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

Barnes & Noble





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


  • August 14, 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.

    My new book, The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life, has just been published (August 14, 2018) by Simon & Schuster. So here I go. For those of you who might be interested:

    Last week I began the 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:

    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.