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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  3,176 ratings  ·  596 reviews
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 fi
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published August 14th 2018 by Simon Schuster
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Average rating 3.97  · 
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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 ...more
Hannah Greendale
Sep 05, 2018 rated it liked it
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.
Sep 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Nov 06, 2018 rated it liked it
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
Feb 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Really interesting stuff. Unless you are fresh off a molecular biology class, you will struggle to keep up with the terminology, but Quammen does a great job of simplifying things and clearly illustrating the implications of each new development and breakthrough.

You do not need to have a strong biology background to enjoy 'The Tangled tree', but you should know going in that the scientific studies covered here focus almost entirely on bacteria and archaea, rather than plants and animals. The fi
Mar 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Popular science writer Quammen states that "three counterintuitive insights, three challenges to categorical thinking about aspects of life on earth" are among the most essential points of this book.
Species: it's a collective entity but a discrete one, like a club with a fixed membership list. The lines between this species and that one don't blur.

Individual: an organism is also discrete, with a unitary identity. There's a brown dog named Rufus, there's an elephant with extraordinary tusks, t
Camelia Rose
Feb 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Tangled Tree is an up-to-date account of evolution, or, it is the evolution of our scientific understanding of evolution. The principals of Darwinian evolution still stand, however, the details have been reworked. Starting from mid-1970s, new discoveries are powered by genetics and DNA sequencing, and mostly in the field of molecular phylogenetics.

Several topics covered in the book:
-- The discovery of Archaea as a separate kingdom by a group of scientists lead by Carl Woese
-- The discovery
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was ok
I was very disappointed with this book. It is not what it boasts of being (book blurb "There's no one who writes about complex science better than David Quammen").

As a biologist who was taught the usual prokaryote/eukaryote tree in college (a long time ago) I was excited that someone was setting out to explain archaea, the "third domain" for me --Here Quammen is mostly bent on Carl Woese, whose life was dedicated to putting archaea on the map. The author goes a bit further, but not in any cogen
Sep 07, 2018 added it
Shelves: audio, overdrive
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.
Mar 18, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The “tree of life” is an ancient metaphor. Even Aristotle wrote about a scala naturae or “natural ladder of ascent,” a hierarchical depiction of the relationships between the objects of the world. In his notes Darwin sketched a tree-like diagram, an early speculation about all living things connected by diverging lineages, the basis for his theory of evolution.

Quammen neatly folds this historical context into a narrative that links research at the cellular and molecular level to a startling new
Peter Tillman
Apr 19, 2019 marked it as not-interested
Here's the review that made me cancel my hold on this one:
Also Both 2 star reviews, and Tony has been a reliable source for me in the past.

OK, and my two previous tries of Quammen books were duds, too. So I guess he's not the pop-science writer for me!
Jonna Higgins-Freese
Aug 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scientia
Horizontal gene transfer, reticulated trees ('a tangle of rising and crossing and diverging and converging limbs'), molecular phylogenetics (study of evolutionary relatedness using molecules as evidence), mutation, natural selection and horizontal gene transfer replacing Darwin's omissive theory, 'the idea of the tree of life, the great arboreal image of relatedness and diversification.'

"The tree of life is more tangled. Genes don't move just vertically. They can also pass laterally across speci
Oct 22, 2018 rated it liked it
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.
Nov 18, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: unfinished
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.
Angie Reisetter
Jul 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Graeme Newell
Feb 09, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audible
New advances in genetic research are facilitating a massive rewrite of the story of life. Peeking inside DNA and RNA is changing our understanding of how life developed.

We’ve always been taught that bacteria came first, then plants arose, and finally animals. The new evidence is scrambling this traditional view. Research suggests that animals came before plants. These animals then on-boarded a chloroplast and thus could generate their own energy supply. The big realization is that bacteria, arch
Carol Kean
Aug 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
Liza Fireman
Sep 03, 2018 rated it it was ok
Oh so boring, so so boring.
Some writers know how to turn scientific data into a popular knowledge, and can make you even have fun as well as make you learn new things. They can make amazing accessible magic from the deep knowledge without completely losing the essence of it. Most cannot. And then they end up with a very detailed or technical book, or with an extremely flat book that is mainly populistic.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the books that in my opi
Tim Dugan
It’s ok but I wish it had more technical details.

The people stories are ok but less valuable than the science
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Sep 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
RM(Alwaysdaddygirl) Griffin (alwaysdaddyprincess)
4 stars.

Update: 3-20-19 at 12:53 Eastern Standard Time
I will be rereading this book. A friend and I used to talk about this subject in depth. I also read books and watch documentaries similar to this book ( due to this friend) in the before I join Goodreads Era. Some stuff I did not have in my notes, some of them I had to reread to grasp. Regardless, this was fun and educational!

Christina Dudley
Sep 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, science
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
Sep 12, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
"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
Aug 03, 2020 rated it it was ok
It’s fine, I guess. It’s a nice summary of evolution and the ancestral trees of organisms, but I’m just not sure it delivers on the premise its title promises.

What about this perfectly adequate “history of life” is at all “new” or “radical”? The information contained here will be familiar to the modern reader, though Quammen goes into a little more detail than the average reader has on hand.

If it had presented itself as just another overview of Mendel and Darwin, I’d say it had done its job. I
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. ...more
Katie/Doing Dewey
Jan 21, 2019 rated it liked it
Summary: Fascinating material presented in an approachable way, but overall organization was lacking.

Many of you who enjoy natural history will have read about Charles Darwin. You may already know that he originated the tree of life as a way of visualizing the process of evolution. This story starts with that tree and covers several major discoveries that have caused to review our view of that tree. In particular, the author covers horizontal gene transfer (transfer of genetic material between i
Michael Huang
Feb 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Many supposedly clear-cut concepts can become ambiguous upon closer studies. The history of science is full of such examples. Darwin himself was unnerved when he realized that some of his thinking would “undermine the stability of species”. This book tells the stories about how the concept of evolution is being revised. The Darwinian concept of evolution is through mutation during procreations and natural selection. Life may have a common ancestor, and diverge into a tree over generations. That’ ...more
Mar 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed this book. It was primarily a history of the science of evolutionary microbiology (evolution from the viewpoint of microbes), including small biographies of many of the primary players in the field. However, the author kept coming back to one scientist, Carl Woese, who discovered the existence of archaea, a third "kingdom" of creatures, in the late 70s.

The writing is very relaxed and accessible, even when he's explaining some of the more arcane theories about this rather compli
Conor Ahern
Sep 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Horizontal gene transfer is a thing!

Darwin is overrated!

This book was fine but pretty niche!
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Science and Inquiry: February 2019 - Tangled Tree 18 88 Mar 29, 2019 04:51PM  

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David Quammen (born February 1948) is an award-winning science, nature and travel writer whose work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Outside, Harper's, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times Book Review; he has also written fiction. He wrote a column called "Natural Acts" for Outside magazine for fifteen years. Quammen lives in Bozeman, Montana. ...more

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30 likes · 13 comments
“Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.” There’s a nice word: ramifications. It’s especially good in this context because, while the literal definition is “a structure formed of branches,” from the Latin ramus, of course the looser definition is “implications.” Darwin’s tree certainly had implications.” 2 likes
“The result will be gradual transmutation of heritable forms, and adaptation to circumstances, by a process of selective culling. Eventually he gave the crank a name: natural selection. Twenty years passed after the E notebook entry. The world heard nothing about natural selection.” 1 likes
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