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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  418 Ratings  ·  112 Reviews
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
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published August 14th 2018 by Simon Schuster
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Hannah Greendale
Sep 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
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
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
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
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.
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 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Horizontal gene transfer is a thing!

Darwin is overrated!

This book was fine but pretty niche!
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
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
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
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
Feisty Harriet
Oct 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: evolution, science
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 ...more
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
Tim Dugan
It’s ok but I wish it had more technical details.

The people stories are ok but less valuable than the science
Leo Walsh
Nov 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Taylor Ahlstrom
Sep 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
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.
Aug 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 17, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: green
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
Nov 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
Bill Leach
Sep 04, 2018 rated it liked it
This book reviews the ideas of the Tree of Life from it's origin with early thinkers, primarily Darwin, through the understanding that the Bacteria and Archaea form separate domains.

The book also has a number of secondary themes. The life of Carl Woese, who was largely responsible for the discovery of the Archaea as a distinct domain, is covered in detail (and notably in the concluding chapters).

The discovery of horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) is a major theme in the second half of the book. HG
John Wood
Sep 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
Just how was life created and how does it change and evolve? This book delves into the history of human exploration of these questions, the discoveries, the discoverers, the theories, the theorists, opposing viewpoints, opposers, the collaborations, the collaborators... The road is winding and full of potholes, on ramps, off ramps, definitely not a straight shot to the ultimate answers. We often think of science as relatively straight-forward but this book really illustrates the disagreements, i ...more
Nov 02, 2018 rated it it was ok
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
Emma Bec
Sep 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was a wonderful book. It explains the advances in biology over the last century or so and how these have fundamentally changed how we view life and evolution. It explained the science really well and brought it to life with the stories of the scientists who worked on it. I really enjoyed the biography of Carl Woese, though I think at times it meant that other scientists were not covered as well as they should be - but a book can't do everything. Overall it paints a really clear picture of h ...more
Oct 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
Excellent review of the scientific dramas around our understanding of the tree of life. What struck me most was how often a dogma would get upset. Every major advance involved some scientist convincing all the others that what they thought impossible had happened. To me it says that we should hold onto scientific fact as lightly as we can so we don’t get left behind when the next enlightenment comes.
Carol Peters
Aug 24, 2018 rated it really liked it

Boatloads of stuff I didn't know about that has been discovered during the past twenty years of bio-evolutionary-mathematical-physics.

What is so far known about horizontal gene transfer.

Was sorry it ended.

Highly recommend.
Sep 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
There are plenty of good reviews on goodreads of this book that you can read, but I wanted to point out to the potential reader that David Quamenn strives to keep these complex subjects at a comprehensible level to the uninitiated. He is also a consummate researcher and storyteller.
Oct 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I’m sad that it’s over. 💙🧡
Sep 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
It's not Mr Quammen's fault that my science education was pitiful. But even with all his heavy lifting, I was still 83% confused for 65% of this book.
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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.
“Habitat doesn’t replicate itself. Places get crowded. Creatures go hungry. They struggle. The result is competition and deprivation and misery, winners and losers, unsuccessful efforts to breed and, for the less fortunate individuals, early death. Many are called, but few are chosen. The book that awakened Darwin to this reality was An Essay on the Principle of Population, by a severely logical clergyman and scholar named Thomas Malthus.” 1 likes
“The stability of species represented the bedrock of natural history.” 0 likes
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