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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life Hardcover – August 14, 2018
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“David Quammen’s diligently researched and deeply considered overview of what’s been going on recently in evolutionary biology is illuminating, wondrous, and gripping. Also scary when it comes to thinking about the evolution of Homo sapiens. This is stunning, first-rate journalism.” -- Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams
“There's no one who writes about complex science better than David Quammen. The Tangled Tree is at once fascinating, illuminating, and totally absorbing.” -- Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction
“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, The Boston Globe
"Utterly absorbing. . . . Changed the way I see life." -- Scott Simon, NPR
“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, The Wall Street Journal
"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
One of Science News’ Favorite Books of the Year
“[Quammen] writes like the director of a summer blockbuster: blasts of rich detail, quick cuts, not a second wasted.” -- Lois Beckett, The Guardian
"The Tangled Tree is a thrilling story of some of biology's most incredible discoveries, and a rich portrait of the fascinating people behind them. This is David Quammen at his best: funny, tenacious, lucid, charming, and relentlessly compelling." -- Ed Yong, author of I Contain Multitudes
About the Author
- Item Weight : 1.6 pounds
- Hardcover : 480 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1476776628
- ISBN-13 : 978-1476776620
- Product Dimensions : 6 x 1.5 x 9 inches
- Publisher : Simon & Schuster; 1st Edition (August 14, 2018)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #207,528 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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To be fair, he does cover quite a bit of the science and his explanations are usually very clear, although this almost seems a secondary aspect of the book. It is also easy to miss some of this as one starts to skim through story after story of what a particular scientist looked like in a photograph the author had seen. Further, just as the ideas get interesting, we suddenly jump back in time, often several centuries, to pick up another theme.
I think there are at least three separate things going on in this book. Each could make an interesting book but combined together make a frustrating tangle.
1. A biography of Carl Woese, "the most important little- known biologist of the twentieth century", who among other things identified archaea as a third kingdom of life (in addition to bacteria and eukaryotes.) Woese, a complex and ultimately bitter man, is the main focus of the book and we return time and time to him, ending the book with his death
2. The development, and recent abandonment by many,of ideas around a tree of life. However, his exposition of this is rather inchoate but does draw in many scientists and discoveries over the centuries that influenced the flow of thoughts about the origins and evolution of life. Jumping backwards and forwards in time, we meet a large number of individual scientists and each one needs some anecdotes about their life, from pedophilia to skills on the trapeze. He does highlight well the amount of serendipity, risk and mind-numbing detail that goes into actual scientific advances.
3. The science itself. As I have already said, when he sticks to this, Quammen does a good job of explaining some very complex ideas but I was expecting a great deal more information on the science and its implications. For example, towards the end of the book he reports on recent research by a Dutch scientist, Thijs Ettema, that suggests eukaryotes, which include humans, evolved from archaea and were not a third limb of the tree. Although controversial, I would have liked a lot more information on this and other ideas he identifies.
If the author's purpose was to show that scientific discovery and advancement is as tangled as life itself then he succeeds in that but at the expense of clarity. Given the obvious knowledge and writing skills of the author this is a missed opportunity to open up this area of science to a wider audience.
Well, OK… but saying “evolution by natural selection” is sort of like saying “Super Bowl via playoffs.” It may outline the process of competition and elimination, but it doesn’t tell you *anything* about the strategy that got the team to the Super Bowl! It only diverts your attention away from all the interesting details.
What is just now coming to the surface, arguably 20 years late, is the immensely sophisticated systems that drive evolutionary change, as discovered by people like Carl Woese, Lynn Margulis and Barbara McClintock.
The story focuses on the late Carl Woese, in fact it’s very nearly a full biography of the man. So… why should anyone care about Carl Woese? And why should anyone even give consideration to the suggestion that he was as great a scientist as Darwin?
The answer is that Woese flipped Darwin’s tree of life 90 degrees in 1977. Any time someone introduces that large of a conceptual revolution to a field, that person is a titan. Woese showed that inheritance is a vast interconnected web and that Darwin’s cherished tree metaphor has not minor, but major failings.
Woese showed that Horizontal Gene Transfer - large sections of DNA being transferred wholesale, from viruses and bacteria to other bacteria and plants and animals - is a *major* component of evolution, and in fact the history of life cannot be properly understood at all without it.
