The band of biologists who redrew the tree of lifeHe is our greatest living chronicler of the natural world yet was never formally trained in the sciences. As he follows scientists into thickets, real and rhetorical, he keeps an eye not only on the rigor demanded by science, but on the wonder and play and curiosity — the noodling — of serious creativity. These are the very qualities that infuse and leaven his own work, making unlikely page-turners out of burly books on zoonotic diseases and biogeography. Genes, as it happens, do not merely flow vertically from parent to child. They can move horizontally known as horizontal gene transfer. They can move between species.
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The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
In , Charles Darwin sketched a spindly tree of life in one of his notebooks. Its stick-figure trunk sprouted into four sets of branches. The drawing illustrated his radical idea that, over time, organisms change to give rise to new species. Biologists have worked since then to fill in the details of that tree. While all beings are related, Darwin intimated, it should be possible to classify all living things into distinct lineages of more closely related species — branches — based on their shared evolutionary histories.
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The worldwide influenza epidemic of was accompanied by a strain of bacterial pneumonia that killed millions of people. In searching for a treatment, a British researcher named Fred Griffith discovered that some forms of the bacterium were relatively mild, but others were virulent. He further discovered that combining the live mild form with the dead virulent form created a live virulent form. It was the quintessential horror story of transformation from the mild-mannered into the Beast, played out in a Petri dish. Quammen is the master of deconstructing complex, obscure scientific concepts and reconstituting them into coherent, understandable, and illuminating narratives. In The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life , he does this primarily by focusing on the people behind the science who, in a very short period of time — whether working with or against each other — have changed much of what we thought we knew about evolution, heredity, and, yes, the origin and definition of species.