“David Quammen Turns Tough Science into Page-Turning Pleasure”

—headline, The New York Times

“Quammen has written a deep and daring intellectual adventure. . . . The Tangled Tree is much more than a report on some cool new scientific facts. It is, rather, a source of wonder.”

—Tom Levenson, The Boston Globe

Quammen is “our greatest living chronicler of the natural world. . . . His new book, The Tangled Tree, is the biography of an idea—a heretical, groundbreaking idea.”

—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

“In David Quammen’s new page-turner, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, the author reveals how new molecular techniques have come to revolutionize the way we understand evolutionary processes and how we classify life into coherent groups.”

—Ivor T. Knight, Science

“David Quammen proves to be an immensely well-informed guide to a complex story that in less capable hands would be unintelligible to the general reader. Indeed he is, in my opinion, the best natural history writer currently working.”

—David P. Barasch, The Wall Street

“At times, this master storyteller’s book reads like a travelogue. . . .Some of the stories are laugh-out-loud funny.”

—John Archibald, Nature

“Quammen does a marvelous job of weaving together the scientific and human story of this revolution.”

—Ivor T. Knight, Science

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franzJosephLand2Quammen makes his way across a basaltic scree field in Franz Joseph Land in the Russian Arctic. Read his blog post about the 2013 Pristine Seas Expedition sponsored by National Geographic. Photograph by Andy Mann.

David Quammen is an author and journalist whose books include The Song of the Dodo (1996), The Reluctant Mr. Darwin (2006), and  Spillover (2014), a work on the science, history, and human impacts of emerging diseases (especially viral diseases), which was short-listed for eight national and international awards and won three.  His shorter books Ebola  (2014) and  The Chimp and the River(2015) were drawn from Spillover, each with a new introduction. His forthcoming book (August 2018) is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, which explores the drastic revisions in understanding of life’s history on Earth forced by recent discoveries from genome sequencing, and the story of a scientist named Carl Woese. In the past thirty years Quammen has also published a few hundred pieces of short nonfiction—feature articles, essays, columns—in magazines such as Harper’s, National Geographic, Outside, Esquire, The Atlantic, Powder, and Rolling Stone.  He writes occasional Op Eds for The New York Times and reviews for The New York Times Book Review.  Quammen has been honored with an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and is a three-time recipient of the National Magazine Award.  He is a Contributing Writer for National Geographic, in whose service he travels often, usually to wild and remote places.  Home is Bozeman, Montana.

Throughout the rest of this website, he will not refer to himself in the third person.






On November 3, 1977, the front page of the New York Times carried an article announcing the discovery of a “third kingdom” of living creatures, entirely distinct from the two kingdoms (bacteria and everything else) thought to exist until that time. Above the article was a photo of a man, seated before a blackboard in a lab at the University of Illinois, with his feet up on a cluttered desk. He was wearing Adidas. His name was Carl R. Woese. He had just triggered a revolution that would change how science understands the history of evolution on Earth.

Woese redrew the tree of life, and it has never been the same.

The “tree of life” was an old phrase, an old idea, going back to the Bible and other sources, but Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species (1859) turned it into the iconic image of evolutionary history. Life arose from a single source, like the trunk of a great oak, and diverged into limbs, branches, smaller branches, and twigs, representing the divergence of lineages through time and the origin of species. Modern genetics later affirmed that image, with the canonical assumption that heredity passes downward from ancestors to offspring (or upward, in the tree image) and never sideways from one limb to another. It turns out that assumption was wrong. Genetic sequencing and comparison of genomes, of the sort pioneered by Woese, has revealed the unimagined phenomenon of sideways inheritance.

Scientists have given this phenomenon some fancy names. One is horizontal gene transfer. Another, slightly more suggestive, is infective heredity. In some cases, these genes travel sideways—from creature to creature, even from species to species—by viral infection. That’s supposed to be impossible. Woese’s successors have shown that it’s not just possible—it’s widespread and vastly consequential.

Carl Woese died in December 2012, just before I picked up this thread about horizontal gene transfer and the radically revised history of life. So I never met him. It’s probably just as well: He was famously gruff and unfriendly to journalists and other nosy writers. But for the past five years I’ve studied him and his work and the revolution he triggered—studied them through the evidence of his publications, his archives at the University of Illinois, and the testimony of his students, his colleagues, his assistants, his friends, many of whom I’ve interviewed. He became my Citizen Kane, and I functioned like the faceless newsreel reporter in the movie, visiting everyone to ask: “Who was Charles Foster Kane, and why did he say ‘Rosebud’ with his dying breath?” (If that reference rings no bells, do yourself a favor and watch Orson Welles’s great film.) What I found was a tangled story, a tangled man, and a new tree of life that is not a tree.

The implications of this Woesean revolution involve more than our understanding of life’s history for the past four billion years. They also challenge some of our most immediate and personal assumptions: What is a species, what is an individual, what is a human? What am I?

The Tangled Tree was published by Simon & Schuster on August 14.  Order now:

Barnes & Noble
Simon & Schuster





Yellowstone: A Journey Through
America's Wild Heart

The Chimp and the River



The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Monster of God

The Song of the Dodo


Natural Acts

The Boilerplate Rhino

Wild Thoughts from Wild Places

The Flight of the Iguana


Blood Line

The Soul of Viktor Tronko

The Zolta Configuration

To Walk the Line


On the Origin of Species

by Charles Darwin

The Illustrated Edition

The Best American Science

and Nature Writing 2000

Edited with Burkhard Bilger


  • October 2, 2018

         The working life of a writer is solitary. You sit alone in a room, hour after hour, day after day, and you create pages. It takes years to write a book (five years, for me, is about the minimum on a complex nonfiction project), and once that book is finished, tangledPile330edited, revised, fact-checked, printed, and published, the extrovert part of the job begins. If you’re lucky, people invite you to talk about what you’ve written. And you do that, because, extrovert or introvert, you want folks to buy the book and read it. Social media and public radio and podcasts are nowadays hugely significant dimensions of book promotion; among the nice things about them is that they don’t require you to leave home. But the book tour in its classic form—get on a plane, go to a series of cities, do interviews in person, speak at a bookstore, sign copies—is still an important element too.

