, 6:20 pm 

If it's popular science books you're interested in, truthfully, in my opinion, I don't think any of them are essential (i.e., they'll generally not help you pass your exams). Nevertheless, I'd thoroughly recommend The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, I think it was his first book and it really changed how I view the individual organism, his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is a pretty comprehensive review of evolution, with lots of evidence you can throw at creationists during debates. As for the rest of those authors you named I couldn't say because I haven't read any. But, I'd also recommend A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, it's a while ago that I read it but I remember it as a nice, easy to read, coverage of scientific phenomena (across all disciplines), after reading it I bought his latest book titled "At Home", which is essentially a history book! Bad Science by Ben Goldacre's pretty interesting plus it gives you a really good insight into some of the corruption that can occur in science and the importance of a good experiment-technique.

Unfortunately, the essential books are the 1000 page £50 textbooks that weigh approximately 1 tonne. I'm sure your lecturers and module co-ordinators will recommend the ones to read. Peer-reviewed publications were also a very useful source of information when I was doing my degree.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 12th, 2011, 6:31 pm 

GuppyPal - that depends entirely on which subfield of biology you intend to study. The scientist-authors you mentioned are known for evolutionary theory and socio-behavioral biology. If that's what you're interested in, then those authors are good places to start. Though, it's hard to say that any one, or even any five, books are THE essential books. I majored in Biology and I'm in graduate school for biological anthropology, and to be honest I've only read a few chapters in Dawkin's book the Selfish Gene. I haven't actually sat down and read through books written by those guys.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Forest_Dump on June 12th, 2011, 7:14 pm 

It definitely matters what you are interested in. Mayr was certainly known for evolutionary theory, for example, by Gould was more recent and was a great writer who covered lots of angles. Many of his books of short essays, I think from Natural History magazine, gives good digestible chunks on a lot of topics that are worth reading and thinking about.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby GuppyPal on June 12th, 2011, 10:27 pm 

Ha, thanks guys. Yeah, I'm entering my final year of undergrad, so I know how college works. I'm reading a couple of textbooks (Behavioral Endocrinology, Physiological Psychology, and Human Evolutionary Genetics) this summer "for fun," along with some other books I've been meaning to read for a while but never had the time. I wouldn't really consider Sociobiology, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, or This is Biology to fall in the genre of popular science. I want to be a physiological ecologist or possibly study behavior (be a behavioral endocrinologist perhaps), so not only do I have to know a lot about ecology, evolution, social behavior, and physiology, but my interests are even broader, and I'd like to be well knowledged in all things biology, so I thought it'd be worth my time to read some from the biggest names in biology over the last 50 years to get an idea of where we've been and where we're headed.

And yeah, don't get me started on journal articles. I'm finishing up a 20-page paper on the endocrinology of adaptive fasters with over 60 works cited (I've probably read 150 since starting it). :P I've found books to be the most efficient way to consume a lot of information quickly though, which is why I came here.

I was just wondering if anyone here had read a lot of Mayr, Gould, etc and more and would be able to direct me to their best or most "important" works.

Thanks for the input.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 12th, 2011, 10:55 pm 

GuppyPal wrote:I'd like to be well knowledged in all things biology,


Not possible. 200 years ago it was possible to read all the major works and papers and basically know everything about biology that there was to know. Today there is so much information on so many things, that specialization is the only practical thing to do. Though based on your topics of interest, I would suggest that hitting some books on evolutionary theory and population genetics is a good idea. And at your level textbooks are probably the best option, as reading the sole work of one researcher is going to bias your views in the direction proponed by that researcher. Textbooks are more likely to offer up the different views in fairer light, and then you can pursue in more detail those that you feel most convinced by.

I understand the trouble of being interested in a lot of things, and not wanting to narrow down. Figuring out what you actually want is harder than sounds. And the best way to figure it out is to try it. And just reading about it doesn't count. Volunteer in actual research labs ASAP. Find people doing what you're interested in trying, even if they're not at your school, and figure out some way to work with them for a while. A lot of professors will find ways to work with a willing student.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Lincoln on June 13th, 2011, 3:55 pm 

Paralith wrote:I understand the trouble of being interested in a lot of things, and not wanting to narrow down. Figuring out what you actually want is harder than sounds. And the best way to figure it out is to try it. And just reading about it doesn't count. Volunteer in actual research labs ASAP. Find people doing what you're interested in trying, even if they're not at your school, and figure out some way to work with them for a while. A lot of professors will find ways to work with a willing student.

