Tangled Tree (Quammen) - Discussion Questions

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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