Cover of The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

By: David Quammen


Imprint: Simon & Schuster

Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9781476776620

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Electronic | Audio | Trade Paperback

On Sale: | Pages: 480

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In this New York Times bestseller and longlist nominee for the National Book Award, "our greatest living chronicler of the natural world" (The New York Times), David Quammen explains how recent discoveries in molecular biology affect our understanding of evolution and life's history. 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; we now know that roughly eight percent of the human genome arrived sideways by viral infection--a type of HGT. In The Tangled Tree, "the grandest tale in biology....David Quammen presents the science--and the scientists involved--with patience, candor, and flair" (Nature). We learn about the major players, 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. "David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story" (The Wall Street Journal). 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, 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 source of wonder....Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure" (The Boston Globe).
Quammen is right that the horizontal transfer of genetic information does complicate our effort to understand the evolutionary past, but he goes too far in claiming that HGT essentially undermines any and all attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary past... Quammen provides us with a lucid guide to a lot of interesting science, but he overstates the impact of horizontal genetic transmission on our ability to reconstruct Darwin's diversifying evolutionary tree.
—Washington Post
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.... But if Quammen is writing for the ages, his prose at times risks feeling dated.... 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.
—New York Times
David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story that in less capable hands would be unintelligible to the general reader. Indeed he is, in my opinion, the best natural history writer currently working.... “The Tangled Tree,” though, becomes a bit tangled in its own right, as the book attempts to describe not just what William James called life's “blooming, buzzing confusion” but the stories of the biologists who are studying it. Readers are introduced to a large supporting cast of molecular microbiologists who don't normally receive anything like the degree of attention Mr. Quammen bestows upon them here. Much of this celebration is well-deserved, although the account sometimes devolves into eye-glazing biographical lists... His big book touches on so many fascinating and important subjects that I worry that “The Tangled Tree” occasionally loses sight of the Darwinian forest that puts all these processes in perspective.
—Wall Street Journal
Quammen is generally an exemplary guide; there are few writers so firmly on the side of the reader, who so solicitously request your patience... and delightedly hack away at jargon... He keeps the chapters short, the sentences spring-loaded. There are vivacious descriptions on almost every page... Each section ends with a light cliffhanger. Quammen has the gift of Daedalus; he gets you out of the maze.... Quammen doesn't just give us stories of solitary toil and triumph. Every discovery is couched in a life with its particular constraints and spurs — not least the power (or catastrophe) of personality.
—New York Times
...an elegant and accessible account of a revolution in knowledge and perspective, one that has advanced without much public fanfare but has accumulated into a fundamental change in our view of life — and what it means to be human.... Quammen delivers his usual elegant and transparent prose — writing that only seems effortless. At times, though, he quails at the ferociously jargon-ridden language of modern biology, breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader not to worry about some scary sounding scientific stuff. Meant to reassure, such asides come across as an unneeded lack of trust in his own explanatory skill.... Mostly, though, 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.
—Boston Globe
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