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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

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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 t 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.


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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 t 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.

30 review for The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

  1. 4 out of 5

    Hannah Greendale

    Meticulously researched, but Quammen’s ability to frame a complex scientific theory in a captivating story is lacking. Pick up The Tangled Tree if molecular phylogenetics is what makes your heart go pitty-pat.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Charlene

    I feel so disappointed. It was like being a kid and getting a half eaten chocolate Santa on Christmas as your only gift. This seems like a book half written. When I got the the end, I just sat there in completely disbelief. Some parts of this book are exceptional. For example, this is an incredibly detailed and informative history of how scientists and the public came to understand the tree of life, how our understanding changed to see it as a web, and finally, merely a starting point with no sh I feel so disappointed. It was like being a kid and getting a half eaten chocolate Santa on Christmas as your only gift. This seems like a book half written. When I got the the end, I just sat there in completely disbelief. Some parts of this book are exceptional. For example, this is an incredibly detailed and informative history of how scientists and the public came to understand the tree of life, how our understanding changed to see it as a web, and finally, merely a starting point with no shape. In many ways, biology mimics physics in this regard. Newton gave us the laws of the universe that work very well on the larger scale, but when you dig deeper, it is clear that the very small has quantum rules all its own. A similar thing is going on with the tree of life. The tree Darwin played around with works very well for later evolved species. We can, with great success, trace our ancestry back to earlier branches. However, when we get to the earliest species on the tree, archaea and bacteria, there was so much horizontal gene transfer (bacteria and archaea swapping genes instead of handing them down through generation) that we cannot trace a universal common ancestor. This story needed to be told. The only problem is, this story really wasn't told completely! And what a shame. Parts of this story never made it onto the page. This seems to be because Quammen wanted to focus on a biography of Carl Woese. Woese was a pioneer who discovered archaea and fought for their place on the tangled tree. He went to war with giants like Lynn Margulis, George Fox, and so many others. All of that was essential to include. However, there was a shocking turn of events when Quammen wrote about visiting Bill Martin (who he refers to as William F. Martin, and not Bill, which seemed odd to begin with). It was almost as if Quammen didn't really understand the work Martin has devoted his life to. Quammen talked about endosymbiosis being a single event; so he understood that part of Martin's research. He even discussed hydrothermal vents, but not in relation to Martin's work and discussed it so very briefly and it was clear he wasn't making the connections he was supposed to. He wrote about Martin and then *immediately* discussed that Woese guess that the RNA world is the correct hypothesis of how the first cells came to assemble. Did this just not come up when he spoke with Martin? I find that almost impossible to fathom. I find Qaummen not having read Martin, Russell, or Lane's work on the origin of life almost an impossibility. But yet, it seems he really wasn't familiar with it. Quammen went so far as to say he thought Woese was probably right about the RNA world. He then said that other people disagree but didn't say *how* they disagree. He never talked about Martin, Russell, and Lane's work (among others) who accounted for the energy needed for the cells to assemble. He never quite showed an understanding of how the hydrothermal vent hypothesis (or other processes that focus on the laws of thermodynamics and can show how free energy was available for the assembly of RNA, DNA, amino acids, fats, etc) challenge the RNA world hypothesis (and for damn good reason). I kept thinking, "Oh he must be saving Martin's objections to the RNA world for later in the book." Later never came. There is too much missing in this extremely important story to rate this book well. How we view the tree is extremely important. So, I appreciate how much detail was included. There are incredible sections about the work of Margulis. She really got her due in this book. Quammen wrote about the things she got right and what she got wrong, but he had equal respect for her and her male peers. I don't find this is always the case and was extremely happy to see how he managed her story. His sections of horizontal gene transfer were some of the most important sections included in this book (but probably could have been done better). His depiction of the many fights people had over the tree (is it a web, 5 kingdoms, 3 domains), and if we should even call archaea bacteria (no, we should not) were great. The sections on Darwin, and even Woese hatred for Darwin, were wonderful. Jumping genes and how they created a womb were all top notch, and things the public really needs to know. Quammen even included exciting little tidbits, such as how sponges can be both a multicellular organism and yet a single cell organisms if the environment dictates (but this really lacked the wow factor that other writers have managed to capture) or the tale of wolbachia, one of my very favorite bacteria, who control the sex of the new wolbachia produced (again, told in much more captivating manner by Ed Yong, who Quammen recommends reading, as do I). But none of his spectacular writing made up for the loss of what was missing from this story. I appreciate that Quammen chose this topic at all. But, I was left feeling like I do when I read a NYT science article that picked up the ball and ran with it before it was ready. When I finished this book, I found myself wishing, so desperately, that Nick Lane had chosen to write about this subject. It would have been a much better (more complete) book.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    National Book Award Longlist for Nonfiction 2018. Wow—where to start? Probably the most ‘blow your mind’ thing is that 8% of the human genome originated in virus genomes. This is just one of the insights resulting from scientists studying molecular phylogenetics, where the study of DNA and RNA in different species allows them to discover the evolutionary relationship among them. One such retrovirus genome fragment is found in placentas and helps to transfer nutrients between the mother and child National Book Award Longlist for Nonfiction 2018. Wow—where to start? Probably the most ‘blow your mind’ thing is that 8% of the human genome originated in virus genomes. This is just one of the insights resulting from scientists studying molecular phylogenetics, where the study of DNA and RNA in different species allows them to discover the evolutionary relationship among them. One such retrovirus genome fragment is found in placentas and helps to transfer nutrients between the mother and child. So—this is a retrovirus genome fragment that humans have benefitted from. However, other retroviruses aren’t so benevolent—they are found in some leukemias and HIV. How did viruses get into the human genome? Through a process call horizontal gene transfer (HGT). This is a process whereby genes pass on genetic material directly and is absorbed into the new DNA and can then be passed on vertically from parents to offspring. Not surprisingly, HGT is more prevalent in simpler life forms, like bacteria. So—remember the many bacteria species found in the human GI tract? Now, what happens when an antibiotic-resistant bacteria finds its way in your small intestine? There might be some cute little viruses there too. And they help to transfer that resistance to many of the other bacteria. The result is the avalanche of bacteria species that become resistant to that antibiotic. There are some biological forms that are particularly susceptible to HGT; things like rotifers. These guys look like microscopic sucking organisms and feed on bacteria, algal cells, small protozoans and organic detritus and are probably prevalent in our rain gutters. They absorb all sorts of genome bits and they have been shown to transfer those to fruit flies. In addition, Quammen covers the discovery in 1977 by biologist Carl Woese of a third domain of living organisms, which he called Archaea. These microorganisms were once considered a form of bacteria, but its cell walls are completely different, allowing it to live in extreme environments like hot springs and salty ponds. Further, its DNA is in some ways closer to the domain Eukarya (organisms like us with cells with a nucleus), than regular bacteria (Eubacteria). Be reassured, Darwin’s 1837 Origin of the Species is not dispelled. It just got more complicated. Highly recommend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Radiantflux

