Cover image for The tangled tree : a radical new history of life / David Quammen.
The tangled tree : a radical new history of life / David Quammen.
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Simon & Schuster, [2018]

Physical Description:
xvi, 461 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Three surprises: an introduction -- Darwin's little sketch -- A separate form of life -- Mergers and acquisitions -- Big tree -- Infective reality -- Topiary -- E pluribus unum.
"Nonpareil science writer David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology can change our understanding of evolution and life's history, with powerful implications for human health and even our own human nature." -- Publisher annotation.


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591.38 QUA Book Adult General Collection

On Order



Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and A New York Times Notable Book of 2018

Nonpareil science writer David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology can change our understanding of evolution and life's history, with powerful implications for human health and even our own human nature.

In the mid-1970s, scientists began using DNA sequences to reexamine the history of all life. Perhaps the most startling discovery to come out of this new field--the study of life's diversity and relatedness at the molecular level--is horizontal gene transfer (HGT), or the movement of genes across species lines. It turns out that HGT has been widespread and important. For instance, we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived not through traditional inheritance from directly ancestral forms, but sideways by viral infection--a type of HGT.

In The Tangled Tree David Quammen, "one of that rare breed of science journalists who blends exploration with a talent for synthesis and storytelling" ( Nature ), chronicles these discoveries through the lives of the researchers who made them--such as Carl Woese, the most important little-known biologist of the twentieth century; Lynn Margulis, the notorious maverick whose wild ideas about "mosaic" creatures proved to be true; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, who discovered that the scourge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer, bringing the deep study of genome histories to bear on a global crisis in public health.

"Quammen is no ordinary writer. He is simply astonishing, one of that rare class of writer gifted with verve, ingenuity, humor, guts, and great heart" ( Elle ). Now, in The Tangled Tree , he explains how molecular studies of evolution have brought startling recognitions about the tangled tree of life--including where we humans fit upon it. Thanks to new technologies such as CRISPR, we now have the ability to alter even our genetic composition--through sideways insertions, as nature has long been doing. The Tangled Tree is a brilliant guide to our transformed understanding of evolution, of life's history, and of our own human nature.

Author Notes

Writer David Quammen grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio and was later educated at both Yale and Oxford Universities.

Quammen began his career by writing for The Christian Science Monitor, the National Center for Appropriate Technology, and Audubon, Esquire, Rolling Stone, and Harpers Magazines. He wrote the novels The Soul of Viktor Tronko and The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, which won the 1997 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Award for Excellence in Journalism. He also received two National Magazine Awards for his column "Natural Acts" in Outside magazine.

(Bowker Author Biography) David Quammen is the author of "The Boilerplate Rhino" & "The Song of the Dodo." Among his honors are two National Magazine Awards for his writing in "Outside."

(Bowker Author Biography) David Quammen is a two-time winner of the National Magazine Award for his science essays & other work in "Outside" magazine. He is the author of three novels & several other books, including the award-winning "The Song of the Dodo". He lives in Bozeman, Montana.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Science writer Quammen (The Song of the Dodo), as he has so often done before, explores important questions and makes the process as well as the findings understandable and exciting to lay readers. Here, he delves into the field of molecular phylogenetics, the process of "reading the deep history of life and the patterns of relatedness from the sequence of constituent units in certain long molecules," namely "DNA, RNA, and a few select proteins." Although the topic might seem arcane, he brings it to life by profiling many of the field's most important players, including microbiologists Carl Woese and Ford Doolittle, and demonstrating how it has changed "the way scientists understand the shape of the history of life." The breakthroughs Quammen describes include Woese's classification of the archaea, a new category of living creatures made up of single-celled microorganisms, and Doolittle's insight, recounted in an interview with the author, that genes can be transferred horizontally, between organisms (and not always closely related organisms) rather than simply between parent and offspring. The cumulative effect is to transform Darwin's famous image of evolution as a straightforwardly branching "tree of life" into a "tangle of rising and crossing and diverging and converging limbs." This book also proves its author's mastery in weaving various strands of a complex story into an intricate, beautiful, and gripping whole. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Aug.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

