“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


  • Sphinx

        February 18, 2019

         Forty-five years in Montana, hiking the trails, skiing the mountains, driving the back roads, and I had never caught a glimpse of a mountain lion.  It's not that they are rare here—they aren't.  They live a pretty good life and at reasonable abundance, for a predator, eating deer and other prey, favoring rocky bluffs and deep forest,  occasionally showing up at the fringes of human settlement.  Many people see them by sheer happenstance—crossing the yard near a mountain cabin, at the edge of a ski area, along a foot trail just a mile from the parking lot.  But not me, ever.  It isn't that I'm extraordinarily unlucky, or obtuse (I hope), when it comes to observing elusive and formidable animals.  On the contrary, I've been privileged.  I've seen a Siberian tiger in the wild; but never a Montana cougar.  (For clarity: cougar, mountain lion, catamount, and puma are all synonyms for the same creature, Puma concolor by its scientific name, found from the Canadian Yukon to the southern Andes, the most broadly north-to-south-distributed big mammal, not counting humans, in the world.)  I've watched a Komodo dragon climb a cliff on the island of Komodo; but never a mountain lion crossing a dirt road in the Gallatins.  I've ogled saltwater crocs in Arnhem Land, leopards in Africa, Asiatic lions at Gir Forest in Gujarat, and grizzly bears in Yellowstone; but not one glimpse of the reigning big cat in the state where I live.  Finally, I had to go all the way to Patagonia National Park, in southern Chile, for that modest but satisfying experience.


        I was there for National Geographic, researching a story on Tompkins Conservation, the vast philanthropic effort created by the late Doug Tompkins and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins to buy and restore wildlish lands and give them, as national parks, to the peoples of Chile and Argentina.  One evening after dinner, Kris Tompkins asked me: Do you want to go spotlighting for puma?  Yes.  She arranged for Cristian Saucedo, the park's chief biologist, with whom I'd spent a long earlier day seeing some of the other wildlife, to take me out.  We didn't need to go far.  Several puma, including at least one female with two kits, had been frequenting the rocky hills and meadows near the park's headquarters and lodge, preying on guanaco (a llama-like wild herbivore that constitutes most of the cat's diet down there) and staying clear of conflict (so far) with tent campers and other visitors.  And so, beginning at dusk, along with two other folks—Sergio Urrejola, the head of wardens, and another visitor, Chantal Henderson—we slowly drove the gravel roads of the headquarters sector of the park.  Cristian and Chantal swept the hillsides and cliffs with strong beams, as the darkness got thick, while we all watched for the green eyeshine of a puma.  And sure enough, after less than an hour, there she was.  It was Chantal's light that found her, on a sweep high and leftward into some low bluffs.

        An adult female, said Cristian, judging from her size.  She was resting low on her belly, front paws forward, like the Great Sphinx of Giza, on a rock ledge about sixty yards above the road.  She turned her head toward us, eyes aglow, seeming unconcerned with the lights or our presence.  Then she turned away.  She might be resting, said Cristian, or laying in ambush for a guanaco.  Cristian and Chantal diverted their beams, and we continued to admire her, without blinding her, for fifteen minutes.  Then we quietly drove on, to leave her in peace—for her rest, or her hunt.  When we swung back past the same spot, almost an hour later, she was gone.

        That's it.  No big drama here.  Just an observation—important to me because I had waited so long.  She was there.  She was magnificent.  And then she was gone.  I didn't take a photo.  You'll have to trust me.  The image is indelible in my head.




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