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.
About the Author
David Quammen’s fifteen books include The Tangled Tree, The Song of the Dodo, The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and Spillover, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. He has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Book Review, Outside, and Powder, among other magazines, and is a contributing writer for National Geographic. He wrote the entire text of the May 2016 issue of National Geographic on the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem—the first time in the history of the magazine that an issue was single-authored. Quammen shares a home in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife, Betsy Gaines Quammen, an environmental historian, along with two Russian wolfhounds and a cross-eyed cat.
“[Quammen] is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world. . . .There are vivacious descriptions on almost every page."
“David Quammen’s diligently researched and deeply considered overview of what’s been going on recently in evolutionary biology is illuminating, wondrous, and gripping. Also scary when it comes to thinking about the evolution of Homo sapiens. This is stunning, first-rate journalism.”
“There's no one who writes about complex science better than David Quammen. The Tangled Tree is at once fascinating, illuminating, and totally absorbing.”
“Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure. . . . The Tangled Tree is much more than a report on some cool new scientific facts. It is, rather, a source of wonder.”
“David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story. . . . Indeed he is, in my opinion, the best natural history writer currently working. Mr. Quammen’s books . . . consistently impress with their accuracy, energy and superb, evocative writing."
"In The Tangled Tree, celebrated science writer David Quammen tells perhaps the grandest tale in biology. . . . He presents the science — and the scientists involved — with patience, candour and flair."
"The Tangled Tree is a thrilling story of some of biology's most incredible discoveries, and a rich portrait of the fascinating people behind them. This is David Quammen at his best: funny, tenacious, lucid, charming, and relentlessly compelling."
"In David Quammen’s new page turner, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, the author reveals how new molecular techniques have come to revolutionize the way we understand evolutionary processes and how we classify life into coherent groups. In an accessible style that has won him accolades in the past, Quammen does a marvelous job of weaving together the scientific and human story of this revolution. . . . Quammen has once again crafted a delightful read on a complex and important subject."
"One of the central insights in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was that life branched like a tree. And one of the revolutionary discoveries of molecular biology over a century later was that the tree of life was, in fact, a far more complex maze of branches. In The Tangled Tree, David Quammen offers the definitive chronicle of this profound development in our understanding of the history of life."
"A lively account of how new genetic research is upending the fundamental history of life."
"With humor, clarity, and exciting accounts of breakthroughs and feuds, Quammen traces the painstaking revelation of life’s truly spectacular complexity."
“A masterful history of a new field of molecular biology . . . . [An] impressive account of perhaps the most unheralded scientific revolution of the 20th century. . . . A consistently engaging collection of vivid portraits of brilliant, driven, quarrelsome scientists in the process of dramatically altering the fundamentals of evolution, illuminated by the author's insightful commentary.”
"[Quammen] explores important questions and makes the process as well as the findings understandable and exciting to lay readers. . . . This book also proves its author's mastery in weaving various strands of a complex story into an intricate, beautiful, and gripping whole."