New York Review of Books Review

in 1837, Charles Darwin sketched a spindly tree of life in one of his notebooks. Its stick-figure trunk sprouted into four sets of branches. The drawing illustrated his radical idea that, over time, organisms change to give rise to new species. "I think," Darwin scrawled, suggestively, above his humble tree. Biologists have worked since then to fill in the details of that tree. While all beings are related, Darwin intimated, it should be possible to classify all living things into distinct lineages of more closely related species - branches - based on their shared evolutionary histories. Darwin and others used physical similarities and differences between organisms to add ever more details to his basic tree. Then, after the discovery of DNA's structure in 1953, scientists began tracing the evolutionary history of life through its shared genetic code. But that project has now reached a crisis point, David Quammen writes in his new book, "The Tangled Tree." Genetics is revealing that the branches on Darwin's tree of life are not so separate from each other as was once thought: Genes sometimes skip from species to unrelated species, effectively fusing different branches together. The big question now is whether Darwin's tree represents a fundamentally flawed conception of evolutionary history or is merely in need of revision. Quammen's sprawling history of evolutionary genetics ranges widely in its answer to that question. He synthesizes a large quantity of disparate material, circling repeatedly back to one scientist in particular: Carl Woese, whose work both fleshed out Darwin's tree and laid the foundations for its uprooting. Woese, a biophysicist and microbiologist, was a pioneer in using genetic material to trace the history of life. Soon after setting up his first lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1964, Woese began working on the central biological question at the time: how cells translate genetic information into proteins. An elite group of 20 scientists - the RNA Tie Club, as they were known - had formed to discuss this problem. They met twice a year; members all wore identical embroidered neckties. Not Woese, Quammen writes: "He was a loner by disposition. He took a separate path. Not in the club. No RNA tie." Woese developed a new method to compare a type of genetic material called rRNA across bacterial species. In 1977, he revealed that he had successfully used this method to trace the path of bacterial evolution, finding an entirely new domain in the process - a whole branch of the tree of life that others had missed altogether. At the time, scientists grouped all life into two main categories: the bacteria and the non-bacteria, or eukaryotes. Woese exploded that view. His research showed that there is a third group of organisms, the archaea, which are genetically distinct from other life-forms. Previously, scientists had lumped the archaea in with the bacteria. Woese proved that archaea and bacteria had sufficiently divergent evolutionary histories to be considered different from one another. Woese's discovery was controversial at the time, though it is no longer. And his work laid the foundations for a new field of science called molecular phylogeny that has delivered astounding insights about evolutionary history. Quammen details how scientists have now revealed genetic evidence that the branches of the tree of life are not so isolated from one another as Darwin thought. Organisms from different branches can transfer genes to eachother - and often do. Bacteria, plants and animals can swap genes across species lines, and this activity seems to have shaped evolution in profound ways. Scientists call this swapping "horizontal gene transfer," to distinguish it from the "vertical gene transfer" that occurs between parents and offspring. Horizontal gene transfer explains why bacteria acquire resistance to antibiotics so quickly, for instance: They can transfer antibiotic resistance genes back and forth among species relatively easily. But horizontal gene transfer also poses a major challenge to the Darwinian concept of evolution, in which species evolve over time into separate lineages. Darwin thought that evolutionary change happened very slowly, as incremental genetic changes were passed down, over hundreds of thousands of generations, from parents to children. And while this slow change does happen, gene-swapping via horizontal gene transfer happens much faster, driving major changes relatively quickly. And if species are constantly swapping genes, perhaps different biological lineages are not distinct, disconnected branches on the tree of life. Instead, it may be time to prune the tree into a different shape: perhaps a web, or, as Quammen suggests, a topiary constructed of interlaced branches. Quammen, one of science writing's savviest stylists, is best when probing the human side of science. He began researching "The Tangled Tree" in 2013, the year after Woese died, and the book often feels like an attempt to afford Woese his rightful place in history. Though Woese engaged in a fair amount of experimentation, he disapproved of what he called "technological adventurism" - the engineering approach to biology enabled by the invention of faster, cheaper methods for studying genetic information. In 2004, for example, Woese condemned the 15-year, nearly $3 billion Human Genome Project, in which scientists read out the 3 billion "letters" of the human genetic code for the first time: "What a stunning example of a biology that operates from an engineering perspective, a biology that has no genuine guiding vision!" Woese wrote of the landmark endeavor. Quammen also writes that Woese never got the recognition that he felt he deserved. Despite winning a MacArthur "genius grant" and a National Medal of Science, among other prestigious awards, he never won a Nobel Prize - science's marquee honor. He became lonely and disgruntled near the end of his life and seems to have borne a particular grudge toward Darwin himself. Quammen even unearthed a telling piece of marginalia from Woese, who, while annotating a colleague's scientific paper, wrote in all caps: "YOU ACCORD DARWIN SO MUCH MORE SUBSTANCE THAN THE BASTARD DESERVES." But if Quammen is writing for the ages, his prose at times risks feeling dated. His book spans nearly three centuries and mentions more than 160 scientists by name. Of those, by my count, only 11 are women, and Quammen often dismisses their scientific credentials and achievements or portrays them as appendages to men in the story. Lynn Margulis, for instance, fundamentally revised our understanding of eukaryote evolution, elucidating how nature's most complex cells, including our own, arose when simpler cells joined together. She is the only female scientist who is called out and gets significant space in Quammen's book. But we hear just as much about her pregnancies, motherhood and marriages as we do about her science. In contrast, Quammen doesn't really spend equal time exploring the family arrangements of the male scientists in the book. It's a classic failure of the Finkbeiner test, formulated by the journalist Christie Aschwanden, which posits that a female scientist's gender is not her most salient characteristic. If scientists' family lives are important, journalists should write about the families of both male and female scientists. Otherwise, we perpetuate the stereotype that a woman scientist's primary responsibility is to care for her family, while men should float free from such pedestrian concerns in their pursuit of research. There's a weird tidbit along those lines late in the book, when Quammen writes that Woese once sent a colleague a letter inked with Woese's "favorite rubber stamp." The stamp read: "May a Band of Nomadic Barbers Gang-Lather Your Sister." The inscription exhibits the sort of juvenile misogyny that might have seemed unremarkable back in the 1970s. But this would now qualify, at the very least, as creating a hostile work environment, and the episode, perhaps unwittingly, offers a sliver of insight into the generations of sexism that have made it difficult for women to succeed in science. Quammen offers a readable and largely reliable Baedeker to a fast-moving and complex field of science that is as tangled as the tree of his title. He ultimately concludes that Darwin was not wrong, but that his tree of life was too simplistic. Yet, though Quammen shapes a truly fascinating tale, it's clear that this story is not yet finished. It may be time to prune the tree of life into a different shape. ERIKA CHECK HAYDEN is a science journalist and director of the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Library Journal Review

