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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) andThe 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.

 

 

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FORTHCOMING FROM SIMON & SCHUSTER, AUGUST 14, 2018

THE TANGLED TREE: A RADICAL NEW HISTORY OF LIFE

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 will be published by Simon & Schuster as of August 14.  Pre-order now on Amazon.

 

 

BOOKS BY DAVID QUAMMEN

NONFICTION

Yellowstone: A Journey Through
America's Wild Heart

The Chimp and the River

Ebola

Spillover

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin

Monster of God

The Song of the Dodo

ESSAYS

Natural Acts

The Boilerplate Rhino

Wild Thoughts from Wild Places

The Flight of the Iguana

FICTION

Blood Line

The Soul of Viktor Tronko

The Zolta Configuration

To Walk the Line

EDITED

On the Origin of Species

by Charles Darwin

The Illustrated Edition

The Best American Science

and Nature Writing 2000

Edited with Burkhard Bilger

theLatest

  • The Latest Is Late

         May 24, 2018 

       "We stepped out of the helicopter and there in the grass was a thirteen-foot African snake."

         Ah, good: I've been wanting to write that sentence, but there just hasn't been time.  It happened a month ago—April 15, to be exact—in Mozambique, while I was researching a National Geographic story on Gorongosa National Park.  We had gone out that morning, flying low over the miombo forest and savanna, to collect buffalo poop for the research project of a young PhD student named Matt Hutchinson, from the lab of Dr. Rob Pringle at Princeton.  We had spooked up a few small clusters of buffalo, circledsnake330 down, landed, and gathered a pretty good haul (Matt had, that is; I wasn't a very proficient buffalo-poop finder) in the form of a brown glob here, a greenish-gray smear there, from which Matt would do DNA analysis back in the lab.  His analysis would show which forms of vegetation—native grasses, exotic weeds, both?—these buffalo had been eating.  We lifted off, landed a second time, and within a few yards of the heli we nearly stepped on this big, gorgeous snake.  She was moving slowly, like a channel of laval, trying to burrow as deeply beneath the grass as she could, as though she were wary of us . . . or embarrassed to be admired.  (I say "she" because our pilot, Mike Pingo, told me that African rock pythons this large are usually female.)  First we saw her tail, then traced forward a few yards to her midsection, and then—holy cow, this is her head, way the hell up here?  After due appreciation, we left her in peace, of course, and flew back to camp.  It was Matt's last morning in the field, and he had to pack his specimens, grab his gear, catch a Cessna from the park's airstrip, and connect to his flights to the U.S.  And I had to finish what I was doing—researching this story on Gorongosa and its remarkable recovery from devastation during the long Mozambican civil war.

         The Gorongosa story involves wildlife restoration, poaching control, reforestation, human development programs in the surrounding areas, a roster of dedicated Mozambican scientists and managers and students, some outside expertise, and an Idaho-born philanthropist named Greg Carr, who has entered a long-term agreement with the Mozambican government to revivify this place for the sake of its biological diversity and its people.  More on that, eventually, in the pages of Nat Geo.  For now I simply wanted to dust off the levers and knobs on the backside of my website here—an overdue task—and explain why I've been missing in action from this mini-blog for more than a year.  The reason can be summarized in one word: book.  I've been buried in the task of finishing my latest book (always an exhausting push), which will be published on August 14 by Simon & Schuster.  Its title is The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life.  Its subject is the tree of life, that iconic Darwinian image of the history of evolution on Earth, and the ways that image has changed radically, within the past forty years, due to discoveries from genome sequencing.  The tree of life, scientists now know, is not a tree.  

         The book's central character is one Carl Woese, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois, and the most important biologist of the 20th century that you've never heard of. Woese died in 2012, just before I picked up the trail of this subject.  And so, for five years, he has been my Citizen Kane.  (If that reference is unfamiliar, do yourself a favor: Watch the movie.)  I've talked to the people who knew him, worked with him, and treasure the memory of his complicated self.  Advance reviews of The Tangled Tree (in the trade journals of the publishing industry) have been excellent; knock wood.  This is the most ambitious, weird, and risky book that I've ever written.  And that's fine.  In February I turned 70, and it seems to me that a bit of weirdness and risk, for a septuagenarian writer, is better than being safe and stiff and staid.

          The past year has been rich too with other travels, topics, and events (I hate the word "adventures"), competing for my attention and helping account for my neglect of this space—a river journey in Angola, wild dogs in Botswana, desperate chimpanzees that kill children in western Uganda.  My wife Betsy finished and defended her dissertation—hoorah!—and is now converting that to a book of her own.  We lost three beloved dogs in the space of four months, mostly to old age and remorseless time, and welcomed two new young Russian wolfhounds.  We had a very good snow year, and managed to get out into it reasaonably often.  My knees are still capable (even the left one, the iffy one) of telemark turns and pushing the pedals on a road bike.  Life is good—whether or not, on the scale of global biodiversity and four billion years of evolution, it happens to be shaped like a tree.,

         More to come.  Please revisit.  This is just a postcard from the road.  I thought you might enjoy, as I did, a glimpse of a beautiful snake.

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EBOLA: The Natural and Human History of a Deadly Virus

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SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic

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