The Loom

Parasite Rex Makes A List

The Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology has rolled out the “Stevens Seventy,” the seventy greatest science books since 1900. If you click all the way through to Z, my 2000 book Parasite Rex ends the list. Many thanks.

As the introduction to the list points out, these things are always arbitrary, so judge for yourself. Did they leave any classics off? Did they honor an unworthy title?


  1. #1 Dave Carlson
    November 29, 2007

    Having read Parasite Rex earlier this year, I must say I agree wholeheartedly with its inclusion on that list. You really wrote a gem there, Carl.

  2. #2 Gabe
    November 29, 2007

    Congrats. An extraordinary work

  3. #3 John S. Wilkins
    November 29, 2007

    Where’s E. Ray Lankester’s Science from an Easy Chair? How about James Jeans’books, which introduced the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the popular reader? Huxley’s Science? Julian Huxley’s books? J. Arthur Thompson’s Biology for Everyman? Even Einstein’s popular books? This is biased to the works the readers have grown up with. The list is worse than useless, despite including your work, Carl.

  4. #4 John S. Wilkins
    November 29, 2007

    Oh, and Eddington’s Space, Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory, which effectively made Einstein a star?

  5. #5 Jonathan Badger
    November 29, 2007

    Did they honor an unworthy title?

    Jung’s The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious? Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man? These aren’t science. Sure, they were influential works and their mysticism has inspired great works of fiction, but so did Chariots of the Gods.

  6. #6 Gareth
    November 29, 2007

    The fact that the list only allows one book per author is probably a good thing, there would be a lot more John McPhee on there otherwise. Though I liked “Basin and Range” I consider “The Curve of Binding Energy” to be the best McPhee book.

  7. #7 Raychelle Burks
    November 29, 2007

    Though some would argue it is not a science book, Malcom Gladwell’s Blink would top my list as would Charles Seife’s book Zero: A History of a Dangerous Idea.

  8. #8 Joseph Urban
    November 29, 2007

    Wonderful. As a reader, a person, for me at least, it’s morally uplifting to see excellence recognized and done so in time. Often enough, it’s not.

  9. #9 The Laundress
    November 30, 2007

    Hey there Carl Zimmer,

    I am kind of quaking here — you are a supernova and I am a lowly amoeba. But “Parasite Rex” was an earth-shattering book for me. It made me realize that you really could be a science book (reader and writer) with some dignity. “Parasite Rex” is beautifully written and accessible (even if covering a rather squeamish topic for mainstream non-fiction).

    Well, just want to throw in my (less than?) 2 cents worth… buddy, you ROCK. I am a Tuesday NYT science supplement ADDICT (yeah, I know which day it appears!!).

    Congrats and you deserve it!

    a fan

  10. #10 factician
    November 30, 2007

    Guns, Germs and Steel should have been in there with Diamond’s other book, Collapse.

    (Though I agree with them that Collapse was superior, G, G & S was a fantastic book).

  11. #11 Blake Stacey
    November 30, 2007

    Since they included Feynman’s Character of Physical Law instead of his Lectures on Physics, Popper is almost superfluous. (At least, that’s the opinion of the physicists I know who have some experience with philosophy.) And I’d add David Bohm to Jung and de Chardin on the “unworthy” list.

    And, honestly, I’d rank either Cosmos or The Demon-Haunted World over Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things.

  12. #12 Blake Stacey
    November 30, 2007

    The choice of PiHKAL, albeit surprising, was a pretty good one. Maybe after beatifying Susan Blackmore and the Shulgins, the Center for Science Writings felt that it had exhausted its quota of drug users, and couldn’t include anything by Sagan. . . .

  13. #13 John Kubie
    November 30, 2007

    Wow. In my field, Neuroscience, the Stevens 70 is a very bad list.

    Also, I’m a bit confused about the list. Is this list restricted to lay-reader books or can professional level books qualify? As I read the intro, the criterion was “impact”.

    I don’t want to belittle specifics, but the Neuroscience-related books seem almost arbitrary. Very few of those listed had a big impact. Some are trivial. Few are by scientists.

    To remain germane to this site, I liked “Soul made Flesh” better than any of the Neuroscience entries on the list.

    But, its got me thinking. If I made a list of 10 Neuroscience books over the past 100 years, which would qualify?

    A few quick candidates:
    Hebb’s “organization of behavior” (commonly ascribed as the origin of the “Hebb synapse” and “cell assemblies”)
    O’Keefe and Nadel’s “Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map”
    Carl Sagan’s “Dragons of Eden”
    Julian Jaynes’ “Origins of Consciousness in the Breaksdown of the Bicameral MInd”
    Something by Cajal
    Paul MacLean’s “Triune Brain” (overlaps Dragons of Eden)

  14. #14 Philip Downey
    November 30, 2007

    I wrote a big post criticizing a lot of books and something went wrong and I lost it.

    So, to be positive, I wish the list had Why Things Bite Back, by Edward Tenner. It is a very interesting and thoughtful book.

  15. #15 Rick Luther
    December 1, 2007

    And, as long as biographys are accepted, I would like to suggest Janet Browne’s fascinating two-volume work on Charles Darwin: “Voyaging”, and “The Power of Place”.

  16. #16 Anita Hendersen
    December 1, 2007

    Sleepfaring by Jim Horne

  17. #17 zhaphod
    December 1, 2007


    I have been visiting for your blog for some time now and I really like your writing. I had not found one of your books at the local book store {I am from Bangalore, India} till recently when I accidentally discovered your book “Evolution: Triumph of an Idea”, sitting at the bottom row of popular science books shelf. I immediately grabbed it, went home and started reading. I didn’t put it down till I had finished it. What I like most about it, apart from the content itself, is the exquisite fluidity of prose. I greatly enjoyed reading the book. Thanks for writing such a wonderful book. I hope to get my hands on other books that you have written, soon.

    Also, I have a suggestion. It may be stupid but I just have to get it out of my system. The first couple of chapters of “Evolution: Triumph of an Idea”, kind of describe the Voyage of the Beagle. It reminded me of reading “Illustrated 20000 leagues under the sea” when I was in my 8th grade. It was compact, unlike the original one, and more enjoyable with out all the , dare I say, tedious prose for an 8th grader. How Darwin came upon the idea of Natural selection is nothing if not a great adventure in itself. So what I want to say is why not write an illustrated book of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and thus make it more interesting to the kids. They will enjoy a great adventure and will also learn about science and scientific method.

    And, congrats on making it to the list.


  18. #18 Mrs Tilton
    December 8, 2007

    Was the list supposed to be limited to popularisations? I don’t think so, judging by a few of the things there. If not, Hennig’s Phylogenetic Systematics is a great huge glaring omission. It is not a popularisation. It is an antipopularisation, difficult to read even if one is fluent in the Martian it’s written in. But it’s absolutely key for all that. Hennig was a paradigm-shifter so subtle that nobody noticed an important paradigm was being shifted. And his central insight was so simple and so fundamental that Huxley’s famous judgement of Darwin’s theory (“How stupid not to have thought of that”) could as easily have applied to Hennig’s.

    And where is Gould’s Wonderful Life? Yes, many of its central arguments may be wrong. Still, few other books so effectively convey to non-scientists like myself the mind-staggering gorgeousness of life. (Dawkins’s The Ancestor’s Tale is one of those few, though of course it came along much later.)

    GC William’s Adaptation and Natural Selection isn’t in the list; it needs to be. Williams said everything that The Selfish Gene said (and earlier, and not much less eloquently).

    Omitting Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species is criminal.

    Dawkins’s TSG is very good, and made his career. But The Blind Watchmaker is even better.

    The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat wasn’t Sacks’s first book; I believe the weird and wild Migraine was.

    And what, no love for Mark Ridley’s Mendel’s Demon? It’s a very hard read for the layman (not because Ridley doesn’t write well and clearly — he does — but because the ideas he presents are subtle and difficult). Dawkins’s popularisations hint that genetics and evolution are brainblowingly strange and marvelous. Ridley doesn’t hint, he makes one’s head explode.

    One might argue that the question of “best science book” is a bit misleading, because most of the really important bits of science aren’t published as books but as papers. OK, but if so, why isn’t Hamilton’s Narrow Roads of Gene Land on the list? For one thing, the two volumes I’ve read (I think a third is forthcoming) sneak into book form some of the most important and influential biological papers ever written. For another, Hamilton’s introductions to each paper are wonderful. He doesn’t have Dawkins’s gifts of ease and pellucid clarity (very few writers do). His writing takes a bit of getting used to, but is nonetheless quirky and endearing.

    As for our host: I love Parasite Rex (the first of his books that I read, and I read it while eating sushi…). But At the Water’s Edge is far grander. (Or maybe I just think that because it is about us; “us” being understood broadly.)

  19. #19 luca
    December 10, 2007

    Dear Mrs Tilton, I am pretty shure that Gould’s Wonderful life was in the list.

    As for the rest of the pick, I’d have loved to see something from Desmond Morris – The Naked Ape maybe? And much stuff there I never heard about, so may be it didn’t have that huge impacts. Or am I SO totally ignorant outside my field?

  20. #20 geciktirici
    December 22, 2007

    As a reader, a person, for me at least, it’s morally uplifting to see excellence recognized and done so in time. Often enough, it’s not.

  21. #21 video share
    December 23, 2007

    Though some would argue it is not a science book, Malcom Gladwell’s Blink would top my list as would Charles Seife’s book Zero: A History of a Dangerous Idea.

  22. #22 Video
    February 21, 2008

    The fact that the list only allows one book per author is probably a good thing, there would be a lot more John McPhee on there otherwise.

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