    October 2, 2018
         My new book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, has recently been published (August 14, 2018) by Simon & Schuster, and since that date I've been traveling—off and on, but mainly on—to talk about it before a variety of genial and welcoming audiences and interviewers.  Meanwhile the reviews have been abundant and extremely good (generally), the few controversies stirred up have been substantive and worth discussing, and the book has been longlisted (a group of ten candidates) for the National Book Award in Nonfiction.  The Tangled Tree apeared at #12 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller for one week, and after that cup of coffee, it has had two months on the Times list of Science bestsellers.  Simon & Schuster and I are gratified. 

         This week I'll head to Telluride, Colorado, to participate in an exciting new festival of ideas called Original Thinkers, created by the estimable David Holbrooke and his team.  After two lectures and a panel discussion there, I'll fly home to Bozeman for a day, do some laundry, get a haircut, change the water for Boots the snake, etc, and then depart for Madison, Wisconsin, to do a talk on The Tangled Tree at the Wisconsin Book Festival.  Next morning, to Washington, DC, for the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers, where I'll team with Kathryn Schulz, Virginia Hughes, and others on a panel to discuss the challenge of writing about huge, intractable, even apocalyptic problems in ways that entice people to read and think freshly, rather than simply burying their heads under the covers.  The logical aftermath of that discussion would be to enjoy some sideline conversation with my pals of NASW, including Kathryn, and David Dobbs, and Carl Zimmer . . . but instead I'll scoot to the airport that afternoon and hop a flight to Florence, Italy.  Don't misunderstand: I'm not complaining.

         In Italy, at the resort venue of Montecatini Terme, in Tuscany, I'll give a keynote talk to the World Summit of the Adventure Travel Tourism Association, discussing the quest for spiritual refreshment through adventuresome travel, whether you're slogging through the Congo forests in the footsteps of Mike Fay (as I did in 1999-2000) or engaging in some sort of less arduous but still off-the-track journey, for which you don't have to duct-tape over the sores on your feet.  After Italy (and a week of adventurous eating and relaxing with my wife, Betsy), I'll return via New York City, where from October 24 to October 26 I'll be the Simons Visiting Journalist at New York University, hosted by my pal the distinguished Dan Fagin.  And then, after lingering long enough to catch The Book of Mormon on Broadway, Betsy and I will fly home to Bozeman, gloriosky, and begin making preparations for Halloween.

         Halloween is a big deal in our neighborhood and, even during book-tour season, we'll want to be ready with a few hundred pieces of candy for the kids, and some welcoming adult beverages for our adult friends seeking respite while their kids (or grandkids, now) work the block.


    August 14, 2018
    Last week I began the book-support effort by taping an interview with Scott Simon, for his Weekend Edition Saturday show at NPR. Who wouldn’t want to exchange thoughts with this astute and companionable radio man? Scott was so nice as to say, before we started recording, that the book had changed the way he sees life on Earth. The interview ran on Saturday, August 11, and is archived here: https://www.npr.org/2018/08/11/637780618/understanding-horizontal-gene-transfer-in-the-tangled-tree

    Now the travel begins, intermittent over the next month or two while I continue on work another National Geographic story and try also to live life.

    Washington, DC: I’ll be at Politics & Prose, a famous bookstore on Connecticut Ave., on Wednesday evening, August 15, at 7 pm.

    Chicago: Next day I’ll scoot up there, in time for an event at the American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave., at 6:30 pm. Annie Minoff, of the Science Friday team, will interview author Sy Montgomery and me about the craft of science writing. The following day, from a studio still in Chicago, I’ll talk with Science Friday host Ira Flatow, for a live segment of the show airing that afternoon.

    Back to Bozeman: an event at my faithful home-town independent, The Country Bookshelf, on August 22 at 6 pm.

    Then to Livingston, Montana: home of many of my writer friends, including those who run Elk River Books, where I’ll do a talk and signing on August 23, at 7 pm.

    Missoula the following week: Fact & Fiction, another fine independent, on August 30, a Thursday, again at 7 pm. (This bookstore is a short walk from The Depot restaurant, on Railroad Street, where I worked as a bartender in 1975-76. Just FYI, in case you’re hungry or thirsty after my presentation. Tell ‘em DQ sent you. Any employee under the age of 60 will say: Who?)

    In September, after the summer and the Beach Reading season have officially ended, I’ll be doing more travels to distant cities, including Seattle (Town Hall), Portland (Powell’s Books), and elsewhere. More on those visits, places, and venues closer to the time. Somebody, some crotchety writer, once said: The only thing worse than being asked by your publisher to do a book tour is not being asked to do a book tour. But I’ve got a sort of extrovert hiding inside my writerly introvert, and I enjoy meeting people—such as you—who deeply appreciate books, and who recognize that nonfiction writing, though ever responsible for accuracy, is also, like fiction, an imaginative art.



EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus



SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic



THE CHIMP AND THE RIVER: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest