“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


  • Why I Love Montana: Reason #167

         June 21, 2018

         Speaking of snakes. But this snake story (unlike the last one, see under DQ Blog, "The Latest Is Late") doesn't involve a thirteen-foot African rock python, spotted underfoot in the grass of a Mozambique savanna.  This one is about a modest little four-foot ball python who needed a home in Bozeman, Montana.  Bozeman is not a good place to be a tropical snake living on the street.  So, a rescue.

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         It happened like this.  One day about three weeks ago my wife Betsy, aka Zoo Girl, came downstairs and said: "Don't get mad at me, but I've just adopted a python."  I said: "Which species?"  That's collaborative decision-making in our household.  The answer was Python regius, sometimes called the royal python, less grandly the ball python, for the defensive tactic of curling itself into a ball.  Betsy hadn't precisely adopted it, not yet, but she'd committed to do so.  Next day we went to pick the snake up, from the household of some nice people whose teenage boys were leaving the nest, and so it was time for their python to leave too.  He was about ten years old, and he had aged out.  His terrarium and a heat lamp and some leftover frozen guinea pigs were part of the deal.  His name, they told us, was Zeus.  Betsy and I decided to rename him, but preferably to something that might sound familiar to his ears.  (Okay, strictly speaking, snakes don't have ears.  But they can detect sonic vibrations through their jaw bones.)  Betsy suggested the new name: Boots.  Obviously perfect, nice going, I said.

         So Boots came to live with us, his 55-gallon tank taking its place in the best available spot: my office.  I became a ten-year-old boy again (so says Zoo Girl), making trips to Petco for more heat lamps and thermometers and a hygrometer and spray bottles and other knicknacks to make Boots comfortable.  I had had many captive snakes when I was a kid—garter snakes, milk snakes, an indigo snake, then a boa constrictor in my college dorm room one year—and I'm sorry and abashed to report, they got ignorant and poor care.  Some I released back to the woods, some died.  I have captive-snake guilt, a debt of it.  I was determined from the start that I'd do my best to make up for that with Boots.  I got to know the reptile people (I almost said, "the reptile nerds," but that would be unkind, and now I'm one too) at Petco.

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         Let me re-emphasize one point: I would never nowadays kidnap a snake from the wild, nor buy one from a pet store.  I don't know where ball pythons within the U.S. pet trade come from (captive breeding, or could they still be imported from Africa in this day and age?), but I welcome someone to enlighten me.  Anyway, to repeat, Boots is a rescue.  Our house has been filled with rescue dogs and rescue cats for fifteen years.  Why not a rescue snake?

         But here's the problem with being a ball python in Bozeman: You're a snake of grasslands and savannas in sub-Saharan Africa, which tend to be humid, while the air hereabouts is very, very dry.  Even in winter when the snow is deep, even ten minutes after a summer thundershower, even during a hailstorm (between the hailstones), this part of Montana is pretty arid.  And I've struggled with that, on Boots's behalf, for the past three weeks: spritzing his tank frequently, covering one end with a damp towel, checking the humidity gauge.  Too often the gauge has shown humidity down at 40 percent, whereas the reptile folks at Petco, and the reptile mavens I've now met online (some wonderful counselors, such as John F. Taylor, proprietor of the website reptileapartment.com) have coached me that 60 percent should be minimal for a ball python.

         So today, back at Petco, I got Boots a nifty humidifier, with a refillable water bottle and an accordion hose sending mist down into his home.  But that's not all.  He would need a Plexiglas lid for the top of his tank, I decided, to keep the humidity in.  This glass should cover at least half of the tank opening, I figured, with a little cut-out in one corner for the humidifier hose.  So off I went to our local hardware store to buy a 13-by-26-inch sheet of Plexiglas.

         The hardware-store guy who drew the assignment was named Will Turpin.  Sure, I can cut you a piece to that size, he said, but you'll have to pay for the whole sheet.  Not a problem, I said.  He mounted the glass in his fancy cutting device and, with a few strokes, a few pushes, a little expert widgeting, did the job.  Any chance you could cut a two-inch square out of one corner? I asked.  (I was allowing that much for the humidifier hose.)  Sure, said Will Turpin.  But this task turned out to be harder.  Ever try to cut a small square out of a big piece of Plexiglas, with a long-arm slicer, without splitting the whole sheet or leaving ragged edges?  Me neither.  Will Turpin neither.  But he was handy and agreeable, as a hardware-store guy should be, and he worked at it for a few minutes.  As he did, I confessed to him why I was making this inconvenient request.

         A python! he said,  Which species?  Ball python, I said.  Beautiful animals, he said, I had one for ten years, when I was single and living in California.  Used to rest on my chest while I watched TV in bed, he said.  And then, when it detected that I was asleep, it would crawl away and find hiding spots in the bedroom, Will said.  When I came up here to get married, to a woman who cringes at snakes, I had to get rid of it.  But I found it a good new home, because I cared about that snake, he said.

         So, another rescue situation.  What was its name? I asked.

         "King Solomon," said Will Turpin.

         A sheet of Plexiglas in Montana costs just fourteen bucks, a bargain.  The cutting is free.  After I paid, Will Turpin held the door for me, and we shook hands.  "I envy you," he said.

         "Thanks for going the extra two inches," I said, "and the extra mile."



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