    99th book for 2018. This is a captivating history of the changing ideas surrounding the evolutionary tree life, from Charles Darwin to the latest findings in computational phylogenetics. Quammen writes really well and the story and it's complications are fascinating. However, the books flowed is damaged as Quammen attempts to write a second book - a biography of Carl Woese - within the first which breaks up the flow and distracts from the central story of the book. Without all the needless addit 99th book for 2018. This is a captivating history of the changing ideas surrounding the evolutionary tree life, from Charles Darwin to the latest findings in computational phylogenetics. Quammen writes really well and the story and it's complications are fascinating. However, the books flowed is damaged as Quammen attempts to write a second book - a biography of Carl Woese - within the first which breaks up the flow and distracts from the central story of the book. Without all the needless additional information on Woese I would have rated the book higher (did I really need to know over many pages that in his last years he hated Darwin and thought he missed out on a Nobel? Or that he liked to host BBQs and liked to pontificate about subjects when drunk?). Somehow Woese becomes THE central figure in this book, the reasons for which Quammen never bothers to explain. Worth a read, but could definitely have used a more proactive editor. 3-stars.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Faith

    I guess what I really wanted was a magazine article with conclusions. This had much more biographical information than I wanted. Actually, it had much more of everything than I wanted. I assume that I am not the correct audience for this book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jonna Higgins-Freese

    A large part of the book was about Carl Woese, a character who was odd, but about whom I really could not care. He used early, difficult sequencing techniques to identify the Archaea, an entirely separate form of life, different from bacteria, plants, and animals. But since this was already old news when I had Bio 101 in 1990-91, I already knew about the Archaea, and the details of its discovery and identification just weren't that riveting the way they're presented here. More interesting -- alth A large part of the book was about Carl Woese, a character who was odd, but about whom I really could not care. He used early, difficult sequencing techniques to identify the Archaea, an entirely separate form of life, different from bacteria, plants, and animals. But since this was already old news when I had Bio 101 in 1990-91, I already knew about the Archaea, and the details of its discovery and identification just weren't that riveting the way they're presented here. More interesting -- although, again, already known to me, and not that interesting in the details of its discovery, was the realization (in 1944) that it was DNA that could transform a benign bacterium into a virulent one, through "infective heredity." (225). The interesting part of that was how early this was known, how early we knew how difficult it would be to keep ahead of bacteria in the resistance area. But then things get interesting. I didn't know the overall phrase "horizontal gene transfer." Transformation, in the above sense, was one (transfer of genetic material from a dead bacterium to a live one). A second was conjugation, a sort of "sex" between bacteria. The other involves viruses carrying foreign DNA into the cells they infect, called transduction (227). Evidence of bacteria that were resistant to various antibiotics *before* the human populations in which they were found were exposed to those abx -- because they are derived from plant compounds in the first place Maurice Panisset, in _A New Bacteriology-, made "the case that all bacteria on Earth constitute a single interconnected entity, a single species - no, wait, maybe even a single _individual_ creature -- through which genes from all the variously named 'species' flow relatively freely, by horizontal gene transfer, fo ruse where needed" (252) (a "superorganism" idea related in spirit, but not particulars, to Margulis's Gaia hypothesis and the idea that mitochondria had once been free-living bacteria" (253) And when they started looking, scientists found horizontal transfer *everywhere* -- bacterial genes in fish and plants (255). Sea urchins one to another, though their lineages had been separate for 65 million years. E. coli to a fungus, brewer's yeast. (some microbes are eukaryotic -- so they come in three flavors, since there are also bacteria and archaea). Bdelloids (which have only females, having gone without sex for 25M years), scientists have "found all sorts of craziness that shouldn't have been there. More specifically, they found at least twenty-two genes" from bacteria, fungi, and plants. A few were still functional. 8% of bdelloid genes had been acquired from bacteria "or other dissimilar creatures" (258). One parasitic bacteria infects the germline (eggs) of insects, and has managed to get itself included in the host's genome -- one fruit fly has incorporated *the entire Wolbachia genome* into its own DNA (262). The same researcher found that bacterial DNA can be found in normal human genomes, but they are "210 times more common in tumor cells than in healthy cells" (263). "In leukemia cell genomes, they found stretches resembling the DNA of Acinetobacter bacteria, a group that includes infectious forms often picked up in hospitals. In the stomach tumor genomes, they found pieces suggesting Pseudomonas . . . " The genome of one cabbage-related plant is 18% bacterial. A fungus contains 850 genes from bacteria and archaea. The human genome contains 263,000 letters of bacterial DNA transferred from our mitochondria (endosymbiotic gene transfer) (294). And there's more: in one study, researchers looked at the genomes of 2,235 complete bacterial genomes, half o fthem closely associated with humans, along with their ecological (where on/in the body) and geographic (where in the world) provenance. They looked for close matches in the genes, which would "signal a relatively recent horizontal transfer event for that gene" (325). They found 10,770 incidents. What predicted transfer? "The shared ecology of the human gut, or the vagina, or the nasal passages, or the skin, was most conducive to horizontal transfer. The shared phylogeny of membership in the same bacterial lineage came second. The shared geography of the same continent was a weak third." (326) Dunning HOtopp's research faced "adamant resistance among a few influential biologists, including some Nobel Prize winners, to her and her colleagues' discoveries of HGT in the animal kingdom. 'No, it's got to be an artifact. You have to be able to explain it some other way.' Animals don't experience horizontal gene transfer, period. Humans, certainly not. "'Do you ever say to them, "Is that a faith-based statement?" I asked. What I meant was: it seemed almost as though the Weismann barrier had become a theological dogma. "She mused about that for a moment and allowed that some scientists did appear to be more religious about science than about religion. A touch of faith-based genomics? 'I think it is,' she said." (264). Jim Brown and Ford Doolittle looked at 66 different proteins "that are essential to all forms of life, and at the different variatns of those proteins as reflected in more than 1,200 different gene sequences, from a wide variety o fbacateria, archaea, and eukaryotes. They constructed an indvidiual tree for each of the sixty six proteins, showing how it had evolved into distinct variants within different lineages of creatures. Brown and Doolittle compared the variants, constructing an independent tree of descent for each. This exercise yielded a telling point: the trees didn't match. The logical conclusion was that genes have their individual lineages of descent, not necessarily matchin gthe lineage of the organism in which they are presently found. [As] Robert Feldman [said], "each gene has its own history." (281) And so the tree of life has been redrawn, more as a weird, tangled shrub or "reticulated tree" (285)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Angie

    This is a book at war with itself, trying to be many things at the same time. It is a well-written examination of evolution, the inadequacy of the standard tree metaphor for it, and the messiness of gene transfer. Quammen explores horizontal gene transfer and the uncertainty in what a species actually is, what an individual is (with all the little cells that live in us but don't share DNA). This is timely and fascinating stuff. It is also a biography of, and tribute to, Carl Woese. I hadn't known This is a book at war with itself, trying to be many things at the same time. It is a well-written examination of evolution, the inadequacy of the standard tree metaphor for it, and the messiness of gene transfer. Quammen explores horizontal gene transfer and the uncertainty in what a species actually is, what an individual is (with all the little cells that live in us but don't share DNA). This is timely and fascinating stuff. It is also a biography of, and tribute to, Carl Woese. I hadn't known of Dr. Woese before reading the book (I'm not a biologist), but he's the one who first expanded the types of life beyond the original two, to include archea. He was a pioneer in genomic evolution, i.e. studying how closely related organisms are by looking at their DNA. His story fits into what I otherwise see as Quammen's main point because his work and discovery complicated the idea of the tree of evolution and helped people to see the connections between very different forms of life. But Quammen spent a lot of time researching Woese, talking to people who knew him, trying to get the essence of the man, to the point that this becomes half a Worse biography and it takes away from his main point. The second half of the book is stronger than the first, because we get closer to modern history and the astounding discoveries made in the last 30 years or so, but with every new topic, Quammen returned to Woese, checking in to see what he thought of it. And, well, in most cases, Woese was a crotchety old man working to protect his legacy and feuding with anyone who disagreed with him. So yes, I very much feel like this weakened the book. Whole chapters about Woese could be removed and the book could be improved and shortened. But I still give it 4 stars because of how well they key chapters on gene transfer are written. I learned some things, and that's always a good thing. He also spends quite a bit of time introducing us to biologists working in these fields, and that's well done as well. He keeps returning to the tree metaphor, and that results in a couple rather amusing interludes regarding imaginative topiary hobbyists. His final chapter is the best, I think, and I wish it were the introduction. Maybe I would suggest reading it first. He says that he has worked to show us that three fundamentals of biology -- species, individuals, and the tree of evolution -- are misleading at best. He spends most of the time in the book on species, then on the tree, and least on individuals (although he recommends I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life for more detail on that subject, and I can't agree more). And for that, I highly recommend the book. But it will help if you're either intrinsically interested in Woese or maybe skim over his biographical sections. I got a copy to review from Net Galley.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dorothy

