The Tangled Tree by David Quammen
This is a really good book. I’m partial to histories of pre-Cambrian life on Earth, and this is one of the best I’ve read. The author is not only an experienced science writer, he has wit and wisdom, and a way with words too.
The book is split into seven sections, covering early, Darwinian notions of a tree of life, ideas about bacteria and other tiny organisms, ideas of biological symbiosis, a new, more accurate form of the tree, horizontal gene transfer, changing the lower section of the tree into a more accurate (but far more complex) network, and how what we know today affects human beings.
A few major characters stalk this marvellously written book, the main one being Carl Woese, responsible for the discovery of how different Archaea are from Bacteria. A difficult, complex man, except to those friends who liked him and stood by him, he is the heart of this book, though some of his ideas turned out to be wrong. But he did get a lot right. Another major character is Lynn Margulis, who put forward the accepted theory of mitochondria and chloroplasts being captured bacteria. Many other notables inhabit these pages, all sympathetically drawn.
The science is fascinating, the story is compelling and the details of personality and other quirks not intrusive. Too often (I’m looking at you, Adam Rutherford), writers over-do the human interest angle or, like Suzanne Simard, get it half right. Quammen’s notes on character are all perfectly judged and occur at just the right rate. These are really interesting people, and we do need to know a little about them. It’s a tribute to this author that he knows how to get that balance right.
You do need a bit of biological knowledge to get the full effect – the section on antibiotic resistance is pretty dense – but this is certainly a book for the lay reader. Highly recommended.