This is as big of a deal to biology as quantum mechanics was to Newtonian physics. It transforms the speed of evolution, from millions of years to, in some cases, hours and minutes.
It shows that organisms find very clever ways to incorporate very large chunks of code, obtained from elsewhere, into their physiology. Who knew that a large stretch of code stolen from a retrovirus was used to build the human placenta?
It changes genetics. It changes disease treatment. It changes genetic engineering and informs our use of gene editing technologies like CRISPR. It changes the whole history of evolution and alters the very definition of inheritance. It even raises deep questions about how purposeful and directional evolutionary systems actually are.
At the end of the book, Quammen even points out that three fundamental concepts in biology have gone from sharp to blurry:
-The definition of "species." Inheritance itself is not something that comes only from traditional ancestors, it comes from a whole mosaic of sources.
-There is no precise definition of gene; every man, woman and child supposedly knows what genes are, of course, but when you get right down to it, it’s a very squishy term.
-There’s not even a precise definition of an individual! Cell for cell, 90% of a human being is symbiotic bacteria. Every sophisticated organism on earth is a mosaic of cells within cells, organisms within organisms. Chloroplasts and mitochondria are symbiotic cells living inside of our own cells. They have their own DNA and Carl Woese was instrumental in proving that.
Quammen takes us on a historical tour of the fascinating scientists who quietly turned evolutionary theory sideways and upside down. Carl Woese was resentful of Darwin and thought himself to be a superior scientist. Quammen himself doesn’t go that far… but there’s a strong case to be made that Woese, Margulis, McClintock and a man named Fred Doolittle contributed vastly more to our understanding of the *detailed strategy* of evolution than Darwin ever did or even could have.
This conceptual revolution has already been well known inside of biology for years, but the public is only beginning to hear about it. This book joins a chorus of “post-Neo-Darwinian” books. Others include:
Dance to the Tune of Life: Biological Relativity by Denis Noble; COSMOSAPIENS by John Hands; Evolution: A View from the 21st Century by James Shapiro; Purpose and Desire by J. Scott Turner; Acquiring Genomes by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan; Symbiogenesis: A New Theory of Evolution by Boris Kozo-Polyanski, Lynn Margulis and Victor Fet; The Music of Life by Denis Noble; I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong.
The book has about 100 very short chapters and is easily read in small doses. You can get something out of this book in as little as 3 minutes at a time. He’s wrapped the often dry technical details of hard science in the bacon of storytelling about odd and fascinating science personalities - including drinking, parties, jazz, and Woese getting tossed in the bushes of his own back yard.
Most books on the evolution bookshelf in the typical bookstore are frankly 20 years out of date and more than a little misleading. The real story of evolution is far more fascinating and “The Tangled Tree” offers a much more accurate and current take on the state of the science.
Top reviews from other countries
This review sounds more negative than the book deserves. It's still very readable and full of the usual surprising facts, but doesn't scale the heights that Quammen is capable of - something that left me slightly disappointed.
Using this detailed research gleaned over 4 years of travel, study and interviews, Quammen guides us from Darwin’s early theories of evolution in which life branched like a tree to the latest discoveries suggesting a more appropriate analogy of The Web of Life. He explains in meticulous detail how molecular biology and phylogenics have pieced together the evolution of simple single-cell prokaryotes into complex multi-celled eukaryotes, and even suggests how the primeval chemical mix combined to form amino acids to create RNA – the basis of all life on Earth.
And some of his revelations are truly stunning. Such as the discovery of endosymbiosis – the implications of which make us humans wonder exactly what and who we are. Especially when learning that 8% (one twelfth!) of the human genome is from retroviruses.....
This complex subject is explained with such clarity and enthusiasm that I could not put the book down. And I didn’t want to finish it. I unreservedly recommend The Tangled Tree – if you read and absorb this book you will know more about the origins and evolution of life than 99.999% of the world’s population! If there were more than 5 stars I would award them.
For many, I imagine, this book might be a disappointment (or pleasant surprise); unlike many more typical science books Quammen elects to tell his science through the lives of the scientists who made the discoveries in question. In many ways the book is as much a book on the history of science as it is on the science itself. Personally, and as someone who has training in both biology and in the history of science, I love this particular angle Quammen takes, but others might value a more straightforward approach. That said, the book is highly readable, full of surprising facts and superbly written. I recommend this book highly to anyone interested in life, genetics and the history of one of science’s more important developments in recent years. Five stars.