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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, “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 20th 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.

©2018 David Quammen (P)2018 Simon & Schuster

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  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars
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    4 out of 5 stars
  • Dennis
  • Western Springs, IL, United States
  • 08-18-18

Very Enjoyable and Readable

This book provides an extremely interesting, enjoyable, and readable overview of the history of the theory of evolution, from Darwin and before, up to the most current ideas. The central figure in the book is Carl Woese, who discovered Archaea, and there are also many engaging mini-biographies of other important figures (Charles Darwin, of course, but also Ernst Haeckel, Lynn Margulis, Ford Doolittle, and several others), and explanations of their contributions to the science.

The author explains a lot about biology, and cellular biology in particular, in support of the author’s central thesis; that different forms of life are far more interrelated that we realized just a few decades ago (hence the name of the book). This greater degree of interrelation arises because of Horizontal Gene Transfer (“HGT”), by which means living organisms can transfer their genes to organisms in other species or even other kingdoms or domains. The transplanted genes might not have any impact on the new host, or they might be harmful, or they might be beneficial. An example of the latter category is the gene that enables mammals to develop placentas.

The author also explains a great deal about cellular biology, with clear explanations of how scientists painstakingly figured out how cells work, from the first observations of bacteria in the 1600s, to the functions of ribosomes and DNA, to Carl Woese’s discovery of archaea, and, ultimately, to the importance of Horizontal Gene Transfer in both evolution and medicine.

In addition to the science, the book goes into conflicts between scientists with different points of view, or scientists who agree on the science but disagree about who should get credit, and the importance of getting credit for grant applications and tenure awards. As an outsider, I found this insight into the human side of the scientific community fascinating.

I come at the subject of evolution from the Intelligent Design point of view (though I am a Christian, I don’t believe that science supports a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis). One of the things I found refreshing about this book is that it didn’t contain attacks on people like me who believe that evolution could only make sense if it was intelligently guided.

I won’t lie about the science; at times, it got pretty dense. But the author does a good job of explaining the science in an understandable way, and I was able to get the important concepts, though I have no science background.

I purchased and listened to the audiobook. The narrator did a fantastic job – his pacing and enunciation were terrific, and his voice was very pleasant.

This book is highly recommended.

33 of 36 people found this review helpful

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Quammen at his usual best

The Tangled Tree is a wonderful mixture of human and non human characters. D. Quammen has done an excellent job at distilling the fascinating aspects of C. Woese's work his collaborators and detractors. Like his writing in The Song of the Dodo and The Flight of the Iguana, for example, his work is clear and should reach a wide audience of folks interested in science in general and biology in particular. Sure, some passages demand a little more effort by the reader/listener, but this is expected given the intricacies of the topic involved. The narration by Jacques Roy is right on, including the few passages where he added an accent to the person quoted. All in all a deserving 5-star.

14 of 15 people found this review helpful

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  • NJ
  • 08-26-18

Should've had pdf with at least some illustrations

Love the story and the narrator. So much is related to visual presentation of ideas and book would have benefited from the pdf many titles have with at least some of the illustrations.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Rachel
  • YAKIMA, WA, United States
  • 09-08-18

kind of interesting topic, but not engaging book

The topic sounds interesting and it kind of was, but I had trouble keeping with it. I listened, but my mind would wander or I'd immediately forget what was being discussed. Somehow it wasn't as engaging as I'd hoped for.

The main story throughout the book is a history of the different ways folks thought about and represented the "tree" of live throughout it's history. That's actually just fine, but not really radical. I was hoping for a bit more "action" about how people didn't used to think that we had other forms of life inside our bodies and now we know we do. But besides gut microbes and their ilk, there wasn't much discussion of what that means. There was some discussion of viral DNA in placentas, but it could have been presented in a more engaging way, I felt.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Gary
  • Las Cruces, NM, United States
  • 09-06-18

Life's a funny riddle, solve it

There is no one correct way of dividing a world, identity is fleeting and reification leads to oversimplification. All of that is within this book as the author looks at where the incredibly interesting world of microbiology stands today and what it means for understanding our current understanding of the world we find ourselves in. I have read many stimulating books on the early 20th century development of quantum physics and gravitational theory and this book has that feel to it and lays out the recent and just as exciting history of why micro and molecular biology’s recent discoveries about whom we are and where we came from is just as exciting.