    "Science itself, however precise and objective, is a human activity. It's a way of wondering as well as a way of knowing. It's a process, not a body of facts or laws. Like music, like poetry, like baseball, like grandmaster chess, it's something gloriously imperfect that people do. The smudgy fingerprints of our humanness are all over it." - David Quammen in The Tangled Tree In The Tangled Tree, popular science writer David Quammen gives us the history of a field of study called "molecular phylog "Science itself, however precise and objective, is a human activity. It's a way of wondering as well as a way of knowing. It's a process, not a body of facts or laws. Like music, like poetry, like baseball, like grandmaster chess, it's something gloriously imperfect that people do. The smudgy fingerprints of our humanness are all over it." - David Quammen in The Tangled Tree In The Tangled Tree, popular science writer David Quammen gives us the history of a field of study called "molecular phylogenetics." Have I lost you already? Well, hang with me a bit longer; this is actually pretty interesting. In the late 1970s, a research team at the University of Illinois announced that they had identified a "third domain" of life. This "domain" was made up of single-cell microbes which they called archaea. They were genetically distinct from what were then the only two recognized lineages of life: prokaryotes, which include bacteria, and eukaryotes, which include plants and animals. This team was headed by Carl Woese, who Quammen calls "the most important biologist of the 20th century you've never heard of." (Even more interestingly for me, the team included as his chief assistant George Edward Fox, then a post-doctoral researcher and soon to be a researcher in biochemistry at the University of Houston, where he still serves.) Quammen spends a lot of time describing the life's work of Woese, who, in his telling at least, was the guiding force behind the discovery. Woese was undoubtedly a major contributor to the science of molecular phylogenetics, which essentially describes how evolution occurs at a molecular level and is not just vertical between parents and children but can also be horizontal (between species) through something called "horizontal gene transfer" (HGT). Unfortunately, late in life Woese turned into a bit of a crank who harbored resentments over slights - for example, the fact that he was overlooked for the Nobel Prize. Science is a human activity and humans are notably imperfect. One of the most intriguing offshoots of this new science for me is what it does to the old concepts (at least since Darwin) of species, individuals, and the evolutionary tree of life. First of all species: We think of species as being discrete, separate, identifiable. In reality, each "species" is a mosaic of species. Each living being is not so much a species as a community of species which live together in symbiotic relationships. Which brings us to the individual: Humans, for example. By the estimate of one research group, each human body contains 37 trillion human cells and 100 trillion bacterial cells! (Another study puts the ratio closer to 1/1.) We are host to other fellow travelers as well - nonbacterial microbes like virus particles, fungal cells, archaea, and other teeny bits of life. And all of these play their role in helping us to function. In helping us be human. These "others" that are a part of us make up an estimated 1% - 3% of our body mass. And about that tree: As Darwin drew it, it has distinct branches and twigs, but this isn't really how evolution works. In fact, the branches and twigs are all tangled and grown together, so that one species - human, for example - may be composed of more than 10,000 actual species living in our guts, our hair, our mucus membranes, our skin... Have I blown your mind now? This is truly an amazing story and Quammen does a commendable job of telling it in a way that can be (at least partially) understood by a reader with scant scientific training. He also gives us the personalities of the scientists who pioneered the new field, but one could argue that he is too gentle with them at times. Woese did turn quite paranoid late in life and grew to hate Charles Darwin, feeling that Darwin was hogging all the acclaim that he (Woese) deserved. And then there was Lynn Margulis, one of the women researchers who featured prominently in the book. She made important contributions early on, but she, too, turned quite dark at the end of her life, becoming a 9/11 truther. Quammen tends to present these as sort of lovable quirks of personality. Still, a fascinating book, divided into mercifully short chapters which make it easier to absorb. Moreover, each chapter ends in something of a cliffhanger that makes you want to keep turning those pages. And so I did and was surprised when it ended at 65% on my Kindle. The rest is all acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kay

    I enjoyed the other three books by Quammen that I've read, but had difficulty getting into this one. Seemed like a really hard slog and too focused on material of little interest to me. Bailed after fifty pages or so.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Carol Kean

    Comprehensive, exhaustive, entertaining, at times gossipy, and altogether wonderful! If more science books were so rich with stories of the scientists, more students might be riveted to classes in genetics and evolutionary biology. I cannot imagine the years of research that must have gone into the writing of this book. Interviews with authors living or then-living, now-dead, bring to life the drama and controversies and obstacles that beset even a rational scientist. Never mind scientific object Comprehensive, exhaustive, entertaining, at times gossipy, and altogether wonderful! If more science books were so rich with stories of the scientists, more students might be riveted to classes in genetics and evolutionary biology. I cannot imagine the years of research that must have gone into the writing of this book. Interviews with authors living or then-living, now-dead, bring to life the drama and controversies and obstacles that beset even a rational scientist. Never mind scientific objectivity; emotions, and ambitions, fly high in humans of every field of endeavor. I have hundreds, literally hundreds, of passages in my Kindle, highlighted, waiting for me to share, but there is that disclaimer about not sharing an ARC because this isn't the final version. So let me just say Karl Woese. O Karl! I wanted to understand the sideways evolution thing. I wanted to be a doctor, back in the day; then a coroner, at least; but my fascination for science was never paired with a mind capable of grasping the mathematical intricacies. Which reminds me of Karl Woese, turning to a mathematician, not a biologist, to help prove a theory he had been working on forever. Later, I might take the time to pull passages and rave, rave, rave over the details. If you find them too much, you can always skim past some of the biographical information and cut to the chase, the science, but then you may not find enough science left over. I'm thinking I need to find a Genetics for Dummies book that sticks to the science, skims past the personalities, and helps me tell someone what the heck I just read. Sadly, I am not able to sum it up off the top of my head. Books like this, I have to revisit, repeatedly, before it sinks in. Oh, I know people who can read a chapter once, never give it a second glance, and score 100% on a test over the chapter. I am not one of those people. (Dr. Mat Weekly, can you copy some of your brain cells and do a genetic transfer over to mine?) Yes, I'm thinking of getting him a copy of this book, but I'm not sure I want to hear how elementary and "easy" it is for people who really have the brains to fathom the stuff I love reading about. This is a great book. I need to kee re-reading it, and I may need to find an easier book to explain it all, but this is still great! The narrative tone reminds me of Sam Kean (no relation to Carol Kean). Now, Sam writes in a way that doesn't overwhelm me, and he tends to keep his books a wee bit shorter and to the point. But, again, if this one offers too much, skim past the bonus material and hone in on the meat and marrow.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Gary Beauregard Bottomley

