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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (2018)

de David Quammen

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3951348,017 (3.95)11
Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and A New York Times Notable Book of 2018 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.… (més)
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Es mostren 1-5 de 13 (següent | mostra-les totes)
Quammen comes across as every bit as savvy about microbiology as the microbiologists. As a totally unsavvy layman, this work was a slog for me. I wanted to do it justice and hung in there, getting a sense of overview that the tree of life is in fact a tangled web. I'm okay with that.
  Mark-Bailey | Aug 7, 2020 |
As usual for Quammen, a wonderful book! ( )
  rondorn | Apr 13, 2020 |
I can't find the exact quote, but in an early chapter Quammen writes that if you want humans to pay attention to your work, you should find and emphasise its human elements. He obviously took this to heart when writing The Tangled Tree, and to my taste the book suffers for it.

Admittedly this is not a straight pop-science book; it's squarely in the pop-history of science genre. So I shouldn't have been surprised that it is basically a narrative account of the development of scientific thinking in the field of evolutionary biology (with a focus on the 'tree of life' metaphor and the assumptions it embodies), rather than a dedicated attempt to explain the current state of knowledge. But it is an unusually journalistic history.

There are many accounts of the author's conversations with his subjects, including descriptions of the rooms in which they met him and (of course) the colour of their eyes. There are magazine-style potted biographies of, and random anecdotes about, a great number of scientists both living and dead. The style is chatty and sometimes patronising, though perhaps in a self-aware way. The scientific details are sparse and submerged in a sea of fluff.

(Here I should admit that I listened to this as an audiobook, rather than actually reading it. This was probably not the best option, because this is a book 90% of which would be best read very quickly, with the occasional slowdown to absorb the occasional nuggets of science -- whereas the audio format almost enforces uniform pacing. So I often found myself losing focus and only half listening, which made me less likely to take in whatever details were scattered throughout. Also, while the narrator was mostly fine, he insisted on doing a voice for every quoted person (of which there are many), including some absolute travesties of English and various other accents.)

Anyway, for those who prefer more of a human focus and are particularly interested in the history of science, maybe this is worth reading. I'm not exactly a just-the-facts reader, though -- I can go either way -- and my real problem is that the human elements just weren't particularly interesting. I may have enjoyed this more had Quammen been more selective, rather than giving a shallow biographical sketch and/or account of meeting (what felt like) hundreds of people. ( )
  matt_ar | Dec 6, 2019 |
Horizontal gene transfer is wild, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the placenta stuff.The book does a great job of introducing a bunch of scientists, sketching out their personalities, and making scenes from very tedious lab work. Reading a history of science really makes you realize how wrong brilliant scientists can be and how the scientific process continually works toward a better approximation of the universe surrounding us. My main knock is that there are so many scientists and so many small, competing discoveries, that the book didn't ever pick up a lot of momentum. I think I prefer books that are more theory based then character books (at least for natural science nonfiction), but, again, horizontal gene transfer is mindblowing.

  Sebastian-sarti | Aug 28, 2019 |
The real guts of this work is an accounting of the life and times of Carl Woese, a pioneer in the molecular analysis of life, and what it says about evolution, who had the misfortune to live long enough to see his insights transcended by new research and wasn't especially happy about it. If there is a tragedy about the man (people would kill for his life in its totality) it's that he didn't have much of the makings of a political animal or of a happy warrior, as compared to, say, Lynn Margulis, who was much more of a household name back in the day and had much more the emotional constitution to let the chips fall where they may.

From the science perspective the most important part of this book for the lay reader (and this is popular history, not a textbook) is the discovery and implications of horizontal gene transfer or, more to the point, evolution via infection. The biggest implication being the realization that what look like discrete organisms making up species are at a basic level mobile ecologies; and there are still discoveries to be made that will probably render much of the science considered in this book obsolete.

As for the more negative reviews of this book I don't know what these readers were expecting; this is not a textbook and the usual reader of popular science expects to learn something about the people conducting the science. I also highly doubt that most readers are aware of the state of the science that Quammen is reporting on. I will agree that Quammen is a little too cute for his own good sometimes in his writing style. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jul 24, 2019 |
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Longlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction and A New York Times Notable Book of 2018 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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