1. Neanderthal Man by Svante Pääbo
I have only ever read two popular science/nature books twice - and this is one of them. Probably the best book ever by a scientist about his/her science and life. (Other good ones are Naturalist by E.O. Wilson and Privileged Hands by Geerat Vermeij). It combines fundamental insights into our evolutionary origins (interbreeding with Neaderthals and other archaic humans), a compelling narrative of a career (development of methods for studying "ancient DNA"), interactions with technological developments (e.g., Sanger, 454, and Illumina sequencing), personal life (Pääbo is the son of the secret second family of a Nobel Prize winner, whose discovery would later save Pääbo's life), and scientific administration (founding of a new Max Plank Institute). Written in an extremely frank and down-to-earth way, it makes the reader feel a part of - or at least an intimate observer - of the discoveries and controversies. I look forward to reading it again.
2. The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner.
It is sometimes hard to read a book about a topic you work on that features many of the people you know. It is difficult to look beyond the sweeping statements you know to be too simplified and the sanitized versions of personalities. Indeed, this difficulty is why I never re-read The Beak of the Finch - I don't want my original naive enjoyment to be tempered by intimate experience with reality. Improbable Destinies is about the extent to which evolution repeats itself when different organisms encounter similar conditions - so-called "convergent" or "parallel" evolution. Set up as an exploration of Gould's famous "replay the tape of life" thought experiment, this book describes a diversity of research where those thought experiments become reality - in both the lab and the wild. In the end, I found this book to be an exceptional (if imperfect) digestible representation of these topics and controversies, as well as well being written and engaging. I have even recommended it to my own students working on this topic. I asked one of them recently: "So, are you finding it useful?" - to which she replied "Yes, but it is also really well written!" I agree - although I would replace "but" with "and".
Another Christmas present from my Mom, this relatively recent book describes the curious lives of blood feeders: ticks, chiggers, vampire bats, leeches, mosquitoes, and so on. This is another book that generates tons of anecdotes and comments that you just can’t help but share with others (George Washington’s death might well have been accelerated by doctors leeching too much blood). I even use it for teaching – my favorite way to discuss the kidney now is to talk about the difficult challenges and ingenious evolutionary solutions that vampire bats use to deal with their massive blood meals. On the negative side, it makes you itchy at night when reading about bed bugs. A great read though.
10. How to Tame a Fox by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut
This is the second popular science book that I have read twice. The reason this time, however, was partly because I was confused about the way in the science was described. On the first reading, it had been so frustrating that I wasn't sure I liked the book. On the second reading, the description of the science was still a bit confusing but I was able to isolate those parts and instead enjoy the tale of intrigue, persecution, mystery, conflict, perseverance, excitement and success surrounding the nearly half-century long (and still running) Soviet/Russian experiment on domestication. Most importantly, this book gives a first hand (Lyudmila Trut ran the experiment nearly the whole time) look at extremely original and forward-thinking science behind the Iron Curtain.
11. Various books about strange critters