    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 t 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.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Tony

    THE TANGLED TREE. (2018). David Quammen. **. The extended title of this book was: “A Radical New History of Life.” It kind of sounds like Twilight Zone, doesn’t it. Unfortunately, the author got lost in his list of players to the point where what they discovered became less important that their relative roles played in the discoveries. This was a book about Christmas that focused on all the elves (in a sense) in an attempt to resurrect them from falling into obscurity by people looking at their s THE TANGLED TREE. (2018). David Quammen. **. The extended title of this book was: “A Radical New History of Life.” It kind of sounds like Twilight Zone, doesn’t it. Unfortunately, the author got lost in his list of players to the point where what they discovered became less important that their relative roles played in the discoveries. This was a book about Christmas that focused on all the elves (in a sense) in an attempt to resurrect them from falling into obscurity by people looking at their science. I’m not sure what this book was intended to be about. I suspect that mostly it went over my head.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    5 stars for how fascinating this theory is and 1 star for the book. The book is just a bunch of short bios about a bunch of scientists from Darwin to the present who have contributed to misunderstanding and then understanding better, the history of evolution. The big breakthroughs are covered at the end and they are huge breakthroughs and super fascinating. But maybe skip the book and listen to the radio lab episode with the author or read the Times review. The good stuff is covered there.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Tim Dugan

    It’s ok but I wish it had more technical details. The people stories are ok but less valuable than the science

  15. 5 out of 5

    Conor

    Horizontal gene transfer is a thing! Darwin is overrated! This book was fine but pretty niche!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Leo Walsh

    Often, we learn about science via dense textbooks. They seem definitive. There are illustrations and graphs and chemical reactions and mathematical notations. we often forget that the knowledge therein is provisional. Sure, it's often trivial stuff. Like there being only 8 plantets now, unlike th e9 printed in every textbook printed before 2006 when it was degraded to staeroid status. But some things are not so trivial. And David Quammen's THE TANGLED TREE tackles a decidedly non-trivial topic: h Often, we learn about science via dense textbooks. They seem definitive. There are illustrations and graphs and chemical reactions and mathematical notations. we often forget that the knowledge therein is provisional. Sure, it's often trivial stuff. Like there being only 8 plantets now, unlike th e9 printed in every textbook printed before 2006 when it was degraded to staeroid status. But some things are not so trivial. And David Quammen's THE TANGLED TREE tackles a decidedly non-trivial topic: how the genetic and biochemical revoultions inform, and change, contemporary evolutionary biologists views on the "tree of life." Ever since Darwin, we've thought about evolution more or less like this: [image error] Scientists have thought that parents pass on traits in a relatively straight-line. They assumed that everything you need to survive was passed on this way. When it turns out that a lot of this thinking is wrong, espeically in bacteria, who partake in Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT). In HGT, differing strains of bacteria pass on their learned responses to environmental hazards, whehter a toxin or intruder, via plasmids that other bacteria can ingest and use. What's even stranger, for a person like me whose last biology class in the 1980's taught at strict version of genetic heredity, is that they can pass those adaptations on to bacteria OF OTHER SPECIES! That would be like me getting chickenpox. Developing the resistance. And being able to pass that along to not only other humans, but to a chicken. It's bizzare, but it happens. Now this does NOT invalidate Darwin, or the idea of evolution by natural selection. Like other popular works based on legitimate science (not creationist/ inelligent design psuedoscientific crap) that illuminate places where was off or has been misrepresented (like 2017's wonderful EVOLUTION OF BEAUTY by Richard Prum) Quammen illuminates how much broader and more complex the picture is than that textbook world. As expected, nature is messy. And not contained in those neat pictures that illustrate our biology texbooks. Along the way, Quamman introcuces you to a series of brillaint biological researchers. Like biochemist Carl Woese, whose analysis of bacterial cultures takes in extreme conditions, like near deep sea volcanic vents, unearthed a new type of life that was neither prokaryote (lacking membranes around the DNA, like bacteria) nor eukartote (life with DNA cordoned off fro mthe main cell via the nucleus's membrane). Instead, Woese called this life archaea. And based his classification 100% on RNA and other biochemical markers. We meet others, too. Among the more insteresting is Woese's life-long foil, Lynn Margulis. Carl Sagan's first wife, Margulis was a brilliant evolutionary biologist with a bit of a "crank" in her -- she was a 9/11 "Truther." But she also argued for 5 main domains of life (as opposed to Woese's 3), but based on more ecological considerations. And she was also among the first contemporary biologist to understand how inportant HGT was... and to appreciate how difficult it made life. A very satisfying look at the contemporary evolutionary biology. It's geared towards a general audience, but it does take some time to read. It's like an extneded Scientific American article. Which is high praise. Four-stars.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Alison

    A good science book is a wonderful thing, and this is a really good science book. Quammen weaves his story between people and science, following ideas and personalities, discoveries and molecular phylogenetics in a careful balance intended to keep a relatively ignorant audience afloat. I am that audience, coming in with a pretty good grasp on Darwin and natural selection, Lamarck and evolution etc, but with nothing post-1980s high-school regarding archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes and prokaryotes. ( A good science book is a wonderful thing, and this is a really good science book. Quammen weaves his story between people and science, following ideas and personalities, discoveries and molecular phylogenetics in a careful balance intended to keep a relatively ignorant audience afloat. I am that audience, coming in with a pretty good grasp on Darwin and natural selection, Lamarck and evolution etc, but with nothing post-1980s high-school regarding archaea, bacteria, eukaryotes and prokaryotes. (It was amusing to me, actually, to realise part of the reason none of this made much sense to me is that the categories were changing between teachers, something I honestly never realised at the time). Quammen steps us through the 20th and 21st-century histories of molecular life, and what they have taught us about evolution, framed through the changing understanding of a tree-like diagram of life. Carl Woese is the centre of the book, more because Quammen finds him an enigma perhaps than because his work is qualitatively more significant, but Quammen covers many other scientists, and most importantly, the differing mechanisms of gene transfer, along the way. The focus on personalities grew a little tiresome, but only a little. Quammen makes a determined effort to cover the contributions of female scientists with respect and equality, breaking from a past which did not always do so - especially in terms of symbiosis proponent Lynn Margulis. It, therefore, feels churlish to admit I was irritated by the slightly old-fashioned language he occasionally applies to women sometimes - Margulis is referred to variously as a "forceful young woman" and a "determined young woman" while another molecular biologist is a "lively wife" - as well as by his multiple references to researcher Linda Bonen (who transfers labs taking her rare expertise with her) as a gift exchange between the male scientists. But I am a grumpy old feminist and irritated I was. Where Quammen shines is in his capacity to explain the ideas, and their significance (often in the reverse order, which was an interesting and successful technique). By breaking down the varying methods by which genes end up in other organisms, he traces through how this changes our understanding of natural selection as the motor force of life. This is most significant, obviously, in dealing with the origins of complex life, but as we understand more and more about the significance of the viral components of our own DNA, the image of mammals as mostly evolving through natural selection is also challenged. IN particular, HGT is a rapid form of evolution, challenging the gradualism that has been triumphant for the last period. I couldn't help thinking of Stephen J. Gould here, and his punctuated equilibrium arguments with Dawkins, which included an argument that evolution could be quite rapid. It feels as if he would be pleased by this (despite aspects of the Selfish Gene finding validation in HGT. The picture is more diverse and complex is a modern motto for science.Some of the End of Darwin still feels overstated to me. Forms of selection work on various forms of introduced variety - that is, horizontal gene transfer introduces variety into the genome, but what becomes permanent and what is discarded is still related to ongoing selection surely, including natural selection, but for the complexity being revealed here is an important cross-check on overly reductionist versions of evolution. We have a mosaic of forces engaging in driving evolution forward, and a synthesis theory seems not so far off. All of it is wondrous, how much we can now understand and as we do, how much more we realise what we don't. The book manages to bring this sense with it, making it an exciting as well as educational read.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Feisty Harriet

