*A Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life*

That is the new and excellent book by David Quammen, here is one summary excerpt:

We are not precisely who we thought we were.  We are composite creatures, and our ancestry seems to arise from a dark zone of the living world, a group of creatures about which science, until recent decades, was ignorant.  Evolution is tricker, far more intricate, than we had realized.  The tree of life is more tangled.  Genes don’t move just vertically.  they can also pass laterally across species boundaries, across wider gaps, even between different kingdoms of life, and some have come sideways into our own lineage — the primate lineage — from unsuspected, nonprimate sources.  It’s the genetic equivalent of a blood transfusion or (different metaphor, preferred by some scientists) an infection that transforms identity.  “Infective heredity.”  I’ll say more about that in its place.

My favorite part of the book is the section, starting on p.244, on bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics that have not yet been invented.  Overall this is likely to prove the best popular science book of the year, you can buy it here.  Here are various reviews of the book.


TC: "That is the new and excellent book by David Quammen" - STOP RIGHT THERE! Quammen is a horrible writer! He is really, really bad. His prose is verbose and makes Rayward (and me for that matter) seem like Ernest Hemingway. OMG Quammen is absolute garbage as a science writer.

Ray, Quammen is a writer of fiction (as well as non-fiction). Thus, this book. As for me, you have hurt my feelings. I was trained to write (legal writing) like Hemingway. Am I verbose? I suppose so if the comparison is Twitter.

Hemingway was a lawyer? I didn't know that. No counselor, you write well, as a lawyer (not as an artist). Recall that a lawyer has to say the same thing three different ways as a sort of 'factor of safety' to make sure the point is made (I read this in a law book once, notwithstanding NY state's 'plain English in law' nonsense)

Bonus trivia: TC says 'My favorite part of the book is the section, starting on p.244, on bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics that have not yet been invented' - but this is well known for any immune system response, for example human T-cells do the same thing (can manufacture trillions of different antigens for viruses not yet invented).

Ray, this might be the shortest comment you have ever written here.

Was meant for rayward.

We were taught in law school to write like Hemingway (short declarative sentences) and required to read his books and stories. It's true that much of legal writing is verbose (such as saying the same thing three times). What we were taught to write came into conflict with how the old timers on the bench interpreted documents: if the document didn't say it three times, the parties didn't really mean it. Such is the life of a (frustrated) lawyer. I am a transactional lawyer. My documents don't repeat but they address the possibilities (which make my documents long), so the outcome of even the remote possibility is determined by me (in the document) not by some old timer judge who practiced criminal or family law years ago. Hemingway and Strunk and White are considered old-fashioned today (there have even been revolts on college campuses against Strunk and White). But he is my guide and theirs (The Elements of Style) is my bible.

There ya go, rayward! You have come up with your own example of your verbose writing! FYI, covering all the bases in a comment requires verbosity. Think on how Locke turned a concept on every word, every letter, until he had examined it from all possible angles. Concise, today, means to pare it down to the most direct and simple statement. Leave the arguments for another day. Personally, I think it is a sign of intelligence and erudition that one covers more than just the simplest and most emphatic expression of a thought or concept. But I, too, am frequently called verbose.

Come on, ray, have some self awareness. Ray L does. You post in EVERY thread, and never use paragraph breaks. You just type and type. That's verbose.

Don't go easy on him like that. The content is worse than the format or frequency.

does the concept of "horizontal gene transfer" is better explained by the metaphor an infection that transforms identity?

just a few lines before he states genes don't move just vertically. the explanation is more confusing and ambiguous than the science term.

I thought the science was settled.

In the sense that it is already up at Wikipedia, yes.


Nice graphic. Lots of transfers, but none recently for us.

The NYTimes had an excerpt from the book, which went on and on about horizontal gene transfer, which is indeed important and forced a major re-thinking of earlier simple models of genetics. But the excerpt (I have not read the book) completely failed to mention an even more earth-shaking discovery:
we don't just carry bacteria around in our guts, we have bacteria permanently fused with our own cells and their DNA is fused with our DNA.

Most (all?) eukaryotic life -- which includes all animals and all plants -- at some point in the past fused with prokaryotic life, i.e. bacteria. The mitochondria that animals have in their cells, and the chloroplasts that plants have in their cells, have separate DNA from the rest of the cell, separate because it came from some prokaryote some hundreds of millions of years ago. But we've carried that DNA, and those mitochondria, with us ever since.

Good thing, because mitochondria produce the energy that the cell needs to run on. And chloroplasts are where photosynthesis occurs in plants. I don't know if this fusion was caused by a prokaryote infecting the eukaryote, or the eukaryote engulfing the prokaryote, but it was so useful that we've been carrying around that prokaryotic DNA ever since.

>we have bacteria permanently fused with our own cells and their DNA is fused with our DNA.

Speak for yourself.

