Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325
The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life is a 2018 nonfictional, scientific novel written by award-winning science, nature and travel writer David Quammen. It is a biological book about molecular phylogenetics, in which Quammen elaborates on the theory of life’s history, evolution, and the scientific and public understanding of the evolutionary tree of life; starting with the Darwinian representation, and ending with the latest discoveries in modern, molecular and computational biology and genetics.
Quammen explains the evolutionary process of all living organisms and their interconnected nature, by revisiting the scientific history of DNA and genomes. He goes back to the 70s, when scientists did various researches and experiments on and with DNA and RNA sequences, and came to the revolutionary conclusion that there is, in fact, a process called horizontal gene transfer (HGT), in which bacteria and archaea swap genes, instead of handing them down from one generation to another. Thus, we are unable to truly find and specify a common ancestor.
Quammen makes several points throughout the book, focusing on the various opinions and scientific discoveries of different scientists that researched the history of life, and further complicated Darwin’s theory and principles.
He incorporates several biographical elements to his writing, and chronicles the researches and analyses of: Carl Woese, a microbiologist and biophysicist who defined the Archaea, which is a new domain of single-celled organisms; Lynn Margulis, an evolutionary theorist and biologist who proved the endosymbiosis theory, which states that eukaryote cells evolved through symbiosis of single-celled prokaryotic organisms like bacteria and archaea; and Tsutomu Wantanabe, a microbiologist and bacteriologist who solved the puzzle of the "multiple-resistance" phenomenon, by determining that the resistance of bacteria against several unrelated antibiotics is a direct result of horizontal gene transfer (HGT).
The book received generally positive reviews, however, some readers have stated that by analyzing the scientific discoveries of Woese, Margulis, and Wantanabe, Quammen was dispelling Darwin’s theories form Origin of the Species (1837).
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