    4.5 stars; this was delightfully fascinating and I learned so much about micro phylogenetics, which--weirdly--is not a topic I knew much about but am SO FASCINATED BY! Phylogenetics is basically what happened with DNA and genetics PRIOR to what we know as "evolution"...meaning, the species of the world originating from a common ancient ancestor. And also, why does our DNA look the way it does, and HOW!? Well, it's not all natural selection / inherited genetics that are shaped by survival of the 4.5 stars; this was delightfully fascinating and I learned so much about micro phylogenetics, which--weirdly--is not a topic I knew much about but am SO FASCINATED BY! Phylogenetics is basically what happened with DNA and genetics PRIOR to what we know as "evolution"...meaning, the species of the world originating from a common ancient ancestor. And also, why does our DNA look the way it does, and HOW!? Well, it's not all natural selection / inherited genetics that are shaped by survival of the fittest....a good chunk of our genetic make-up was never part of an ancestor, it "hopped" over from other strands of DNA or bacteria or viruses...horizontal gene transfer (HGT) vs heredity transfer via sperm/egg, or replication via bacteria division. So, the idea that bits of what makes us humans and what makes you YOU are actually tiny little parasitic viruses that are now so embedded into our makeup that we struggle to separate them from our actual DNA. (Or, you know, the DNA of plants or other animals.) Where this gets really interesting is the idea that HGT is a major contributor to antibiotic resistant diseases, those bugs don't necessarily become resistant over generations due to evolution, sometimes they appropriate a string of errant "parasitic" DNA that is resistant, and within a generation or two (very fast for germs) the entire strain is resistant to that antibiotic and able to wreak so much havoc in the living world. Dah, I loved this! Now I need to read more about HGT and phylogenetics!

  19. 4 out of 5

    Christina Dudley

    Wow. A lot has changed since I took AP Biology in 1985-6! Back then it was classic Darwin and prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and the reason some bacteria were antibiotic resistant was because they were descended from the few survivors with some random mutation that gave them resistance. ALL WRONG. ALL CHANGED. This book was absolutely fascinating (if you like history of science) and biology and thinking about how we come to be where we are, biologically speaking. If you've never heard of molecular p Wow. A lot has changed since I took AP Biology in 1985-6! Back then it was classic Darwin and prokaryotes and eukaryotes, and the reason some bacteria were antibiotic resistant was because they were descended from the few survivors with some random mutation that gave them resistance. ALL WRONG. ALL CHANGED. This book was absolutely fascinating (if you like history of science) and biology and thinking about how we come to be where we are, biologically speaking. If you've never heard of molecular phylogeny or horizontal gene transfer, as I hadn't, the book provides clear and compelling explanations. I did ask my 17YO son if he'd been taught these things last year in his own AP Bio class, and I'm happy to report he was. Knowledge marches onward, though author Quammen is very clear that science is a messy, egotistical business, as are all endeavors involving human beings.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Taylor Ahlstrom

    The Tangled Tree is a rich, fascinating tale—not just of the history of evolutionary biology—but of the people behind the discoveries. While the book is primarily focused on Carl Woese and his immense contributions to the field, it weaves in and out of those he worked with, those who influenced him, those he despised, and those who lived long before his time. In that way, the book mirrors the tangled tree it is attempting to elucidate. The title of the book, while apt to describe the science bei The Tangled Tree is a rich, fascinating tale—not just of the history of evolutionary biology—but of the people behind the discoveries. While the book is primarily focused on Carl Woese and his immense contributions to the field, it weaves in and out of those he worked with, those who influenced him, those he despised, and those who lived long before his time. In that way, the book mirrors the tangled tree it is attempting to elucidate. The title of the book, while apt to describe the science being covered, is somewhat of a misnomer when considering how strongly focused the book is on Woese and his career. While his research into 16s-rRNA was revolutionary, and his findings groundbreaking, the average reader may not be aware that perhaps half of the book is devoted to personal stories and backgrounds of the scientists involved. Quammen relays seemingly every detail he learned of the lives of the scientists, their offices, demeanors, accomplishments, and shortcomings. For historical figures like Darwin, he delves deep into their notebooks, sketches, family histories, and anything else that is known about them. The Russian who first suggested endosymbiosis in mitochondria for instance, Merezhkowsky, was also an accused pedophile many times over. In the more recent history, you read of squabbles between coworkers, petty vendettas, and much of the minutiae of life in the lab and the politics of academia. While some may find these details endlessly fascinating and illuminating to the greater topic at hand, others may be looking for a more purely scientific approach to the material. Regardless, Quammen is a gifted writer and his descriptions of people, places, and events are careful, artful, and compelling. He spent countless hours interviewing those who either knew Woese personally or were somehow connected to the science, and it shows. While Woese is the central character and the unlikely protagonist of the story, he ends up taking a back seat to the much more miraculous story of the impact of the science he was producing, and how that science eventually overshadowed his own accomplishments. Though mentioned only briefly in the key takeaways, much of the book is devoted to Woese’s personal struggle with his lack of recognition in the face of his own achievements. He believed himself to be underappreciated and spent the later years of his life bitter and resentful. When horizontal gene transfer began to threaten his big tree theory, he refused to accept the new information as valid—one of the cardinal sins of any great scientist. He wanted desperately to be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences, but the honor wasn’t bestowed on him until his late 60s, a snub of its own. He never received the Nobel Prize he so coveted, and as new science continued to blur the validity of his theories, he only dug his heels in deeper. He began to hate Darwin, to trumpet about how he was smarter than Darwin was, and could never understand why anyone respected the original evolutionary biologist—an obviously petty outlook on the father of evolution, even if some of what he theorized turned out to be wrong. Perhaps as Woese saw his seminal theories being challenged, he saw more of himself in Darwin than he wanted to admit. Ultimately, this book is the story of the history of molecular evolutionary biology and phylogenics told through the lens of Woese’s life and career. The impact he made on the field is undeniable. According to many microbiologists, he has had more impact than even Darwin himself. His methods of protein taxonomy through rRNA changed the face of phylogeny. His discovery of the third domain, archaea, changed the entire structure of Darwin’s original tree. His theory on the early progenote and HGT’s role in its rapid development shed light onto what was once a dark question mark in the history of all life on earth. Dozens of scientists besides Woese are chronicled in the book, along with their methods, discoveries, and their relevance towards “unraveling,” or perhaps further raveling, the tangled tree. The science Quammen does explain is detailed, easy to understand, and rich with analogy to help the lay reader. If you work in the field, you likely won’t learn anything new—this book isn’t meant as a complete update to the state of molecular evolutionary biology—but you may learn some rich detail about the people behind the progress, and what may come next after Darwin, Woese, and many others irrevocably shook the tree of life.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Rossdavidh