Author and journalist Quammen (Spillover) leads readers on a winding journey in search of the genetic heritage of life on earth. He introduces scientists who have been at the forefront of the research and keeps the story engaging by discussing not only their theories but their personalities and professional disputes. The title alludes to the discovery that Darwin's tree of life is no longer an accurate depiction. By using molecular phylogenetics, a method of studying the deep history of life in molecules of DNA, RNA, and some proteins, scientists have discovered that the human genome is a mosaic. By means of HGT (horizontal gene transfer), all life with cells holding DNA in the nucleus may have received genetic material from viruses, bacteria, and an ancient life form only recently discovered, archaea. In other words, genes can pass through species boundaries. For example, the modern human genome shows evidence of having been hybridized by Neanderthal and chimp ancestors as well as endogenous retroviruses. Scientists are at the beginning of understanding the implications of these discoveries for human health. VERDICT Written in an accessible style, this book will interest biologists, geneticists, and those curious about evolutionary history.-Caren Nichter, Univ. of Tennessee at Martin © Copyright 2018. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Three Surprises: An Introductionp. ix
Part I Darwin's Little Sketchp. 1
Part II A Separate Form of Lifep. 35
Part III Mergers and Acquisitionsp. 111
Part IV Big Treep. 163
Part V Infective Heredityp. 213
Part VI Topiaryp. 269
Part VII E Pluribus Humanp. 313
Acknowledgmentsp. 387
Notesp. 391
Bibliographyp. 403
Illustration Creditsp. 441
Indexp. 443