The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree of Life coverThe Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
David Quammen
Simon & Schuster, 496 pages, August 14, 2018
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $19.49

This book discusses two different but interrelated topics: the classification of living things and the horizontal transfer of genes.

Quammen starts by going back in time and discussing the work of Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, and others. Linnaeus, was among the first to seriously explore taxonomy, the classification of plants and animals. Darwin, of course, developed the theory of natural selection.

While the book contains an extensive history lesson, much of it focuses on the modern era. Quammen discusses the likes of Lynn Margulis (once married to Carl Sagan) and Carl Wose. Both were interested in classification and both studied horizontal gene transfer. Margulis hypothesized, and was later proven correct, that the mitochondria in cells originally came from bacteria. Wose was known for splicing RNA molecules and creating a new classification system.

Quammen’s writing is engaging and readable and frequently displays a sense of humor. He recounts his visits to many of the key players in the field, which are some of the most entertaining parts of the book.

The book does not have a satisfying conclusion. Quammen closes it by discussing the death of Carl Wose and remembrances by colleagues. But there would be no way to properly wrap up the stories of horizontal gene transfer and classification as the work is ongoing.

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