Excellent advice for all undergrads thinking to do research...not just biology.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 13th, 2011, 4:02 pm 

Lincoln wrote:
Paralith wrote:I understand the trouble of being interested in a lot of things, and not wanting to narrow down. Figuring out what you actually want is harder than sounds. And the best way to figure it out is to try it. And just reading about it doesn't count. Volunteer in actual research labs ASAP. Find people doing what you're interested in trying, even if they're not at your school, and figure out some way to work with them for a while. A lot of professors will find ways to work with a willing student.

Excellent advice for all undergrads thinking to do research...not just biology.


I can't emphasize this enough, either. It has happened to me time and time again in my life, that my actual experience of research was not at all what I thought it would be. I have experienced both greater enjoyment than I expected, and a lot less enjoyment than I expected. You have to try it.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Lincoln on June 13th, 2011, 4:21 pm 

I hate to sound like a Limbaugh dittohead, but yes-squared. Research sounds much sexier and faster paced from popularizations and the outside. Only from the inside do you get a real sense of what the research world is like, from the relatively slow pace of progress to the politics to the difficulty in making a defensible conclusion.

First, talk to professors. They can give you the big picture, but they will usually point a rosy picture. Talk to the graduate students. They usually have a tiny view, focusing on their particular project, sometimes to the point of tunnel vision. But they can tell you what graduate school is really like, without the glossy forgetfullness of the professors. And, if you can get into a lab and do something, even better.

Finally, keep in mind that the interests and concerns of the senior researcher are different than the junior, so even this experience is only so good. In fact, the popularizations best describe the life of the very successful senior person, so view them as a description of 1% of your peers in about 25-35 years in the future.

But the real message is that what it looks like from the outside is usually very different than the reality. Para's advice is extremely important.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby owleye on June 14th, 2011, 1:35 pm 

I think there is another kind of advice that is possible besides those from researchers, which I see largely as practical advice. It has to do with becoming educated. According to Whitehead, specialization isn't merely a necessity because disciplines are established in the way they are and because it would be difficult to become acquainted with all the fields that have been explored, it is the only way in which to achieve the general education that is sought. The assumption here is that every (substantive) discipline, or sub-discipline, has within it a reach that extends all the way to knowledge in its most general sense. Which is to say that there is some sort of umbrella that takes in all general knowledge but which is accessible only by immersing oneself in some particular domain of it. Only in this way can schooling become educational. My limited experience in teaching tells me that you won't get far giving students a large reading list. Sticking to one thing or a few things is what is enabling (notwithstanding the requirements for credentials).

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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 14th, 2011, 2:19 pm 

James - I think I follow your point, but if I may, I think I can provide a more concrete description of what you mean. One of the best and most important skills anyone (not just science students) can ever learn, is how to learn. In other words, how to teach yourself new skills or about new subjects. Schools and coursework get you started, and serve as an objective way to measure your progress, but you can't take classes your whole life. At some point you have to figure out how to focus on a topic or question, how to wade through the vast mountains of information that are out there, how to find what you need, and learn it. You learn to do this by actually doing it, each time for a different specific topic or question.

Personally, this is a skill I'm still developing. Focusing on my immediate goal and not getting lost in a forest of books and articles can be really difficult for me.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby owleye on June 15th, 2011, 2:05 pm 

Paralith wrote:James - I think I follow your point, but if I may, I think I can provide a more concrete description of what you mean. One of the best and most important skills anyone (not just science students) can ever learn, is how to learn. In other words, how to teach yourself new skills or about new subjects. Schools and coursework get you started, and serve as an objective way to measure your progress, but you can't take classes your whole life. At some point you have to figure out how to focus on a topic or question, how to wade through the vast mountains of information that are out there, how to find what you need, and learn it. You learn to do this by actually doing it, each time for a different specific topic or question.

Personally, this is a skill I'm still developing. Focusing on my immediate goal and not getting lost in a forest of books and articles can be really difficult for me.


Yes, education is what is accomplished through all forms of learning, though helped and possibly even enabled by teachers. However, it is not what is learned. According to Whitehead, education is "the art of the acquisition of knowledge" (or something like that, it's been awhile). Education isn't everything, though, as it might have been conceived by Plato. I don't think everyone needs to be educated, though schooling might be necessary. Maturity, I'm thinking, is what folks need to reach as a goal, which I believe is something different. (I demur from using the term 'wisdom'.)

Actually I'm not comfortable bringing the topic up here and my doing it was because it's how my mind works. After I posted it, I began to regret it. I often get pounced on when I venture to the science side of the house. Despite that (or more properly because) I've been pounced on, they have provoked attempts on my part to determine how philosophical musings might be successfully interwoven within discussions of a scientific nature. So far, what I've come up with is that there is potentially a vocabulary problem. Philosophers tend to make sweeping generalizations in their own domain, where scientists are ordinarily much more guarded and reserved in their own domain. I think this is appropriate. However, problems arise when they cross paths.

James
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 15th, 2011, 4:36 pm 

owleye wrote:So far, what I've come up with is that there is potentially a vocabulary problem.


Given my experience with interdisciplinary conversations both in real life and on this board, I think your use of the word potentially may be the biggest understatement of the year.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby GuppyPal on June 15th, 2011, 8:24 pm 

Thank you so much to everyone for all the replies so relevant to my initial question. ... :P
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 16th, 2011, 3:32 am 

Are you being sarcastic? It can be hard to tell online sometimes.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby GuppyPal on June 16th, 2011, 12:44 pm 

It is hard to tell online. Yes, I was being sarcastic.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 16th, 2011, 12:56 pm 

That's a shame, then, that you would respond to well meaning advice with sarcasm. I wish you luck in your future endeavors, but I won't be talking to you any further.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby genemachine on June 16th, 2011, 5:12 pm 

Dawkins' Selfish Gene is excellent. My favourite book. I don't know what to add to the heaps of praise all over the internet. It's a good foundation for understanding evolutionary psychology as well as other aspects of evolution, and superbly written.

I also really enjoyed Parasite Rex and Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life by Carl Zimmer. He has a blog online and you can see if you like his writing and topics.

I didn't especially enjoy Wilson's Sociobiology, though my memory of it is somewhat vague. I would generally avoid Gould, his science and his politics are often argued to be somewhat overlapping.

I've not read it, but I understand that The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection by R.A. Fisher is very well regarded. It would not be easy reading.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby GuppyPal on June 16th, 2011, 10:38 pm 

Thank you, genemachine for your helpful input. I read The Selfish Gene two years ago actually, and I agree it is very good. It is the definitely the type of book I would consider essential reading for anyone in biology (how more essential does it get than understanding evolution?). I'll look into your other suggestions. I think I'll read a few essays on Gould just to get a feel for him.

Thanks again.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Forest_Dump on June 17th, 2011, 10:29 am 

genemachine wrote:I would generally avoid Gould, his science and his politics are often argued to be somewhat overlapping.


I am curious about what you think or have heard Gould's politics, etc. are. I have read a lot of his stuff and never really got that kind of impression although that is exactly what my impression of Dawkins is - he usually ends up blurring his politics and religion with his science.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby genemachine on June 17th, 2011, 6:34 pm 

Forest_Dump wrote:
genemachine wrote:I would generally avoid Gould, his science and his politics are often argued to be somewhat overlapping.


I am curious about what you think or have heard Gould's politics, etc. are. I have read a lot of his stuff and never really got that kind of impression although that is exactly what my impression of Dawkins is - he usually ends up blurring his politics and religion with his science.


Most recently there is this paper from PLoS Biology which argues that it was Gould, not Morton, whose biases crept into their calculations on skull measurements.

"The Mismeasure of Science: Stephen Jay Gould versus Samuel George Morton on Skulls and Bias"
http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info ... io.1001071
From the abstract
did Morton really fudge his data? Are studies of human variation inevitably biased, as per Gould, or are objective accounts attainable, as Morton attempted? We investigated these questions by remeasuring Morton's skulls and reexamining both Morton's and Gould's analyses. Our results resolve this historical controversy, demonstrating that Morton did not manipulate data to support his preconceptions, contra Gould


I'm probably not the best person to comment on Gould's exact politics. I've found his attacks on various theories to be in a predicatable direction and often his descriptions of other scientists, their work, and often entire fields, to be crude caricatures. My best explaination of the consistent direction of his attacks on "adaptionism", evolutionary psychology, psychometric testing, etc. and scientists in these fields is that he wants people to be more equal than some of the work in these fields suggests we are. He's not quite promoting lysenkoism, but that would appear to be the direction of his bias. In the disputes I have read, I tend to agree with a non caricatured version of the other side.

