The Tangled Tree Book Summary - The Tangled Tree Book explained in key points
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The Tangled Tree summary

David Quammen

A Radical New History of Life

4.5 (32 ratings)
22 mins
8 key ideas
Audio & text

What is The Tangled Tree about?

The Tangled Tree (2018) provides curious readers with a vital recap of the many scientific twists and turns that have taken place in our understanding of evolution since the days of Charles Darwin. Author David Quammen’s lucid explanations will bring you up to speed on all we know and don’t know about how life developed on planet Earth.

About the Author

David Quammen is the author of fifteen books. A contributing writer for National Geographic, he has also published articles in the New York Times Book Review, the Atlantic and Harper’s. His previous books include Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in nonfiction, and The Chimp and the River: How AIDS Emerged from an African Forest.

Table of Contents

    The Tangled Tree
    summarized in 8 key ideas

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    The concept of a tree of life has a long history among scientists and naturalists.

    There’s a good chance that, at some point, you’ve seen a picture of “the tree of life.” It’s a drawing in the form of a tree that represents the evolution of one type of life, tracking progress from its “roots” as a primordial amoeba to a fish to an amphibian and beyond. At various points along the way, branches diverge from the primary trunk, representing worms, reptiles, rodents and other animals.

    These illustrations have long served as a useful tool, a simple visual model of a complex subject.

    Like many other things in science, the concept behind the tree of life diagram can be traced back to Aristotle. He mentioned the progressional development of animals in his book History of Animals, written in the fourth century BCE. However, Aristotle suggests that progress in nature is akin to ascending a ladder; living organisms start out as elements such as earth, water and fire, and gradually evolve into plants, animals and then humans. At the top of the evolutionary ladder, humans turn into heavenly beings. All life is part of one “stairway to heaven,” so to speak.

    This model was popular for many centuries, with the “ladder of ascent” even being referenced in sixteenth-century woodwork. But by 1745, Enlightenment-era thinkers had started using more tree-like models.

    At this time, explorers began seeing more of the world. Information and knowledge were spreading, and scholars needed more than a one-way ladder to classify all the diverse new plants and animals. A tree wasn’t so much a perfect expression of evolution as a handy way to categorize biological information.

    As the French botanist Augustin Augier wrote in 1801, an illustrated “tree appears to be the most proper way to grasp the order and gradation” of plant life.

    The tree of life may have reached its apex with the gifted illustrator and biologist Ernst Haeckel. In the latter half of the 1800s, Haeckel published multivolume books filled with remarkably detailed drawings of fascinating microscopic creatures and more than a few trees of life.

    But unlike Augier’s tree, Haeckel drew evolutionary trees that illustrated the precise lineage of living things. He produced a tree of vertebrates, mollusks, plants and mammals, just to name a few.

    Haeckel was making bold proclamations, but his work was really an extension of another man’s ideas: those of Charles Darwin.

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    Best quote from The Tangled Tree

    Many, including Carl Woese himself, believed that he should have won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, but he died in 2012 without such recognition.

    —David Quammen
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    Who should read The Tangled Tree

    • Students of biology and the natural sciences
    • Anyone curious about where life came from
    • Fans and critics of Charles Darwin

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