Best Weller's Pick

Every other month the staff of Weller Book Works nominates and then votes on books we deem worthy of extra attention, our Best Weller's selection. We discount these books to you by 20% during the months for which they're chosen because we believe in them.

SEPTEMBER-OCTOBER 2018

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
David Quammen
Simon & Schuster
9781476776620
Hardcover
List Price: $30.00
Our Price: $24.00
 
Carson McCullers
 
Reviewed by Frank Pester
 

In July of 1837, Charles Darwin labeled a small notebook “B." The B notebook traveled with him for five years over land and sea as he made his way along the coast of South America. On its pages, Darwin noted the diversity of nature he saw. At the bottom of page 21 he wrote, “organized beings represent a tree.” Later, he attempted a feeble sketch. A more substantial sketch followed with a trunk and branches labeled A, B, C, and D, some clustered together and some farther apart. In this way, Darwin developed an idea central to the theory of evolution.

Since the publication of On the Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has been debated by those who accept its premises and those who, because of their personal beliefs, reject it. The idea that our evolutionary history can be represented by a tree has been passed along unquestioned since 1859, but David Quammen asks: what if the tree of life is not a tree?

Quammen has written an engrossing look at the new discoveries in molecular biology that have changed our understanding of the history of life on earth. He takes complicated subjects, DNA sequencing and horizontal gene transfer, and makes them accessible. In The Tangled Tree, Quammen offers a guide to the scientists working in a field that is constantly changing and as tangled as the tree in his title.

Starting with the drawing in the margins of Darwin’s notebook, Quammen explores the beginning of the tree of life idea which was later reworked by Edward Hitchcock into two trees representing the plant and animal kingdoms. This model was shattered by developments in molecular biology in the 70s with the finding of new divisions of genera and the horizontal transfer of genes between single-celled organisms. 

The central subject of the book is Carl Woese, a complicated man who was fiercely dedicated to his work. At the time, scientists had grouped life forms into two main categories but Woese added a third category for bacteria and eukaryotes, or non-bacteria. Although Woese received many awards for his startling discoveries, he fell short of a Nobel Prize.

Chronicling the primitive and hazardous lab work of scientists such as Woese and his colleagues puts the reader right there with them. Quammen writes, “Mitch Sogin, a lab assistant of Woese, described the deliveries of radioactive phosphorous (an isotope designated as P-32, with a half-life of fourteen days), which by 1972 amounted to a sizable quantity arriving every other Monday. The P-52 came as liquid within a lead ‘pig’, a shipping container designed to protect the shipper, though not whoever opened it. Sogin would draw out a measured amount of the liquid and add it to whatever bacterial culture he intended to process next. ‘I was growing stuff with P-32. It was crazy.. I don’t know why I’m alive today.’”

The Tangled Tree offers new insights into the theory of evolution through horizontal gene transfer and the naming of other kingdoms of life. It shows the inter-connectedness of life and the growth of scientific ideas, and adds human faces to the findings in the lab. Well-written and engaging, The Tangled Tree sparks questions of what the future might bring as we struggle to understand the complexity of life.

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life Cover Image
$30.00
ISBN: 9781476776620
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Simon & Schuster - August 14th, 2018

Reviewed by Frank Pester
 

In July of 1837, Charles Darwin labeled a small notebook “B." The B notebook traveled with him for five years over land and sea as he made his way along the coast of South America. On its pages, Darwin noted the diversity of nature he saw. At the bottom of page 21 he wrote, “organized beings represent a tree.” Later, he attempted a feeble sketch. A more substantial sketch followed with a trunk and branches labeled A, B, C, and D, some clustered together and some farther apart. In this way, Darwin developed an idea central to the theory of evolution.

Since the publication of On the Origin of Species, the theory of evolution has been debated by those who accept its premises and those who, because of their personal beliefs, reject it. The idea that our evolutionary history can be represented by a tree has been passed along unquestioned since 1859, but David Quammen asks: what if the tree of life is not a tree?

Quammen has written an engrossing look at the new discoveries in molecular biology that have changed our understanding of the history of life on earth. He takes complicated subjects, DNA sequencing and horizontal gene transfer, and makes them accessible. In The Tangled Tree, Quammen offers a guide to the scientists working in a field that is constantly changing and as tangled as the tree in his title.

Starting with the drawing in the margins of Darwin’s notebook, Quammen explores the beginning of the tree of life idea which was later reworked by Edward Hitchcock into two trees representing the plant and animal kingdoms. This model was shattered by developments in molecular biology in the 70s with the finding of new divisions of genera and the horizontal transfer of genes between single-celled organisms. 

The central subject of the book is Carl Woese, a complicated man who was fiercely dedicated to his work. At the time, scientists had grouped life forms into two main categories but Woese added a third category for bacteria and eukaryotes, or non-bacteria. Although Woese received many awards for his startling discoveries, he fell short of a Nobel Prize.

Chronicling the primitive and hazardous lab work of scientists such as Woese and his colleagues puts the reader right there with them. Quammen writes, “Mitch Sogin, a lab assistant of Woese, described the deliveries of radioactive phosphorous (an isotope designated as P-32, with a half-life of fourteen days), which by 1972 amounted to a sizable quantity arriving every other Monday. The P-52 came as liquid within a lead ‘pig’, a shipping container designed to protect the shipper, though not whoever opened it. Sogin would draw out a measured amount of the liquid and add it to whatever bacterial culture he intended to process next. ‘I was growing stuff with P-32. It was crazy.. I don’t know why I’m alive today.’”

The Tangled Tree offers new insights into the theory of evolution through horizontal gene transfer and the naming of other kingdoms of life. It shows the inter-connectedness of life and the growth of scientific ideas, and adds human faces to the findings in the lab. Well-written and engaging, The Tangled Tree sparks questions of what the future might bring as we struggle to understand the complexity of life.