Cover image for The tangled tree : a radical new history of life
The tangled tree : a radical new history of life
Quammen, David, 1948- author.
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition.
Physical Description:
xvi, 461 pages ; 24 cm


Call Number
Material Type
Corning - Southeast Steuben County Library 1 591.38 QUA Adult NonFiction Book
Elmira - Steele Memorial Library 1 591.38 QUA New NonFiction Book
Watkins Glen Public Library 1 591.38 QUA New books

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

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The tree of life had served scientists well as a visual expression of the evolutionary process until three big surprises complicated the picture: a whole new category of life, the archaea; horizontal gene transfer; and startling revelations regarding our own deepest ancestry. Best-selling science journalist Quammen, author of the Carnegie finalist, Spillover (2012), precisely and vividly explains how these findings have tangled the tree. He begins at the roots with Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and other early evolutionists, then moves through the twentieth century, telling a dramatic, many-limbed tale of courageous theorists and assiduous experimentalists, all portrayed with zest in short, punchy chapters. The key, long-controversial figure is Carl Woese, who unveiled the microbial archaea and figured out how to use ribosomal RNA to trace this life-branch's evolution. Recounting how excruciatingly laborious lab work was before computers, Quammen chronicles the development of molecular phylogenetics, the study of evolutionary relatedness using molecules as evidence, which brings the fascinating Lynn Margulis into the story, along with the wildly counterintuitive phenomenon in which living bacteria trade genes sideways in what is sometimes called infective heredity. We, it turns out, are intricate mosaics full of genes from nonhuman, nonprimate sources. With humor, clarity, and exciting accounts of breakthroughs and feuds, Quammen traces the painstaking revelation of life's truly spectacular complexity.--Donna Seaman Copyright 2018 Booklist

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.

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

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