    David Quammen has written a great book, wrapped in a pretty good one. I rarely give 5-star reviews, and from me a 3-star review actually means "I liked it", just like the goodreads scale advises. Nonetheless, I have given Quammen's books 5 stars on more than one occasion, and never less than 4. Until now. Keep in mind, 3 stars from me means "I liked it", and I did like it. In fact, there was a 5 star book inside this one, a book about the ways in which a metaphor as old as the idea of evolution i David Quammen has written a great book, wrapped in a pretty good one. I rarely give 5-star reviews, and from me a 3-star review actually means "I liked it", just like the goodreads scale advises. Nonetheless, I have given Quammen's books 5 stars on more than one occasion, and never less than 4. Until now. Keep in mind, 3 stars from me means "I liked it", and I did like it. In fact, there was a 5 star book inside this one, a book about the ways in which a metaphor as old as the idea of evolution itself (or older) has been laid low in the last couple decades. That idea, is the metaphor of the "tree of life"; the idea that species split from common ancestors like the branches of a tree go from trunk to branch to twig. One of the things I liked about "The Tangled Tree" is that Quammen shows us the actual visuals, from pre-evolutionary thinkers like Edward Hitchcock (Quammen describes his drawing of the "tree of life" as being "like a windbreak of tightly placed Lombardy poplars") to Darwin himself (his tree the only visual of any kind in "The Origin of Species") to Ernst Haeckel's "great oak" in the late 19th century. You can see the idea being developed, as each thinker looked at the illustrations of the ones before them and said, "I think it should be a bit more like..." Then, we enter the 20th century, and midway through things take an abrupt turn into a more complicated theory. In some ways, it's like when you realize that the relatively simple, 3- or 4-generations back "family tree" cannot possibly continue back to the beginning. After 30 generations, you would have over a billion ancestors, yet the entire earth's human population did not reach that level until the early 19th century. The simple idea of a "tree" works for a while, but because your great-great-great-grandmother might also be your great-great-great-great-grandmother on another line, eventually, as you work your way back it becomes more of a web than a tree. There were a few early radical thinkers who floated the idea of blurry lines between one species' DNA and another's, but the one who by all accounts really pushed the idea into the mainstream of biological thought was Lynn Margulis. Quammen gives her a fair portion of the middle book, even including a picture of himself and Lynn Margulis. Margulis championed the idea that things like mitochondria and chloroplasts, which we now call "organelles" inside the cells of animals and plants, were once independently living cells. One living thing entered another, neither as parasite nor as food, and both lived, and their descendants were fused as well. This idea was challenging, not least because it is hard to see how it would be possible to draw a "tree of life", when two branches turn into one, instead of the other way around. Margulis is not the person who ends up hijacking the book, though, and now we come to the problem. Carl Woese was a researcher who worked at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign, which coincidentally is where I studied Electrical Engineering in the late 1980's. In fact, I suppose he was doing some of his most important work not long before I got there, although I knew nothing of it. He was one of the early researchers to get down to the detailed work of sequencing RNA from a variety of different "bacteria" (as they were all called then), and use that data to try to piece together what was more closely related to what. It so turned out that the ribosomal RNA that Woese had chosen to focus on, in order to piece together the tree of life, were almost uniquely well suited to the task, but by that some token poorly suited for showing the limitations of the "tree" metaphor. Some parts of our genetic code can be tinkered with, and they do nothing observable (these used to be called "junk" DNA). Other parts are more important, but still there are many ways to get the job done, and a modification to one is unlikely to be fatal. Ribosomes, though, are pretty crucial, and if you mess with those then there is a good chance you would die an early death (perhaps before you are even born). Thus, there is little chance of surviving if, say, a random virus comes and inserts different DNA in that spot. Because, it turns out, that happens. Woese helped the world to achieve an earlier revolution in understanding, that there are multiple urkingdoms ("domains") of bacteria. It was a further confirmation that our cells are composed of a fusion of different types of (not closely related) cells, so different that the term "bacteria" cannot be used for both of them (we call the other one "archaea" now). This is an important part of the story Quammen is there to tell us, but he just can't let Woese go. He does move on, to the next generation of scientists who discovered "horizontal gene transfer", that process where a virus enables a piece of DNA to move from one species into another. But, he cannot refrain from repeatedly circling back to Woese, even though by this point in the story he is mostly carping from the sidelines. The fact is that Quammen has set himself a difficult task, here, to tell us a story of how ideas change over time in a scientific field which has, in recent decades, become increasingly technical and difficult to explain. I understand that the tragic flaw of Woese, the revolutionary caught in a second revolution that goes too far for him to follow, adds a human element that Quammen wanted to use to spike our interest. But, the reality is, there is far too much Woese in this book. Because of this, the latter part of the book takes on a gloomy, somewhat depressing cast, as we approach the end of Woese's life. The reality is that the research into horizontal gene transfer, and how to replace a "tree of life" with a "web of life", is in an enormously exciting phase right now. The data is coming faster and faster, and the ability to sort through it is being developed alongside, and we are practically guaranteed to have our understanding of how life evolved, and how it continues to evolve, changed in the near future. The end of this book, should not have been gloomy, it should have been bursting with excitement. Nonetheless, Quammen does a good job of taking us through a host of technical topics, in a way that makes it readable and enjoyable. If the technical explanation is that halophiles lack the normal peptidoglycan walls, he will tell us, "we get technical again, but I'll keep it simple: weird lipids". He uses diagrams freely, and he is able to give us the simplest essence of a topic in a way that allows one to follow the plot, when it would be all to easy to get lost in twenty-syllable jawbreakers. Quammen is, in fact, very good at his job. Maybe just ignore some of the later anecdotes of an exasperated Woese growling at the kids to get off his lawn.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Karen Moll

    I found parts of this book frustrating. In particular, there was extensive discussion on how the Woese lab performed a significant amount of RNA sequencing using Sanger-sequencing. He even wrote out examples including uracil. However, this is misleading. We sequence the DNA, not RNA with Sanger. And while this may have been done to simplify the conversation, it was a pretty big jump to make without explanation. It seemed like Quammen was trying to do too much. I wish he would stick to the main t I found parts of this book frustrating. In particular, there was extensive discussion on how the Woese lab performed a significant amount of RNA sequencing using Sanger-sequencing. He even wrote out examples including uracil. However, this is misleading. We sequence the DNA, not RNA with Sanger. And while this may have been done to simplify the conversation, it was a pretty big jump to make without explanation. It seemed like Quammen was trying to do too much. I wish he would stick to the main topic, horizontal gene transfer, which was what made me pick up the book. He covers every major topic in Microbiology, each covered in a mere one paragraph. And they are so simplified that they serve no purpose. From reading these small snippets, I cannot tell if he simplified for the purposes of a popular science book or because he didn’t know what he was talking about. The author resides (at least part time) in a college town with strong microbiology department. It did not come across to me that he consulted this resource when writing this book. I was actually offended two times so far when reading this book. One time, Quammen quoted van Niel: “During those periods I would go home after a day in the lab and wish that I might be employed somewhere as a high-school teacher…it would give me some assurances that was I was doing was considered worthwhile.” Quammen concludes this must have indicated that van Niel was bipolar or knew bacterial taxonomy very well. I find these conclusions confusing and can from experience say that the majority of my PhD student peers have made statements such as, “If this doesn’t work out, I’m going to be a baker…or open my open restaurant…. or be a bookseller…. etc.” This in no way indicates that each PhD student in the sciences in are bipolar. It reflects on the difficult nature of the work, infused with humor, self-deprecation and stress. I did not finish this book. I really wanted to, however I could not bring myself to pick the book up again. In the future if I decide to read further, I will update my review.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Gail

