The Tangled Tree
A Radical New History of Life
By: David Quammen
Narrated by: Jacques Roy
Length: 13 hrs and 48 mins
Release date: 08-14-18
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
I voluntarily reviewed an advance readers copy of this book. No remuneration was exchanged and all opinions presented herein are my own except as noted.
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction
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; 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 is no ordinary writer. He is simply astonishing, one of that rare class of writer gifted with verve, ingenuity, humor, guts, and great heart” (Elle). 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. http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-Tangled-Tree/David-Quammen/9781508252696#
My husband, the physicist, was excited when I got this book, as he’s read other books by Quammen. Quammen is a brilliant writer, a brilliant science writer, my husband is brilliant, and I am “passing”— smart.
This book is really smart too. In audio it’s a lot to follow. Fabulous information, paradigm altering theories about how evolution occurs. And a lot of information about how theoretical science evolves and how much of it is personality and politics.
My first feeling is that in audio this book requires a person both smarter than me and with a greater attention span and scientific vocabulary.
In print, the work may be more accessible. I got a lot out of it, I never realized that one of the biggest battles in evolution-science is whether the information should be represented as a tree of life because it is heurisitcally useful and traditional. I learned that even in the hallowed halls of academe, personality and politics are as important as brilliance, education and understanding.
I also learned that some of every organism’s DNA originates in another species. I kind of learned that there are two orders of simple cells prokaryotes (bacteria) and eukaryotes (everything else). I found out about a brilliant scientists, especially, Carl Woese, of whom I had never heard, who were easily the match of of Darwin in intelligence. Some of them represented Darwin’s fame, his position in the firmament of evolution.
So, I know more after listening to the book, but I think I would have gotten more from reading the book — it’s complicated material and would be easier to follow in print, or at least by lecture with visual aids.
The narrator is excellent with a clear, deep, but not stentorian, voice. He did a well-paced reading and pronounced the many scientific words that might trip up a lot of other narrators, or me.
Quammen is a great writer and tackled a subject of tremendous complexity, breadth, history, and which draws it’s fair — or unfair — share of controversy. And, if my scientific vocabulary and understanding of microbiology were better I may have gotten more from the audiobook.