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Tangled Tree

“The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life” by David Quammen

“The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life” by David Quammen

In “The Tangled Tree,” acclaimed Bozeman writer David Quammen shows us how the science of life has been radically altered by the advent of molecular genetics and its application to the study of evolution.

“Tangled Tree” is a finalist in the Medicine and Science category of this year’s High Plains book competition.

The “tree” in Quammen’s title refers to a metaphoric image of all life – familiar since Darwin’s “Origin of Species” – as a trunk from which many branches rise and split.

The end points of the branches -- the many millions of diverse species of living things, including the extinct ones – all represent “relatives,” having had in deep geologic time common evolutionary ancestors.

The “radical reset” of biology that is Quammen’s subject is that we now know genetic information is not only passed vertically, from parent to offspring, but over eons has been exchanged horizontally, among different genetic lines, by various mechanisms.

That is to say, the trunk and branches of the tree of life are tangled.

Among the surprising corollaries of this new, molecular-based understanding is this: “We ourselves – we humans – probably come from creatures that, as recently as forty years ago, were unknown to exist.

Or as Quammen writes later, paraphrasing one researcher: Darwin may “not have been wrong entirely, but his theory failed to cover the first two billion years.”

A brief summary cannot do justice to the complexity and subtlety, not to mention difficulty, of Quammen’s book. Fortunately for us, Quammen is one of the best science writers around (think John McPhee). He unpacks abstruse concepts in a friendly, entertaining style without dumbing the ideas down. Still, some chapters of “Tangled Tree” make for a hard slog.

Much of the book consists of anecdotes of the many scientists who made this revolution in thought happen. In this tale, large yet fragile egos vie for priority of publication, prestige, funding, and the best graduate lab assistants (who do much of the work). Sometimes they feud bitterly with rivals, especially over the most fundamental questions of their field.

In this respect, a grand theme of “Tangled Tree” is the tangled nature of the scientific enterprise generally.

“Like music,” Quammen writes, “like poetry, like baseball, like grandmaster chess, [science is] something gloriously imperfect that people do. The smudgy fingerprints of our humanness are all over it.”

Tom Tollefson is a retired news editor at The Billings Gazette.

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