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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.

 

 

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From Simon & Schuster - 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 was published by Simon & Schuster on August 14.  Order now:

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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

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  • LOSS, BIRDS, AND HOPE

    November 6, 2019

    On the second floor of the Metropolitan Club in New York, overlooking Fifth Avenue, is an ornate, high-ceilinged room with gray marble fireplaces, burgundy drapes, Renaissance-flavored murals, and many yards of decorative woodwork painted gold. It’s not the sort of place to which I would ordinarily take an old friend to lunch, but there we were, and with good reason. The reason was that Audubon New York, the state office of the National Audubon Society, had convened several hundred loyal supporters for its annual awards luncheon, at which I was one of two people being honored. The friend was E. Jean Carroll, a fellow writer who’s been my good pal for forty years. Jean is the longtime advice columnist of Elle Magazine, dispensing wisdom and dauntless good humor under the banner of that column, “Ask E. Jean.” If her name rings another bell, it’s because she is most recently famed for her book What Do We Need Men For?, a funnily serious memoir in which she describes, among other gruesome misadventures, her rape in a dressing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department story (an elegant emporium on Fifth, just a block south of where we sat lunching) several decades ago by a boorish real estate developer named Donald J. Trump. The Audubon people were gracious and generous, kindred souls in the struggle to save biological diversity on this fraught planet, and the milieu was so august I had worn a necktie. Seated between E. Jean and me was the actress Jane Alexander, a committed conservationist, a smart and genial woman, and the three of us had great fun talking of family dogs and wild birds. Ms. Alexander’s forthcoming play on Broadway is “Grand Horizons,” with James Cromwell, and you should see it.

    Okay, that’s the mis-en-scène, right? Pretty incongruous for a simple country lad like me. Why have I brought all this up? Because I want to share with you what I said after they put the Steuben glass in my hands and let me at the microphone. First they presented their Keesee Conservation Award to Gregory Long, a distinguished man who led the New York Botanical Garden through thirty years of progressive change. Then it was my turn. I had been asked in advance to deliver some substantive remarks. So after expressing my deep gratitude to these good folk in particular, and to the Audubon Society in general, I said this:

    ivoryBilled370Ivory billed woodpecker by John James Audobon.

    Today I’m going to talk to you for a few minutes about birds and loss and uncertainty and hope. I know that it’s probably reckless of me to talk to you at all about birds—like carrying coals to Newcastle. I suspect everyone in this room knows their birds better than I do. (I’m a little stronger on field identifications, by the way, with insects and reptiles. I can tell a fritillary from a painted lady, and a skin from a gecko, much better than I can tell a tanager from a bunting.) But there are a few birds about which I do know a thing or two, and some of those birds represent stories of wonder and loss that resonate broadly through the whole network of dire problems and discouragements we’re currently facing—as conservationists, and as citizens of planet Earth.

    One of the birds that I know about is the dodo, Raphus cucullatus. It was a gigantized and flightless member of the pigeon family, endemic to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Extinct in the late 17th century from a combination of causes. Those causes included sailors killing it for food, plus rats, pigs, and monkeys eating its eggs. In other words, humanity arriving on Mauritius, for the first time, had doomed it. A giant flightless pigeon that had lived fine for maybe a million years, eating fruit, laying its eggs on the ground, bothering nobody—not stupid in any sense, so far as we know, despite that “dodo” reputation—was exterminated quickly by the arrival of people and our pestiferous camp-following invasive species and livestock.

    Twenty-three years ago I published a book on the subject of evolution and extinction, under the title The Song of the Dodo. It focused especially on islands and island-like fragments of protected landscape—such as small national parks. As the title suggests, I used the dodo as an icon for the big themes I was exploring. Those themes included biological diversity, losses of biological diversity, and hope in the face of loss. The dodo itself wasn’t my main subject, just a representation, but at one point I did describe the history and natural history of this creature, Raphus cucullatus—its life, its song, and its death.

    Nobody knows exactly when the last dodo died in the wild. The proximate cause, and the exact place and time of the final death, are uncertain. We only have record of the last known killing of dodos by people. That’s the way it is with most extinctions. We don’t know the fate of the very last Tasmanian “tiger”—a carnivorous marsupial, more accurately known as the thylacine. Its end, like the dodo’s, is veiled in uncertainty. We just know that the last captive thylacine died on September 7, 1936, in the Hobart Zoo. We don’t know when the last passenger pigeon died—we just know that the last captive individual, known as Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914, the same summer as Archduke Franz Ferdinand died at Sarajevo. We don’t know the end of the story of the ivory-billed woodpecker.

    READ MORE

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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