You can take your pick from the critiques online, as I'm sure you have done already. I must say - Gould attracts great detractors.

I would recommend people read Gould, and the disagreements, and the modern state of the fields he criticises, consider the interplay between ESSes and Punctuated Equilibrium, and all the rest, but life is short.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 17th, 2011, 7:14 pm 

I'm not sure I would characterise Gould's comments on these fields/ideas as "attacks" so much as "critiques", which is only to be expected within science. I have read a paper of his that critiques adaptionism, and it is a valid comment that you should not automatically assume that every trait an organism has is a finely turned result of specific natural selection for that trait.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Forest_Dump on June 17th, 2011, 7:46 pm 

And that is a far cry from "Lysenkoism" (aka Lamarkism).
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby genemachine on June 18th, 2011, 6:12 pm 

Paralith wrote:I'm not sure I would characterise Gould's comments on these fields/ideas as "attacks" so much as "critiques", which is only to be expected within science. I have read a paper of his that critiques adaptionism, and it is a valid comment that you should not automatically assume that every trait an organism has is a finely turned result of specific natural selection for that trait.


And did he label other scientists as "adaptionists"/"darwinian fundamentalists"/"Ultra-Darwinists"/"panselectionist" and imply or state that they "[automatically assume that each and every trait of an organism is a finely turned result of specific natural selection for that trait]"? If so, that's precisely the sort of caricature making that I object to.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Forest_Dump on June 18th, 2011, 6:45 pm 

genemachine wrote:And did he label other scientists as "adaptionists"/"darwinian fundamentalists"/"Ultra-Darwinists"/"panselectionist" and imply or state that they "[automatically assume that each and every trait of an organism is a finely turned result of specific natural selection for that trait]"? If so, that's precisely the sort of caricature making that I object to.


But there are some who do precisely that and ignore the other evolutionary processes such as gene flow, genetic drift, etc. Natural selection doesn't answer all the questions and in fact may be very difficult to "prove" or support in some contexts, not to mention cases where we do know that other processes were working. Posing natural selection as an answer to everything would actually be nontestable and therefore unscientific. I am afraid I would be completely behind Gould on this one - thats not a caricature, thats a very valid argument or critique.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby Paralith on June 18th, 2011, 10:56 pm 

It's my impression that there was a time when it was common to jump to an adaptionist conclusion, and a time when there really were extreme adaptionsts that actually did think every little trait and variant must be the direct result of natural selection. I more distinctly remember that, when proteins first started being sequenced in large numbers, and the real mechanics of genes were not well known, some people were very surprised by the large numbers of variants of the same proteins that were being found. Some people reacted by forming the beginnings of the neutral theory of evolution, and some people reacted by saying all these variants must have been particularly selected for. In the end, of course, neutral theory won out.

Though, don't quote me on that, and I don't how the timing of the progressions in that area of science coincided with Gould's essays. Consider this reason for pause, and reason to do a little science history research before claiming that Gould is guilty of caricature and innocent of legitimate critique.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby genemachine on October 12th, 2011, 8:41 pm 

This archived webpage is a good collection of essays on the disagreement between Gould and Dawkins:

http://wayback.archive.org/web/*/http:/ ... _files.htm

Unfortunately most of the links are broken but you can search on the titles and find most of the essays.
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby BioWizard on October 13th, 2011, 8:34 pm 

I can't believe Dawkins came to speak at my Uni and I didn't go...
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Re: Essential reading for a biologist to be?

Postby danielita on April 25th, 2016, 5:24 pm 

Dear GuppyPal,
I am pretty much at the same spot you were at when you originally published this thread, and seeking the same advice. I was wondering if you had accumulated your own list of essential readings in the last couple of years that you could recommend to me.
Thank you much!
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