The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

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.

Title:The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
ISBN:9781476776620
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    The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life Reviews

  • Hannah Greendale

    Meticulously researched, but Quammen’s ability to frame a complex scientific theory in a captivating story is lacking. Pick up The Tangled Tree if molecular phylogenetics is what makes your heart go...

  • Kathleen

    National Book Award Longlist for Nonfiction 2018. Wow—where to start? Probably the most ‘blow your mind’ thing is that 8% of the human genome originated in virus genomes. This is just one of the...

  • Charlene

    I feel so disappointed. It was like being a kid and getting a half eaten chocolate Santa on Christmas as your only gift. This seems like a book half written. When I got the the end, I just sat there i...

  • Faith

    I guess what I really wanted was a magazine article with conclusions. This had much more biographical information than I wanted. Actually, it had much more of everything than I wanted. I assume that I...

  • Jonna Higgins-Freese

    A large part of the book was about Carl Woese, a character who was odd, but about whom I really could not care. He used early, difficult sequencing techniques to identify the Archaea, an entirely sepa...

  • Conor

    Horizontal gene transfer is a thing! Darwin is overrated! This book was fine but pretty niche!...

  • Angie

    This is a book at war with itself, trying to be many things at the same time. It is a well-written examination of evolution, the inadequacy of the standard tree metaphor for it, and the messiness of g...

  • Gary

    There is no one correct way of dividing a world, identity is fleeting and reification leads to oversimplification. All of that is within this book as the author looks at where the incredibly interesti...

  • Dorothy

    "Science itself, however precise and objective, is a human activity. It's a way of wondering as well as a way of knowing. It's a process, not a body of facts or laws. Like music, like poetry, like bas...

  • Carol Kean

    Comprehensive, exhaustive, entertaining, at times gossipy, and altogether wonderful! If more science books were so rich with stories of the scientists, more students might be riveted to classes in gen...