As he follows scientists into thickets, real and rhetorical, he keeps an eye not only on the rigor demanded by science, but on the wonder and play and curiosity—the noodling—of serious creativity. These are the very qualities that infuse and leaven his own work, making unlikely page-turners out of burly books ... What does it mean to be an 'individual,' if we are such composite creatures? Quammen raises and rushes past these existential questions; like the White Rabbit, he spends some sections in a bit of a mad rush. There’s a 'Montana blizzard of facts' he wants to shepherd us through; a dizzying array of scientists, past and present, he must introduce ... But Quammen is generally an exemplary guide; there are few writers so firmly on the side of the reader, who so solicitously request your patience...and delightedly hack away at jargon ... He keeps the chapters short, the sentences spring-loaded. There are vivacious descriptions on almost every page ... Each section ends with a light cliffhanger. Quammen has the gift of Daedalus; he gets you out of the maze.
Quammen is right that the horizontal transfer of genetic information does complicate our effort to understand the evolutionary past, but he goes too far in claiming that HGT essentially undermines any and all attempts to reconstruct the evolutionary past ... Quammen’s thesis is contradicted by one of the important discoveries he highlights. Horizontal gene transfer is most common in microbes, but evolutionary reconstruction still works for them ... But what about the situation in complex, multi-celled species like our own? As we’ve learned from recent work, HGT is much less common here ... In the end, Quammen provides us with a lucid guide to a lot of interesting science, but he overstates the impact of horizontal genetic transmission on our ability to reconstruct Darwin’s diversifying evolutionary tree. Today, that sketched-out tree of Darwin still looks good, even if, à la Quammen, we should add a couple of faint dashed lines showing HGT between its spreading branches.
Quammen is an established and skillful science writer, able to convey difficult scientific ideas with the excitement of their discovery. He balances the technical details with vivid anecdotes, humor and casual charm. This is a serious and entertaining book that will fascinate anyone interested in the history and nature of life.
Much of David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree ... proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story that in less capable hands would be unintelligible to the general reader. Indeed he is, in my opinion, the best natural history writer currently working. Mr. Quammen’s books ... consistently impress with their accuracy, energy and superb, evocative writing. The Tangled Tree, though, becomes a bit tangled in its own right ... Readers are introduced to a large supporting cast of molecular microbiologists who don’t normally receive anything like the degree of attention Mr. Quammen bestows upon them here. Much of this celebration is well-deserved, although the account sometimes devolves into eye-glazing biographical lists ... Mr. Quammen occasionally has fallen prey to his own admirable enthusiasm ... His big book touches on so many fascinating and important subjects that I worry that The Tangled Tree occasionally loses sight of the Darwinian forest that puts all these processes in perspective.
...an elegant and accessible account of a revolution in knowledge and perspective, one that has advanced without much public fanfare but has accumulated into a fundamental change in our view of life—and what it means to be human ... At times, though, he quails at the ferociously jargon-ridden language of modern biology, breaking the fourth wall to tell the reader not to worry about some scary sounding scientific stuff. Meant to reassure, such asides come across as an unneeded lack of trust in his own explanatory skill ... Mostly, though, Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure ... much more than a report on some cool new scientific facts. It is, rather, a source of wonder.
Quammen, one of science writing’s savviest stylists, is best when probing the human side of science ... the book often feels like an attempt to afford Woese his rightful place in history ... Quammen even unearthed a telling piece of marginalia from Woese, who, while annotating a colleague’s scientific paper, wrote in all caps: 'YOU ACCORD DARWIN SO MUCH MORE SUBSTANCE THAN THE BASTARD DESERVES' ... But if Quammen is writing for the ages, his prose at times risks feeling dated. His book spans nearly three centuries and mentions more than 160 scientists by name. Of those, by my count, only 11 are women ... Quammen offers a readable and largely reliable Baedeker to a fast-moving and complex field of science that is as tangled as the tree of his title.
Author and journalist Quammen...leads readers on a winding journey in search of the genetic heritage of life on earth. He introduces scientists who have been at the forefront of the research and keeps the story engaging by discussing not only their theories but their personalities and professional disputes ... Written in an accessible style, this book will interest biologists, geneticists, and those curious about evolutionary history.
...a tectonic shift in our understanding of nature, a story that David Quammen tells wonderfully in his exhaustively researched book ... Crisscrossing the country to interview scientists and visit labs, Quammen provides a vivid portrait of the scientific process, and of the quarrelsome, quirky, (in one instance) evil, and brilliant scientists behind it.
Quammen is the master of deconstructing complex, obscure scientific concepts and reconstituting them into coherent, understandable, and illuminating narratives. In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, he does this primarily by focusing on the people behind the science who, in a very short period of time — whether working with or against each other — have changed much of what we thought we knew about evolution, heredity, and, yes, the origin (and definition) of species ... Quammen delivers a compelling story of these sometimes brilliant, often prickly individuals who never stop wondering, thinking, asking questions, and then applying themselves to search for an answer.
Best-selling science journalist Quammen...precisely and vividly explains how these [various scientific] findings have 'tangled' the tree ... telling a dramatic, many-limbed tale of courageous theorists and assiduous experimentalists, all portrayed with zest in short, punchy chapters ... With humor, clarity, and exciting accounts of breakthroughs and feuds, Quammen traces the painstaking revelation of life’s truly spectacular complexity.
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 'he way scientists understand the shape of the history of life' ... 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.
A masterful history ... An indefatigable journalist covering a revolution whose participants are mostly alive is an irresistible combination, and Quammen seems to have interviewed them all. A consistently engaging collection of vivid portraits of brilliant, driven, quarrelsome scientists in the process of dramatically altering the fundamentals of evolution, illuminated by the author’s insightful commentary.