biologistsToday’s post is an annotated bibliography on modern biology for non-specialists who still want (or need) to know something about biology—namely biblical scholars and theologians interested in evolution and other science and faith issues.

I didn’t compile the bibliography, since, to put it in scientific terms, I don’t know what I’m talking about. The bibliography was complied by Dr. B.K. (Bev) Mitchell, professor emeritus of biological sciences from the University of Alberta where he was on faculty for nearly thirty years. His research was in sensory biology and behaviour of insects, which led him to use many words that evade my spellchecker. He is a member of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (Philosophy section) where he brings a biologist’s viewpoint to efforts to approach Scripture and theology by accepting that all truth is God’s truth, and he believes deeply that some very important truth comes from our extensive observations of the living world.

Mitchell’s first theological/philosophical publication will be a chapter “Let there be Life: The Biology of Creation,” to appear in an upcoming volume edited by Kenneth J. Archer and L. William Oliverio Jr. provisionally entitled Constructive Pneumatological Hermeneutics in Pentecostal Christianity. A series of unreviewed essays, Speaking of Creation, is also available at Clarion-Journal.


As a biologist deeply interested in the Christianity/evolution discussion, I offer this bibliography as a resource for non-specialists to see the lay of the land in modern biology This bibliography is not apologetically oriented. Quite the opposite. It provides resources to help non-specialists understand better some things biologists safely claim to know. It also includes readings on issues that are coming down the pike for which the church needs to be prepared.

As Christians, engaging biology and accepting well-established conclusions will help move us toward a true and much needed dialogue with hermeneutics and theology. I recommend reading biologists who are writing for other biologists, or for people wanting to know more about biology. There is no such thing as “Christian biology” and as a Christian I am never really satisfied with books about biology (usually on evolution) written by Christians for Christians.

I realize my suggestion may not be particularly acceptable, or obvious, to many Christians, but that is my advice. In the list below, I think Denis Alexander is the only recommendation where I break my rule—but it is mostly a book on genetics with an addendum chapter for believers.

Reece, Jane B., Urry, Lisa A. et al. Campbell Biology 10th edition, 2013  (see also Canadian edition, 2014)
This is the most widely used, first year university biology textbook in North America. A perennial favourite. I used what was probably the 5th edition 16 years ago in a first year course and it’s still going strong.

It includes everything from soup to nuts and is written in a very fine style. The illustrations are, and always have been, superb. The evolutionary foundation of the life sciences is thoroughly introduced and pervades the book.

If you can’t take a first year biology course at a good college or university, find a biologist to help you and read big parts of this book.

Alexander, Denis (2011) The Language of Genetics: An Introduction, Templeton Press.
One of the best introductions to general and particularly molecular genetics available, and part of the Templeton Foundation Series in Science and Religion.

You will find mostly carefully and well explained genetics, but there are very insightful passages that link biology with the Christian faith and theology. His last chapter “Genetics and the Big Questions of Life” is particularly helpful in this regard. I’ve put a brief review of this book on Amazon.

Dunn, Rob (2011) The Wild Life of Our Bodies: Predators, Parasites, and Partners That Shape Who We Are Today, Harper Collins.
Symbiosis among organisms has been known for some time but we now know that essential organelles in our cells (e.g. mitochondria) and in plant cells (e.g. chloroplasts) are derived from ancient symbioses between single celled organisms before the evolution of multicellularity. Recent work using new genetic and other data makes it clear that symbioses among multicellular organisms (us for example) and single-cell as well microscopic multicellular organisms are very widespread and of fundamental importance to our evolution and our health.

Rob Dunn is an engaging writer and first class practitioner and interpreter of the biology of symbiosis. You will learn much biology from him in a most enjoyable way, and will come away with a list of quotes that are as enjoyable as they are true.

Heinrich, Bernd (2012) Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt.
Heinrich is one of our best natural history writers, and a gifted researcher into the ways of many of our most common animals.

Ever wonder what ravens, ants, dung beetles and many other wonders of our world are good for? Ever wonder about the nitty-gritty of that very familiar but poorly understood word re-cycling? I used Heinrich’s work in teaching insect physiology my whole career. His inspired investigations on how bees manage heat stress, and duelling dung beetles on the African savannah are classics.

Any natural history book by Bernd Heinrich (and there are many) will delight and inform you about the wonderful living world. The one chosen for this brief list addresses why, from the point of view of life on this planet, death is a necessary corollary.

Goodsell, David S. (2009) 2ed. The Machinery of Life, Springer.
Goodsell combines very accurate science and beautifully detailed art in this wonderful, dazzling picture/text book that is well worth the price.

You do not need to be a cell biologist to get a great review of the majesty of cellular life from this book. Get the print version to appreciate the color and detail [Kindle and iPad don’t cut it], revel in the beauty of living cells presented there and your view of life on this earth, life made possible and sustained by a loving God, will never be the same again.

Lane, Nick (2010) Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Oxford University Press.
I’ve put a brief review of the award winning Life Ascending on Amazon.

Lane, Nick (2015) The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex LifeW.H. Norton & Company.
I encourage you to put on sunglasses and read Nick Lane’s bio etc. on his funky web site.

These two outstanding books of his are presented entirely as works of science, and indeed they are first class treatments. But when read with the understanding that God makes all of this possible and sustains it, they can really strengthen your faith.

Though written with a general audience in mind, both books will be a challenge for the non-specialist. They contain a fair bit of biochemistry and cell physiology, and for a thorough understanding you might want to find a biologist who will help you over some humps.

However, Lane’s writing style is so clear and his narrative so strong and logical that any seriously interested reader can come away with a good understanding of what the best work on the origin of life, and complex cells is currently uncovering. He helpfully offers clear summaries at critical points and adds a keen sense of humor to lighten the way. Though this is hard science, it also reads like the mother of all detective stories. As in a couple of other entries on this list, symbiosis is a major theme.

Read first the masterful introduction to The Vital Question, and then his definition of the problem (Chapter 1). After that, I dare you to skip Chapter 2, What is Living? or Chapter 6 Sex and the Origins of Death or Chapter 7 The Power and the Glory. As Lane says “Textbooks and journals are full of information, but often fail to address these ‘childlike’ questions.” Indeed it strikes me that people trained in theology may have an easier time of it in parts of this book than most scientists (because of style of argument not content).

Noble, Denis (2006) The Music of Life: Biology Beyond the Genome, Oxford University Press.
A presentation of systems biology that anyone can understand (no small feat).

If you think theologians are the only folk who have problems agreeing on what is most important, think again. In fact in this book you will discover that modern biologists face problems agreeing about perspective that are often identical to those faced by Christian, nay evangelical theologians.

Read it for an excellent introduction to integrative thinking in biology by one of its masters. Read it also while thinking about the divisive evangelical theological battles that could be seen as typical differences between reductionist and systems level (integrationist) thinkers in theology.

Are the trees more important than the forest, or is it the other way around?

McFall-Ngai, Margaret et al. 2013. “Animals in a bacterial world, a new imperative for the life sciences.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110(9): 3229-3236.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this paper to both the future of the life sciences and the faith-biology dialogue.

The emerging wealth of data on bacteria-animal (and bacteria-plant) associations is profound in its implications. How this ties in with spirit, transcendence, supervention etc. will be equally profound.

We are not just us; we are inextricably linked to other living things as well—way beyond the standard ecological argument. Our associations with bacteria, at least, mean we are necessarily united with our symbionts.

Theologians who have not yet come to grips with the new-synthesis in evolutionary biology will soon be hit by a revised new-synthesis. This will not replace what we already know, but it will show there is much more to the complexity of life than we had ever dreamed.

Stix, Gary “The It Factor,” Scientific American’s Special Evolution Issue, September 2014.
For a recent popular account of how communication and cooperation may well have played pivotal roles in making Homo sapiens so different from our closest relatives read this.

Stix summarizes some of the work of Michael Tomasello and his colleagues centered on the idea of “shared intentionality.” In fact, this entire special issue shows how recent thinking in the field of human evolution considers cooperation to be more important than competition in making us who we are. [Note: a subscription is needed to view this article.]

Tattersall, Ian (2012) Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human OriginsSt. Martin’s Griffin.
A thorough, engaging summary on current thinking concerning the evolution of our species and close relatives. Tattersall is extremely well qualified to write this book. He spent much of his career at the American Museum of Natural History where he is now Curator Emeritus and works with the Templeton Foundation.

Hubisz, Melissa J. and Pollard, Katherine S. (2014) “Exploring the Genesis and Functions of Human Accelerated Regions Sheds Light on Their Role in Human Evolution.” Current Opinion in Genetics and Development 29: 15-21 [Available via]
When reading a book like Tattersall’s (above) a genetic question is never far from the surface. How is it that humans are so very different from chimps, our sister group in the hominid clade? Tattersall doesn’t cover this because the field is so new, and still rapidly developing.

Most recent work strongly suggests that while we share the vast majority of our genes with chimps, the regulation of many of these genes, those used in brain development for example, can be quite different. It now appears that a newly discovered class of RNAs that function as gene regulators have evolved very rapidly in the line leading to Homo sapiens.

It’s far too early for firm conclusions, but this is the kind of data coming down the pipe that our church leaders are completely unprepared for. It’s all made possible because of very high volume production of DNA data and massive improvements in information technology that allow the bioinformatics researchers to ask meaningful question of masses of genetic data. Katherine Pollard’s lab at UCSF seems to be in the forefront on this.

Any experienced biologist can come up with a different list that would also be helpful. This one is biased toward both easily understood, engaging and very timely writing (the natural history titles), and also more challenging books and articles that highlight some of the recent findings, taken from the literal Niagara of data flowing from life-science labs world wide. Careful reading of a good number of these titles will at least give you a reasonable feeling for the holistic and dynamic nature of the creation we unavoidably share with all living things.


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