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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Material Type
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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

THE TANGLED TREE: A Radical New History of Life, by David Quammen. (Simon & Schuster, $30.) The tree of life as we imagine it, with new species branching out over time, is much more complicated than Charles Darwin dreamed. Quammen's book describes the years of research to discover "horizontal gene transfer," which allows traits to jump from branch to branch. WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, by Delia Owens. (Putnam, $26.) Owens made her name as a wildlife scientist. In her first novel, she sets a tale of crime and isolation in the North Carolina marshlands. BORROWED TIME: Two Centuries of Booms, Busts, and Bailouts at Citi, by James Freeman and Vern McKinley. (Harper Business, $35.) The authors make the point that throughout its 206-year history, Citigroup and its predecessors have repeatedly used political connections to help the bank survive when it otherwise might have failed. AMERICAN AUDACITY: In Defense of Literary Daring, by William Giraldi. (Liveright, $30.) In this full-throated book of essays - the rare example of a collection that coheres into a manifesto - Giraldi argues passionately for literary standards, comparing modern examples unfavorably with great works of the past. INTO THE HANDS OF THE SOLDIERS: Freedom and Chaos in Egypt and the Middle East, by David D. Kirkpatrick. (Viking, $28.) The former Times Cairo bureau chief offers an eyewitness account of the upheavals of 2011-13 that began with hopes for democracy, moved through counterrevolution and ended in a renewal of military dictatorship. RISING: Dispatches From the New American Shore, by Elizabeth Rush. (Milkweed, $26.) Do we have language sufficient to capture our changing landscapes and shifting coastlines? In meditative essays, Rush looks at how we are confronting climate change and the psychic and literary toll it is taking. MY YEAR OF DIRT AND WATER: Journal of a Zen Monk's Wife in Japan, by Tracy Franz. (Stone Bridge, paper, $16.95.) An American expat considers the paradoxical experience of being married to a Buddhist monk, also American, who has been cloistered for his training in a Japanese temple. THE DAY YOU BEGIN, by Jacqueline Woodson. Illustrated by Rafael López. (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, $18.99; ages 4 to 8.) A lovely, poetic book that soothes back-to-school concerns about not fitting in by encouraging children to tell their own stories. MR. WOLF'S CLASS, written and illustrated by Aron Nels Steinke. (Graphix/Scholastic, $9.99; ages 6 to 10.) This upbeat graphic novel - the start of a promising series - chronicles the funny problems of a fourth-grade class and its harried teacher, a wolf. The full reviews of these and other recent books are on the web:

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