This week’s New Title Tuesday has been longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen explains in understandable terms how life emerged from its “primordial origins into the fluorescence of diversity and complexity we see now.”
Publisher’s Summary: 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 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 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.
David Quammen is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. He has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review, among other magazines, and is a contributing writer for National Geographic. He wrote the entire text of the May 2016 issue of National Geographic on the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem—the first time in the history of the magazine that an issue was single-authored. 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.
Admittedly, I had not heard of HGT, horizontal gene transfer, before picking up The Tangled Tree. Specifically, I didn’t realize that about 8% of the human genome comes from viral infection.
Yes, I have been aware that bacteria naturally lives in our guts and on our skin, but I was not aware that sometimes bits of bacterial DNA are sometimes “patched” into human DNA. Furthermore, Quammen cites work by microbiologist Julie Dunning Hotopp and her team that suggests certain circumstances can cause these horizontally transferred bacterial DNA to trigger cancer.
Believe me, with my scant understanding of the processes, it is best that I refrain from trying to explain the concepts Quammen explores in The Tangled Tree. Besides, Quammen’s writing does not require translation.
Parul Sehgal best describes Quammen’s book in his New York Times review: “He keeps the chapters short, the sentences spring-loaded. There are vivacious descriptions on almost every page — pre-cellular life on Earth, he writes, was a “a world of primeval twitching.” Each section ends with a light cliffhanger. Quammen has the gift of Daedalus; he gets you out of the maze.”
There are some threads that run through The Tangled Tree; for example, scientists from all periods have met with push-back from organized religion, media, and from their own peers. This is no less common today than in Galileo’s time. Quammen focuses on several researchers, including Carl Woese, who after announcing his team’s discovery of a separate form of life in 1977, was basically called a nut-job. Woese has since been proven correct.
Another, more intriguing thread that appears is the potential areas of research for up-and-coming researchers. There’s too many to state – I recommend current and future researchers to read The Tangled Tree for inspiration on possible areas of study.
For both a science history lesson as well as an overview of recent work that influences our understanding the origins of life and health, The Tangled Tree is an exceptional resource.
Happy Reading and Learning, Susan C.
Also by Quammen:
Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart – Quammen takes readers on a breathtaking journey through America’s most inspiring and imperiled ecosystem—Yellowstone National Park—in this monumental book on America’s first national park. Yellowstone’s storied past, rich ecosystem, and dynamic landscape are brilliantly portrayed in a captivating mosaic of photographs and eloquently written text that blend history, science, and research from the field. As much a visual ode to nature as an intimate tour of one of the world’s most celebrated conservation areas, this gorgeous book illuminates the park’s treasures grand and small—from the iconic Old Faithful to the rare gray wolf; from misty mountain tops to iridescent springs; and from sweeping valleys to flourishing wild blooms. In four illuminating sections that combine photos, sidebars, and graphics with elegantly crafted text, this book brings readers deeper into the life of the park than ever before, both commemorating its beauty and highlighting its challenges. This book is an essential addition to the National Parks’ 100th anniversary celebration and will remind readers why conservation is worth every effort.
The Chimp and the River – How AIDS Emerged From an African Forest – The real story of AIDS–how it originated with a virus in a chimpanzee, jumped to one human, and then infected more than 60 million people–is very different from what most of us think we know. Recent research has revealed dark surprises and yielded a radically new scenario of how AIDS began and spread. Excerpted and adapted from the book Spillover, with a new introduction by the author, Quammen’s … investigation tracks the virus from chimp populations in the jungles of southeastern Cameroon to laboratories across the globe, as he unravels the mysteries of when, where, and under what circumstances such a consequential ‘spillover’ can happen”–Page 4 of cover.
Ebola: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus Acclaimed science writer and explorer David Quammen first came near the Ebola virus while he was traveling in the jungles of Gabon, accompanied by local men whose village had been devastated by a recent outbreak. Here he tells the story of Ebola — its past, present, and its unknowable future.