The best-selling science writer 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.
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.