    Let’s start here: Mind. Blown. Few books I’ve read in my long life have had such a walloping impact. This deserves the National Book Award for non-fiction. It’s that good. Do you wonder about the origin of life? Evolution? The “whats” and the “hows” more than the “whys”? This is the story of what we’ve learned about how living organisms emerged and grew into the endless variety we have today. It’s a story in which bacteria and a group of living things called archaea became the focus of evolution Let’s start here: Mind. Blown. Few books I’ve read in my long life have had such a walloping impact. This deserves the National Book Award for non-fiction. It’s that good. Do you wonder about the origin of life? Evolution? The “whats” and the “hows” more than the “whys”? This is the story of what we’ve learned about how living organisms emerged and grew into the endless variety we have today. It’s a story in which bacteria and a group of living things called archaea became the focus of evolutionary genomics. That Tree of Life that we grew up with? Well, maybe it’s not a tree at all. And maybe humans aren’t ... human in the way we think they are. Maybe we aren’t unique. Genetics has turned almost everything we thought we knew about biology upside down. It started with a man I’d never heard of: Carl Woese. He was a physicist, not a biologist. A man of exquisitely inquisitive mind who wanted to know the ancient origins of life. He cared little about modern life-forms and was utterly intolerant of science that made “engineering” solutions the goal. Rather, he cared immensely about how we all emerged into the separate “kingdoms” and “species” that were defined when his work first began. Laboriously, he took genetic fingerprints of bacteria to establish the genetic relationships between the more primitive life forms. That work led to his contention that there were three kingdoms of life... one of which wasn’t identified until he undertook his groundbreaking work. And thus the story begins. Is Woese right? Is he a crackpot? Does his work confirm the story that Darwin set out about how life evolves or is there more to the story that Darwin didn’t understand? The author is a renowned science writer and I’m loathe to admit that I’d never heard of him. I read an article that was adapted from this book, which set me on a path to finding and reading it. Quammen has a sense of humor and the ability to take indescribably complex information and make it accessible to lay people. As a result, I was dumbstruck by what’s been happening in evolutionary biology and how so many things I’d learned about how biology works are now in serious question. Understanding the material presented here is crucial to recognizing the implications of antibiotic resistance (via HGT- Horizontal Gene Transfer), emerging viruses that threaten all living things, and even why gene editing via CRISPR is possible. The scope of this work is breathtaking. We meet scientists from around the world and explore those who came before them (like Darwin), all leading to the new field of phylogenomics. If you love the history of science, ponder what it means (at least biologically) to be human, are curious about how life evolved, appreciate a great story, or want to know where science might be taking us, then this book is essential reading. Twice. Maybe more. Highly recommend. Ten stars if I could give them.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Dennis

    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 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 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.

  25. 5 out of 5

    June

    I maybe more easily pleased by the subject matter. No discovery as a first encounter to surprise me, but the elucidation exhilarated me with many hypotheses (potential si-fi?). All the breakthroughs and prospects in evolutionary biology since pre-Darwinian are compiled in such a fascinating and well structured (not tangled) volume. Imagine it to be a most rewarding read for the curious mind at least, without the need of a biology course beyond high school. As a bonus, Carl Woese’s (quasi) biograph I maybe more easily pleased by the subject matter. No discovery as a first encounter to surprise me, but the elucidation exhilarated me with many hypotheses (potential si-fi?). All the breakthroughs and prospects in evolutionary biology since pre-Darwinian are compiled in such a fascinating and well structured (not tangled) volume. Imagine it to be a most rewarding read for the curious mind at least, without the need of a biology course beyond high school. As a bonus, Carl Woese’s (quasi) biography, running parallel (essential mostly, but maybe distractive to some readers) with the progress of evolution theory, illuminates how good scientists propel the evolution of real science, beyond the limit of human knowledge. I hope the essence of the book can be mustered by more life science professionals, to forgo profit making and improve the outlook of human health, as well as by laypeople to transcend the understanding of an individual living being.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Edmée

    More accurately biographies of the scientists who made the discoveries. Read only if you are interested in their hair color or waist size. At least 2/3 of the book reviews basic science that would already known by readers.

  27. 5 out of 5

    linhtalinhtinh

    A riveting account on some of the most important findings related to evolution in microbiology in the 20th and early 21st century. Perhaps because the previous book I read by Quammen, Spillover, was so well writen, I just picked up this one almost without hesitance. Once again, Quammen doesn't disappoint, though I do have a few places I'm not happy with. As with books on deep history, whatever implications of these scientific works the book discusses will leave readers with plenty of personal phi A riveting account on some of the most important findings related to evolution in microbiology in the 20th and early 21st century. Perhaps because the previous book I read by Quammen, Spillover, was so well writen, I just picked up this one almost without hesitance. Once again, Quammen doesn't disappoint, though I do have a few places I'm not happy with. As with books on deep history, whatever implications of these scientific works the book discusses will leave readers with plenty of personal philosophical thoughts. What draws me in more, is the process of research that Carl Woese, our main "character", and other scientists go through. It is always fascinating to see how hypotheses are accepted as facts, then dismantled, then new stuffs built again, with enthusiastic advocates, with stubborn resistance, again and again, and again. It is also exciting to see how much uncertainty is left, how much more remains unknown, and for such a pessimist as I am, how much we couldn't know. One digs so hard to get some clues and argues wholeheartedly for one's case. But there is, perhaps, a limit to what we can deduce from the evidence available at hands, given billions of years have passed. Maybe entering a new planet in early stage of life will revolutionize it? No idea. Exciting, science I mean. It is like a mystery game that a whole force must join hands. Of course, every field has countless research stories no less thrilling. It takes some skills to tell, though, and Quammen happens to have those skills. My biggest qualm in the book is the absence of Rosalind Franklin's role in the discussion of the work on DNA double helix structure that Watson, Crick, and Wilkins became so famous about and got a Nobel prize for. Well, to be fair Wilkins didn't get any discussion either, but he won the Nobel prize. Perhaps it would distract the book so much? I don't think so. Quammen spent so much time to talk about Lynn Margulis' controversial stories, as well as those a lot more disgusting of Mereschkowski. I was rather disappointed. And of course, I would rant about how much more technicalities I want the author to include, despite my almost zero background on biology. Quammen has made much of the material very clear, yet perhaps I am too greedy to ask him to elaborate on other more difficult stuffs in a similarly friendly way. It was a good read, but not without problems. A small note about how little we know about Woese's private life (family specifically). It is not a big deal to me but given how Quammen was so fascinated by Woese, I wonder why. Perhaps interviews weren't granted?