I have to expand on my first sentence above because it might not be obvious how this book embraces that sentence in such a succinct way. First, ‘no correct way of dividing the world’, Darwin’s greatest realization was that there is no absolute ‘nature of things’ in and of themselves (i.e. ‘a unique world structure’ or an unique ontological foundation), essences are human imposed order on to the world, and for his theory to work ‘species’ needed a fluid nuanced definition and its own inherent truth was a myth (‘essences’ and species are not things they are human constructs). Even though Darwin titles his book ‘On the Origin of Species’ he dances around the meaning of the word ‘species’ because without fluidity he can’t get to evolution by way of natural selection.

Second ‘identity is fleeting’, the individual under consideration might not always be as obvious as common sense dictates. The author gave the example by asking is it the ant, the colony or all of the colonies that make the entity worthy of consideration, and the author made note of the ship of Theseus and its paradox as related to self identity of the individual. In other words, if we were to analyze every single oyster would we understand the oyster? Or as Nietzsche once mockingly said by way of criticizing philosophy ‘would we be any nearer to the truth of understanding women by asking every woman what they want’. Or, moreover, are bacteria best thought of as individuals or can they be thought of in their totality as one? Descartes takes the world away from us with his cogito by literally assuming it away, but Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Heidegger think we are not separate from the world and the world needs to be considered in order to understand our Being.

The third item from my opening sentence is on ‘reification’. Is the map actually the thing? Or in the case for this book is the ‘tree of life’ such as nature demands it, or do we as humans make nature fit our model, the tree of life. I love Darwin and I love his book and I love when people say that they accept ‘evolution by way of natural selection’ as the best description to explain how life developed over the eons, but in reality the truth is more nuanced and especially for the first 3 billion years of life on earth and even in our more recent history (check out what the author tells the reader about the placenta and what we think we know about it!).

The power plant that produces the universal currency of life by creating ATP (little battery like energy sources) by way of the cells mitochondria and are within all living creatures that have complexity with structure and that are more complicated than bacteria or archaea or fungi or blue-green algae and which are not plants (i.e. get their energy directly from the sun through chloroplast) for each and every eukaryote that has ever lived (humans are eukaryotes since we are made up of cells that usually have a nucleolus and organelles and mitochondria) or are alive today that original event of endobiosis happened only once in the history of the world (endobiosis is a big theme within this book and will be explained in great detail for the observant reader). The fact that event only happened once as stated in this book always floors me and anyone who thinks that the galaxy or the universe is teeming with complex intelligent life first needs to explain why that event only happened once on earth as far as we know today.

The chapters on Lynn Margulis were fascinating and illustrated why this book was so very fun to read. First, I had no idea she was Carl Sagan’s first wife. She latched on to a concept that was only on the fringes of microbiology and made it mainstream. Scientists in general hate nothing more than to have their paradigms be overturned while an individual scientist likes nothing more than to challenge the status quo and overthrow a paradigm. Science knows itself by correcting itself. Lynn Margulis took what was known within footnotes and mostly obscure corners (including, most probably, a Russian pedophile) and popularized HGT (horizontal gene transfer) and gave it a pedigree that was lacking. Margulis is a scientist worth knowing and remembering, and oddly, she couldn’t help herself in later days by goofingly thinking 9/11 was an inside job or thinking HIV did not cause Aids (fringe thinking also, but wrongheaded).

I had previously read Margulis’ book ‘The Five Kingdoms’, and therefore I have a bias towards how she sees the world and it explains why I think archaea are different from bacteria and prokaryote is the wrong label for them. I would recommend that book not to read but to look at the beautiful pictures of single cell life, and one day when you happen to be in a used book store do yourself a favor and pick it up at least to glance through.

