CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Tangled Tree

By David Quammen
2018, Penguin Press, New York
480 pages
ISBN-10: 9781594204227
ISBN-13: 978-1594204227

Here is some great winter reading for you. Although not a mycological book, per se, fungi along with all other groups of microbes do figure in. Anyone with an interest in evolutionary biology or who wants to know much of the basics about how evolution operates—in addition to how scientists study evolutionary biology— should read this remarkable book. David Quammen (The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, Song of the Dodo) is just about the best science writer and with The Tangled Tree has surpassed my high expectations. This book is mostly about the famous late microbiologist / molecular evolutionary biologist Carl Woese and his discovery of a new domain of life but the story enmeshes so many other great and disparate scientists along the way (Darwin, Wallace, Lynn Margulis, Ford Doolittle, Ernst Haeckel, Constantin Merezhkowsky, et al.). It was especially fun for me to revisit many discoveries and breakthroughs that were happening during my undergrad and grad student days as a young scientist.

Carl Woese is likely the greatest scientist to never win a Nobel Prize; likely the most famous scientist you never heard of. He died as the year 2012 came to a close. This, from 2013 FUNGI (vol. 6, no. 1), marking is passing: “Woese joined the faculty of the University of Illinois in 1964 and spent his entire career there. He completely shook up the world of microbiology in 1977 with his discovery of the Archaea, an entirely new third domain of living organisms (the other two domains being true bacteria and eukaryotes). The organisms now classified as Archaea were already known, at least some of them. But Woese used DNA sequence analysis to show that some microbial species, which had previously been thought to be within the prokaryote group, had in fact evolved separately from a universal ancestor shared by all three groups. It was initially thought that this third group was actually a primitive ancestor to true bacteria, thus the third domain was originally dubbed ‘Archaebacteria.’ Most important to the big evolutionary biology picture, his results were the first to prove that all life on earth was related. To the end, Woese championed the importance of research on the microbial world (mostly overlooked until recent times) and noted that although invisible, microbes make up far more of the living protoplasm on Earth than all humans, animals and plants combined.”

Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Quammen pulls together discoveries from many fields to further illuminate, and address some of the biggest questions that have come to the fore as new tools to study biology have been developed. Is it true that Charles Darwin was wrong … if so, about what? What are the origins of the eukaryotic cell? What implications do these discoveries carry for the concept of human identity? What is the human individual—considering what we now know of microbes and their symbiosis with all other life on the planet? “What are you? The reality here is more strange than you might think.”

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi