Dawkins sees off Darwin in vote for most influential science book

A public poll to mark 30 years of the Royal Society book prizes sees The Selfish Gene declared the most significant – with women authors left on the margins

Debates about the most influential science book of all time habitually settle into a face-off between Darwin’s Origin of Species and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. But a poll to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Royal Society science book prize returned a more recent winner: Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene.

Dawkins took a decisive 18% of the vote, while Darwin was jostled into third place by Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything in the Royal Society poll of more than 1,300 readers. As interesting as the votes on the 10 books shortlisted for contention was the often passionate championship of titles that were left off the list. They were dominated by physics and cosmology. Silly not to include David Deutsch, sniffed one of many, who cited a range of works by the Oxford-based quantum physicist. Carl Sagan’s “mind-blowing” 1980 TV tie-in Cosmos garnered a clutch of votes from fans who described it as life-changing.

A similar debt was declared by several practising scientists to Richard Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law. “The original book on cosmology before cosmologists became rock stars, Inspired me to study mathematics,” said one of George Gamow’s One, Two, Two, Three, Infinity, from 1947.

“One of the main books that inspired me into a career in microbiology!” said another of Nick Lane’s more recent Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, from 2005.

A less inspiring picture emerges from a crunch of the ratio of recommendations by gender, unsurprisingly perhaps in the context of a prize that only had its first female winner – Gaia Vince – in 2015. Of 313 suggestions outside the shortlisted books, fewer than 20 were for books by women – but they win out on imaginative titles. Hats off to Elizabeth Royte for The Tapir’s Morning Bath and to Robin Wall Kinnear for Braiding Sweetgrass – and above all, to primatologist Jane Goodall, who summed it up in the five words of her 1971 title: In the Shadow of Man.

The top 10 most influential science books of all time - from the shortlist

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins – 236 votes
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson – 150 votes
On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – 118 votes
The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White – 101 votes
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre – 88 votes
Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh – 81 votes
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – 77 votes
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson – 39 votes
Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes – 5 votes
The Science of Life by HG Wells, Julian Huxley and GP Wells – 4 votes

10 books that should be on the list

Cosmos by Carl Sagan – 16 votes
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch – 15 votes
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan – 10 votes
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi – 9 votes
The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch – 6 votes
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee – 6 votes
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks – 4 votes
QED by Richard Feynman – 4 votes
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren – 3 votes
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn – 3 votes


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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