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The Mermaid's Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things [Hardcover]

Kenneth M. Weiss , Anne V. Buchanan
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 17, 2009 0674031938 978-0674031937

Even after 150 years, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is irresistibly compelling. But how can this idea—in which competition prevails—be consistent with all that we know about the thoroughly cooperative nature of life at the genetic and cellular level? This book reconciles these discrepancies.

Assembling a set of general principles, authors Kenneth Weiss and Anne Buchanan build a comprehensive, unified theory that applies on the evolutionary time scale but also on the developmental and ecological scales where daily life is lived, and cells, organisms, and species interact. They present this story through a diversity of examples spanning the fundamental challenges that organisms have faced throughout the history of life. This shows that even very complex traits can be constructed simply, based on these principles. Although relentless competitive natural selection is widely assumed to be the primary mover of evolutionary change, The Mermaid’s Tale shows how life more generally works on the basis of cooperation. The book reveals that the focus on competition and cooperation is largely an artifact of the compression of time—a distortion that dissolves when the nature and origins of adapted life are viewed primarily from developmental and evolutionary time scales.

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Editorial Reviews


As an attempt to replace the dominant selectionist paradigm, The Mermaid's Tale is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows among evolutionary biologists. At the very least, it ought to make them think very hard--as they should--about entertaining alternatives to our current received wisdom. (Ian Tattersall, Curator in the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History)

About the Author

Kenneth M. Weiss is Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology and Genetics, Pennsylvania State University.

Anne V. Buchanan is Senior Research Scientist, Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (March 17, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674031938
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674031937
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 6.3 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,269,078 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a "must read" for anyone interested in evolution February 28, 2009
By Jen W.
Weiss and Buchanan describe a new perspective for studying evolutionary biology. They challenge the emphasis on natural selection as the primary evolutionary force, remind us of caveats and limitations that even Darwin recognized, and show us a refreshing way to see the forest for the trees.

This book explains the "eco/devo/evo perspective," a perspective that not only is certain to be discussed by scholars for quite some time but also is certain to make you think about your own research in a whole new light.

The information is easily accessible but doesn't skimp on content, making it a must-read for non-academics, graduate students, and professionals alike.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Elementary and Elegant June 5, 2010
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There was a time when evolution meant competition, and critics of Darwin from the Left berated the theory's natural implication that competitive capitalism was a natural order. A lot has happened since then. I think the watershed was John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary's The Major Transitions in Evolution (1997) and Laurent Keller's Levels of Selection in Evolution (1999), although I must say that when I first began studying population biology in about 1993, it was for the purpose of understanding cooperation in humans and other social species, not competition. Perhaps utimately, it was E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology (1975) that began the shift in evolutionary theory towards a balanced study of cooperation and competition.

Weiss and Buchanan have written an elementary introduction to evolutionary and developmental biology that is not suited for the classroom, but rather for casual reading by the intelligent layperson. Their claim to fame is that it stresses cooperation rather than competition, and development as well as evolution. The book is beauitifully produced and nicely written. The figures are instructive, and it gets away without any serious genetics or population dynamics.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ken and Anne are gods. March 18, 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An amazingly fun and informative romp through the history of evolution. I check the ecodevo blog everyday and am a better person for it!

Would more anthropologists and policy makers read this...
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