The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

David Quammen. Simon & Schuster, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-1-4767-7662-0
Science writer Quammen (The Song of the Dodo), as he has so often done before, explores important questions and makes the process as well as the findings understandable and exciting to lay readers. Here, he delves into the field of molecular phylogenetics, the process of “reading the deep history of life and the patterns of relatedness from the sequence of constituent units in certain long molecules,” namely “DNA, RNA, and a few select proteins.” Although the topic might seem arcane, he brings it to life by profiling many of the field’s most important players, including microbiologists Carl Woese and Ford Doolittle, and demonstrating how it has changed “the way scientists understand the shape of the history of life.” The breakthroughs Quammen describes include Woese’s classification of the archaea, a new category of living creatures made up of single-celled microorganisms, and Doolittle’s insight, recounted in an interview with the author, that genes can be transferred horizontally, between organisms (and not always closely related organisms) rather than simply between parent and offspring. The cumulative effect is to transform Darwin’s famous image of evolution as a straightforwardly branching “tree of life” into a “tangle of rising and crossing and diverging and converging limbs.” This book also proves its author’s mastery in weaving various strands of a complex story into an intricate, beautiful, and gripping whole. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 05/07/2018
Release date: 07/10/2018
Compact Disc - 978-1-5082-5270-2
Downloadable Audio - 448 pages - 978-1-5082-5269-6
Downloadable Audio - 448 pages - 978-1-5082-7688-3
Compact Disc - 978-1-5082-6454-5
Paperback - 480 pages - 978-1-4767-7663-7
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