  28. 4 out of 5

    Emily Sessa

    Really hard to rate this one. On the surface it should have all of my boxes ticked: phylogenetics, science history, some philosophy, insider insights into how various famous scientists' labs worked, etc. But this just never came together for me the way many of Quammen's other books have. I read it over the course of the semester with my lab, and I think we mostly concurred about its major flaws. 1) We were never able to figure out who the audience was meant to be. On the surface, it's us, surely Really hard to rate this one. On the surface it should have all of my boxes ticked: phylogenetics, science history, some philosophy, insider insights into how various famous scientists' labs worked, etc. But this just never came together for me the way many of Quammen's other books have. I read it over the course of the semester with my lab, and I think we mostly concurred about its major flaws. 1) We were never able to figure out who the audience was meant to be. On the surface, it's us, surely - a bunch of scientists who do phylogenetics every day of our lives. But even for us, the details of the story got bogged down and boring far too easily. And this is also such a niche subject, it seems odd to actually be pitched at us as the audience; but if we couldn't get fully into and enjoy it, it's hard to imagine a non-professional being captivated by it. 2) It was likewise never really clear what the main point of the book was. A biography of Carl Woese and his accomplishments? A history of 20th century developments in systematics? A philosophical discussion of whether a tree is the best way of thinking about the relationships among living things? A thriller about a radical new concept that has upended a long-held scientific tenet (more on this one in #3, below...)? All of these elements were there, and one or the other would take over for a chapter or two only to disappear when one of the other threads picked up. I ultimately didn't find any of the components well-crafted enough to carry the whole book, and the lack of a real central theme was frustrating. 3) He way oversold the whole "Darwin was wrong" idea. The thriller element mentioned above focuses on the concept of horizontal gene transfer, which Quammen treats as a shocking and novel concept that totally upends everything we know about phylogenetic relationships. That's nonsense. Yes, we now acknowledge that the "tree of life" really isn't strictly tree-like, and that phenomena like horizontal gene transfer, hybridization, introgression, etc. happen constantly and result in many genetic elements being shuffled about. But practicing systematists have adapted our methods to account for these occurrences - we've taken it in stride, essentially, and evolved our approaches, because that's how science works. It makes our questions, and their answers, more nuanced and challenging, but Darwin wasn't "wrong", and for many purposes a tree does remain the best device for conceptualizing and communicating about relationships. I was very disappointed that Quammen tried to go for some "shock" value here that really misrepresents the actual impact of HGT and related processes for day-to-day scientists who work on this stuff. 4) Rampant casual sexism. This was the most disappointing of the disappointing elements for me because it changes my opinion of Quammen himself. There are very, very few women in this book. Quammen can't be entirely faulted for this, because most of the main scientists involved were men due to the extreme sexism and exclusion of the times. But we know women were around - women were lab technicians and played behind-the-scenes roles in many of these scientific enterprises, and if one bothers to try and find them, one will. Quammen did not bother. And when he talks about women at all, every element of his language changes - the tone of his descriptions of women is different than when he describes men (down to which details of their appearance he chooses to focus on). He'll refer to men as brilliant, etc. and in the next section describe only the work that was done by a female assistant or student. The women were NEVER described as brilliant or talented or gifted or any of the other approbations he heaped on the men. A male-female husband-wife team who coauthored a paper: she was described as his coauthor (implying he was the primary), and not the other way around, when in fact they were equals. There's a particularly insulting and unnecessary bit about whether someone's mother in Indiana would really care or understand what her son was up to - because a mother in Indiana obviously has the intellect of a waffle iron and would have been incapable of understanding what her kid was up to. Totally infuriating. I will think twice before I read another of his books, I'm sorry to say.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Craig Werner

    Semi-spoiler: The tree of life--the one imaged in the familiar branching diagram pretty much all of us learned as we started to study science--isn't really a tree. It's reticulated, a web with crosses and blurrings at pretty much every level. Check out the images on pages 285 and 299 for ways of imaging the more complicated reality. It's pretty cool. And it requires us to revise what we mean by minor terms such as "species" and "individual," neither one of which has any clear reality. It's an idea Semi-spoiler: The tree of life--the one imaged in the familiar branching diagram pretty much all of us learned as we started to study science--isn't really a tree. It's reticulated, a web with crosses and blurrings at pretty much every level. Check out the images on pages 285 and 299 for ways of imaging the more complicated reality. It's pretty cool. And it requires us to revise what we mean by minor terms such as "species" and "individual," neither one of which has any clear reality. It's an idea that I first encountered in Lewis Thomas's Lives of a Cell, which posits that people (and the bacterial swarms that inhabit us and without which we can't survive three minutes) are better viewed as committees than individuals. It's an idea that echoes through recent science books on forests and cephalopods---an aspen grove is more "individual" than group of distinct trees. As a card-carrying multiculturalist who's somewhat prone to overdoing the metaphorical resonances of science I love all of this. Fluidity, connection, interaction. Back to the science--and Quammen never loses track of what he's writing about as I did in the previous paragraph--The Tangled Tree is a spectacularly successful survey of the evolution of evolutionary thought. When Quammen concludes that in some sense Darwin was wrong about some pretty basic notions--he's the source of the tree metaphor, but understood it as a hypothesis not an established "fact"--everything that happened later happens in an intellectual world he played a key role in creating. Quammen provides memorable sketches of many of the scientists who destabilized the "two kingdom" model of life, especially Carl Woese who was instrumental in establishing the reality of the Archaea, and Lyn Margulis, whose championing of the idea of endosymbiosis (the merging of bacteria and prokaryotic cells into the nucleated eukaryotic cell) met fierce resistance but ultimately carried the day. The Tangled Tree is technical enough to avoid the trap of simplification (as best I can judge) but clear enough to speak to any reader with a serious interest in the complications of cutting edge research. In short I love the book. My only minor criticism is that toward the end Quammen turns the story into more of a biography of Woese than the central story requires. It's clear he developed a deep affection for the cranky brilliant egotistical, but also winning, innovator and I'm okay with that.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Ev

    I really waffled on whether to give this book a 4 or 5 - basically, it could have started from chapter 49. The preceding chapters helped to flesh out the phenomenal journey - developing central characters such as Carl Woese, who made the discovery of a third form of life - but it was lengthy. But, I reiterate, how phenomenal this journey is. It should be required reading for biology/philosophy/history students. My mind was buzzing with new information and new dots to connect to other information I really waffled on whether to give this book a 4 or 5 - basically, it could have started from chapter 49. The preceding chapters helped to flesh out the phenomenal journey - developing central characters such as Carl Woese, who made the discovery of a third form of life - but it was lengthy. But, I reiterate, how phenomenal this journey is. It should be required reading for biology/philosophy/history students. My mind was buzzing with new information and new dots to connect to other information, which I very much enjoyed. One interesting tidbit which connected dots: extreme halophiles can survive in extremes; extreme environments feeding off only salt, fat, acid or heat. That is the very title of a popular (human) cookbook ("Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking"), which seems not to be a coincidence. Just as bacteria do, archaea - the third form, or "branch" of "The Tangled Tree" - live within us and affect us. This story really is rooted in a beautiful marriage between philosophy and science. I loved contemplating the key to life being rooted in "complexity and flexibility" - that is to say, complexity and flexibility are inherent in the most resilient forms of life. Yet at the the same time, taking a step back to see the bigger picture: simplicity binds us together - "we" are all connected, whatever we are and wherever we came from. Also, can't help but mention the movie Annihilation (2018) with Natalie Portman. Though it is a thriller/sci fi/horror/indie drama, the main point it tries to make is: we are not destroyed as individuals, but we are changed by one another. That can be terrifying to some, to our self image. Where the "other" and the "individual" intersect is always blurry, which is also what this book so aptly articulates. So I guess going back, I'd have to give this book a 5. I hope people read it and have their minds blown.

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