Author: David Quammen
Summary: Fascinating material presented in an approachable way, but overall organization was lacking.
Many of you who enjoy natural history will have read about Charles Darwin. You may already know that he originated the use of a tree as a way to visualize the process of evolution. This story starts with that tree and covers several major discoveries that have caused to revise our understanding of that tree. In particular, the author covers horizontal gene transfer (transfer of genetic material between individuals in ways that aren’t from parent to child) and the discovery of a new taxonomic group, the Archaea.
This might sound like a dense topic, but the author actually writes in an extremely approachable way. He occasionally made fun of his own scientific jargon. While I wish he had explained the value of such jargon for concise, precise communication, he still made me laugh out loud. Short chapters didn’t hurt the readability either. The author also did a great job explaining why we should care about all this. He draws you into his sense of curiosity about the origins of life and what it means to be human.
The author also brought to life the human side of the scientific endeavor. He conveyed the day-to-day experience of doing research. He showed how personality clashes can shape scientific discourse. He did a pretty good job covering a controversial female scientist fairly. And as a scientist, I found the depiction of doing genetics in the 60s and 70s delightfully quaint. Researchers spent decades doing work you could now do in hours! Programming in fortran! On punch cards! It was fun.
On a less positive note, I found the organization disjointed. My understanding of the author’s focus, based on the intro, was on the two discoveries I described above – horizontal gene transfer and the Archaea – and how they impact the tree of life. Each of the topics I mentioned did get a section – the history of the tree concept; horizontal gene transfer; and the discovery of the Archaea. However, two later sections jumped back in time to the history of the tree concept in a way that jolted me out of the story. I would have preferred to get all of the history of these trees together, chronologically. There were also two sections on other types of DNA transfer where I could see a connection to the author’s discussion of trees, but he didn’t make that connection clearly or well. Finally, the last section was really only connected to itself or the rest of the book by a focus on Carl Woese, the scientist who discovered horizontal gene transfer. It seems possible the author should have explicitly structured the story around him, because in retrospect, he was the through line.
I’m not surprised this book made it onto the National Book Award longlist with this readable take on important scientific updates. I’m also not surprised it didn’t make the shortlist though, as the organization let it down.