Tangled Tree (Quammen)

The Tangled Tree:  A Radical New History of Life
David Quammen, 2018
Simon & Schuster
480 pp.

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;
♦ 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.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—February, 1948
Where—Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Education—B.S., Yale University; Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar)
Awards—(see below)
Currently—lives in Bozeman, Montana

David Quammen is an American science, nature and travel writer and the author of fifteen books. He wrote a column called "Natural Acts" for Outside magazine for fifteen years. His articles have also appeared in National Geographic, Harper's, Rolling Stone, the New York Times Book Review and other periodicals.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Quammen graduated from Yale. He won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford where he studied literature, concentrating on the works of William Faulkner. Trout fishing drew Quammen to Montana in the early '70s, and he has lived there ever since—although he still maintains a heavy travel schedule, writing for National Geographic and researching his books.

During autumn 2014, his extensive research involved Quammen in the public discussion of the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa and its spread overseas. In 2016 he wrote the entire issue of that year's May National Geographic on the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. It was the first time in the history of the magazine that an issue was single-authored.

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.

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.

National Magazine Awards (1987, 1994, 2005)
Academy of Arts & Letters (Literature)
Natural World Book Prize
Helen Bernstein Book Award (Journalism)
John Burroughs Medal (Nature Writing)
PEN/Spielvogel-Diamonstein Award (Essay)
Stephen Jay Gould Prize
Andrew Carnegie Medal (Nonfiction, Finalist)
(Author bio adapted from the publisher and Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
[Quammen] is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world …[and] 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. And maybe to a bar. When not in the field, you can find Quammen and his subjects talking over a drink or two, over a combo sushi platter, over Turkish food, Chilean steaks and beers or just over a coke and pizza. It's a book born out of appetite and conviviality, an unpretentious delight in food and conversation—in being and thinking with others.
Parul Sehgal - New York Times

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.
David Barash - Wall Street Journal

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
Thomas Levenson - Boston Globe

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.
John Archibald - Nature

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.
Ivor T. Knight - Science

(Starred review) [E]xplores important [genetic] questions and …proves its author’s mastery in weaving various strands of a complex story into an intricate, beautiful, and gripping whole.
Publishers Weekly

Scientists are at the beginning of understanding the implications of [genetic] discoveries for human health. Verdict: Written in an accessible style, this book will interest… those curious about evolutionary history. —Caren Nichter, Univ. of Tennessee at Martin
Library Journal

(Starred review) With humor, clarity, and exciting accounts of breakthroughs and feuds, Quammen traces the painstaking revelation of life’s truly spectacular complexity.

(Starred review) A masterful history of a new field of molecular biology…. 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.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for THE TANGLED TREE … and then take off on your own:

1. Talk about Darwin's rudimentary idea of a family tree, and how, over the years, biologists have worked to delineate the limbs and branches of that tree. First scientists used physical similarities …and eventually DNA structure.

2. Follow-up to Question 1: How has our increased knowledge of genetics changed the understanding of the tree of life?

3. In what way is the tree more tangled? In other words, what is the significance of the book's title? How has our understanding of those once separate "branches" changed? In other words, is Darwin's "tree" a seriously flawed conception, or is it merely in need of revision?

4. Consider Carl Woese. How have his findings—on how cells translate genetic information into proteins— altered our view of Darwin's tree and, thus, our understanding of the evolution of life? Talk about how Woese's views differed from the group of 20 scientists known as the RNA Tie Club. Quammen writes that Woese "was a loner by disposition. He took a separate path. Not in the club. No RNA tie." What did Woese propose instead? Did his personality shape his ability to challenge the standing theories of Darwinism?

5. What are the archaea?

6. Woese's discovery led to a new scientific field called "molecular phylogeny." What are some of the astonishing insights this branch of inquiry has revealed about evolutionary history?

7. Consider Tsutomu Wantanabe's discovery. Can you explain (to one another in your discussion group, or even to yourself!) what "horizontal gene transfer" is and how it differs from "vertical gene transfer"? How does horizontal gene transfer explain antibiotic resistance?

8. Follow-up to Question 7: How does gene swapping change our Darwinian understanding of the pace of evolution—as well as the "shape" of the tree of life and its separate branches? What are the implications of gene swapping for the future of human existence?

9. Why, according the the author, did Woese disagree with the Human Genome Project?

10. Talk about the end of Woese's life—his disappointments, his disgruntlement against the scientific community, and even his resentment against Darwin himself.

11. The author discusses Lynn Margulis's role in eukaryote evolution, although he spends considerable time on her personal life (marriages, pregnancies, and motherhood)--concerns absent in his treatment of his male subjects. Does the attention to Margulis' family issues irritate you … or do you find it interesting in terms of the challenges female scientists face?

12. What is Margulis's theory of mosaic creatures?

13. In the end, does Quammen decide that Darwin was wrong about his tree of life?

14. David Quammen is considered one of the most lucid writers about the complex world of science. What was your experience reading The Tangled Tree? Were you engaged, bored, confused, enlightened …? Does Quammen live up to his reputation in this book?

15. What did you learn reading The Tangled Tree? What was your understanding of Darwinism before you began David Quammen's work, and to what degree has your understanding been enlarged or otherwise altered?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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