Exactly, it is well known that Brazilians have some of the best DNA in the wiorld, and it is not corrupted by bacteriu or the Red Chinese. Do notr lump me in with your mongrel inferiority. Famous Sudanese scientist Mohamed Osman Baloola has shown that Brazilian DNA is the strongest in the world.

It is sad to see the 50 Cent Party attacking again.

Still, even the perfidious Red Chinese get things right oncr in a while. Brazilian DNA has been proven to be very strong, and is not infected with bacteria.

It's always a party in da club!

It's not the shoes, is it? Or the candy, or anything else. It's me, isn't? You just can't stand the the fact that I exist. --Tobias Wolff

The original "Uprooting the Tree of Life," by W. Ford Doolittle, is available here, as a pdf:


Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has a useful review examining the biological claims made. Quammen went overboard a bit.


Interesting. I can't say if Coyne is correct, because I don't keep abreast of the literature in this field (as of course I don't in most fields), but Coyne's review illustrates why one should only read science books by actual leading scientists, like (say) David Reich. Otherwise, you may end up with very inaccurate views (or even thinking you understand Igon values, when you don't).

What is the problem with the Igon values? If they are not properly stabilized, the consequences can be terrible.

Any science will be above my head, but I'll note that the spirit of the book as you describe it is quite within the mores of the times, which makes me quite suspicious of it.

Seems about as revolutionary as suggesting that languages both inherit grammar and sounds from their ancestor languages, and borrow it from other languages.

Sounds like an interesting read but only revolutionary if you previously thought that Darwin was omniscient and infallible.

Mitochondria and other organelles live their own life inside us and evolve to survive themselves. Our survival as a host depends on what these little bugs inside decide.

There is a branch of science which consists of assessing how close other branches of science are to demonstrating (a) an almost unmeasurable quantity of correct answers to limited questions and (b) an almost measurably accurate description of reality. (a) and (b) are so different that they almost do not belong in the same conversation, ever.

The Quammen book scores high, it seems, on (a) and low on (b).

I would recommend some books on biology that score high on (b) (and which presume that (a) is also something they score high on) but if you know what I am talking about you know that such books do not exist , (except in that part of the world where books one reads in one's native language are understood only as foreign - verb. sap. sufficit), and you also know that if such books exist, that you already know their titles, or at least what their titles would have been in a less ignorant society.

Analagously, Lubos Motl, of all people, recently explained that leading physicists are better at explaining complicated non-physics subjects than leading mathematicians are at explaining non-mathematics subjects because "mathematics" is so subdivided that the specialists - the Groethendickian algebraic Shaker/Quakers, the PDE virtuosi, the recreational mathematicians who can discuss the profound variations of whatever games the Ashbachers of the world have featured in the latest volume of Journal of Recreational Mathematics - all of them only compete with a few other like-minded geniuses who have chosen those sub-fields, whereas the "theoretical physicists" are part of a community of several thousand highly gifted people who are all discussing the same subject ....

I truly believe that anybody who has not profoundly reflected on the possibility of miracles - healing by faith, virgin births, and even the currently very rare but nevertheless unremarkably human phenomenon of resurrection from the dead, just to name a few random and not necessarily universal phenomena - is, by virtue of her or his lack of interest in such miracles, incapable of understanding biology, if biology means, as it should, anything like the study of life. Similarly, anyone who has not spent years and years with a companion animal cannot understand biology well enough, and with enough appreciation for the vastness of the subject, to be more than a gifted amateur and a dilettante.

Of any random thousand "biology" books, almost all, except the humble works of reference, will be seen, not long from now, as mostly crackpottery. Even the ones I would give 5 stars to on Amazon, sadly ..... You read it here first.

has the sociology dept with the help of science and webscraping
given you a bad social responsibility score?
has putin poisoned your piano player?
call Andrew Mcnulty attorney at law with the big beard
he understands the first ammendment

in case you think this comment was the sort of thing 'charlatans' write ...
Nicholas of Tolentino, a near-contemporary of a great writer you all have heard of, was reputed to have by prayer resurrected several people from the dead, and the phenomenon was discussed by several gifted 20th century authors, including (I do not have the time to completely research this) Bernanos. Virgin births are discussed by several now mostly forgotten scientists, but of course most observant Jews believe that Adam and Eve were "born" without benefit of intercourse, and most Christians would add Jesus to that short list ... and as for faith healing, well, it is what it is.

Obviously, vigorous exercise is really good - almost miraculously good - at healing most of the minor and many of the major ills we have, but the catch is that few of us can make ourselves commit to vigorous exercise every day - I am not talking about that kind of miracle, although it is a very interesting subject.

The only thing that ought to be considered “settled” about science is that very little is ever really settled.

It’s a curious human compulsion that seems to drive some need to act like we’ve got *everything* figured out, and served up with a ribbon around it

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