Holy goodness, what a year—and what a stretch of eight months since I last had breathing space to update here. I should be writing this in the blog column, "The Latest," to the right, but what's the point of having a website Home page that ignores the elephants in the room.  You and I and the world have been through a lot lately—Year One of the pandemic, and the election, and the delusional denial of the election's results, and the insurrection of January 6, and more. I hope you haven't lost close friends and loved ones to Covid-19, but odds are good that you have, alas. I hope you haven't lost sanity or . . . hope.

     As for me: safe and healthy and sane, so far, with my wife Betsy and our family menagerie, in Montana. Having returned from Tasmania on March 2, I haven't boarded an airplane since, and I got through 2020 on one tank of gas. I was at work on a book last spring (hence the Tasmania trip), but at the urging of Simon & Schuster that one is now on hold, and I'm at work on another: on Covid-19. Of course there will be a stampede of Covid-19 books, that gallop has already begun, and the challenge to me (to any writer) is to produce one that will be uniquely valuable. I have an approach, a plan, but I won't discuss that here, yet.

     Meanwhile, while becalmed in Bozeman, MT, I have undergone double knee replacement, served as an election observer, begun skiing again (but only cross-country, so far, on these new knees), and also written several short pieces related to Covid, as here linked, from most recent to least:

     A cover story in the Ferbruary 2021 issue of National Geographic on the evolutionary origins of viruses and how they have helped shape the history of life, not just made humans occasionally sick: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2021/02/viruses-can-cause-great-harm-but-we-could-not-live-without-them-feature/ 

     An extended OpEd essay in the New York Times , from December, on bats and their relations with both viruses and us, with emphasis on the fact that we have done bats more harm than they have done us: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/11/opinion/covid-bats.html

     Another OpEd for the Times, back in September, on the pandemic from the point of view of the Covid-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2), for which it has been a Darwinian success story, not a catastrophe (as for us): https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-covid-evolution.html 

     A feature story for The New Yorker, from August, on the possibility that pangolins (those beautiful, innocent, endangered anteater-like creatures) as well as bats might have somehow been involved as a host of the coronavirus before it spilled into humans: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/31/did-pangolins-start-the-coronavirus-pandemic 

     Another feature in The New Yorker, May 2020, on the warnings that should have alerted us, but didn't, to the coming of an event like this coronavirus pandemic: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/05/11/why-werent-we-ready-for-the-coronavirus

     And finally, another OpEd in The New York Times, January 28, 2020, beginning the year with a dour warning that this "novel coronavirus" (as it was called back then) could prove to be the Next Big One that I had predicted (not from prescience, but by listening to the right scientists) in Spillover back in 2012:  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/28/opinion/coronavirus-china.html 

     Oh, and if that's not enough to overdose you with my writing, or you want something on the light side, there was a piece in Outside, April issue, on the redeeming challenges (for the aging outdoor athlete) of golf. Yeah, golf. Sorry: https://www.outsideonline.com/2409884/david-quammen-golfs

     More soon. No rest for the freelancer.



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