The Tangled Tree

A Radical New History of Life

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About The Book

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).

About The Author

Photograph by Lynn Donaldson

David Quammen’s fifteen books include The Tangled Tree, The Song of the DodoThe Reluctant Mr. Darwin, and Spillover, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. He has written for Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, The New York Times Book Review, Outside, and Powder, 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. Visit him at DavidQuammen.com. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 6, 2019)
  • Length: 480 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476776637

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Raves and Reviews

“[Quammen] is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world. . . .There are vivacious descriptions on almost every page."  

– Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“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

“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

"A lively account of how new genetic research is upending the fundamental history of life."

– Andrea Thompson, Scientific American

"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

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

– Booklist (starred review)

"One of the central insights in Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was that life branched like a tree. And one of the revolutionary discoveries of molecular biology over a century later was that the tree of life was, in fact, a far more complex maze of branches. In The Tangled Tree, David Quammen offers the definitive chronicle of this profound development in our understanding of the history of life."

– Carl Zimmer, author of She Has Her Mother's Laugh and Parasite Rex

“A masterful history of a new field of molecular biology . . . . [An] impressive account of perhaps the most unheralded scientific revolution of the 20th century. . . . 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 (starred review)

"[Quammen] explores important questions and makes the process as well as the findings understandable and exciting to lay readers. . . . This book also proves its author's mastery in weaving various strands of a complex story into an intricate, beautiful, and gripping whole."

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Quammen] writes like the director of a summer blockbuster: blasts of rich detail, quick cuts, not a second wasted.”

– Lois Beckett, The Guardian

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