Overall this book doesn’t make a definitive statement on how many life kingdoms there are and how the tree of life should be designed. That’s a feature not a bug with this book because in the end there aren’t absolutely correct ways of categorizing the world or if there are we don’t know it when we get it right. I don’t want to give away the punch line in this book, but the very last sentence of this book made me laugh out loud, and will make you laugh too.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Another great book from David Quammen

As always, David Quammen delivers a very well researched and well written book on a complicated scientific subject. His works make tough scientific topics super approachable! Personally, I was a Molecular biology major, so all of the big words and concepts were familiar to me, but I really enjoyed the history aspect of the storyline and I think people of all backgrounds will find this book interesting.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Max
  • United States
  • 09-18-18

exceptional

exceptional. i am a researcher in the field and the science here is exceptional. much appreciation.
and i also loved the acting.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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One of the Best of 2018 Science Books

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was sorry when I came to the end. The Tangled Tree explains the current thinking in evolutionary theory in terms that are understandable by anyone, even those without a background in biology. Horizontal gene transfer is the most exciting discovery in the field since Darwin. David Quammen has done an excellent job of describing the history of evolutionary theory to date as well as humanizing the scientists involved. Highly recommended!

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Excellent. Accessible, clear and informative

An excellent exposition of the history of thinking around and current state of play on "life" - how it arose, evolved etc. A complement to Nick Lane's Vital Question. Many reviews are subjective - you can't help what you like and what you don't like. Being as objective as possible: this is an excellent, interesting, educational book AND I enjoyed reading/listening to it.

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The book is excellent, but leave off fake accents

The book is excellent. The story is extraordinarily interesting. It has changed the way I view life on earth. I expect it will have a lasting impact. I do have one negative comment. The performance was excellent except for one aspect that I found extremely grating. Mr. Roy attempted to put many of the quotes by non-Americans (British, French, Spanish, etc.) in fake accents. I can understand how, in principle this might help the reader to distinguish exactly what is being quoted. I found this so annoying, however, that I suggest it would be worth making a new recording. Otherwise, I found the book exceptionally informative. The book is basically about horizontal gene transfer (HGT). The book convinced me that all of evolution has been greatly affected by HGT. One type of HGT called endosymbiosis, gave us (and plants) mitochondria and gave plants chloroplasts. One of our single celled ancestors "ate" a bacterium that was able to produce energetic molecules (ATP) by oxidation of nutrients. This ancestor cell made use of this bacterium to increase its supply of energy. Similarly an ancestor to plants acquired a bacterium that could use light energy to make food. Plants also have mitochondria to convert some of the food into chemical energy. Another type of horizontal gene transfer (actually several types) occurs when different types of bacteria exchange genetic material in various ways. This is how resistance to antibiotics can spread so rapidly, especially in the guts of animals (including ourselves). Yet another type of HGT is the transfer of genetic material by retroviruses that can insert their DNA into the genome of host cells. Another type is the CRSPR-CAS 9 immune system of bacteria which allows virus-infected bacteria to insert the viral DNA into the bacterial genome together with molecules that can cut it up. This allows bacteria to "remember" a past infection and when the same type of virus attacks again, it is prepared to destroy its DNA. This latter system is now being used to "edit" genomes - although gene editing is only addressed in passing. After reading (or listening) to the book one has an entirely new perspective on evolution.

The "Tangled Tree" of the title refers to his claim that horizontal gene transfer precludes viewing species in terms of a tree like structure. This claim may be somewhat overblown in the book, but he makes a convincing case even if it is usually "tree like", it isn't always that way. HGT has allowed evolution to make much bigger leaps much faster than random mutation with Darwinian natural selection.

Another part of the book that appealed to me was the extensive work the author did to emphasize the human aspect of the scientific enterprise. Many scientists who contributed to the understanding of HGT were highlighted and since many are still living, he includes numerous interviews. The book is loosely organized around the life and career of Carl Woese. I suspect the book will be useful for the history of science as well as for its pedagogy aimed at the general reader. As a former academic and researcher (in a different field) I can say that the part of his story related to the interactions among scientists, their egos, their motivation, etc. rings true.