Imperfection (US edition)

A natural history

T. Pievani, 2022, MIT press

In praise of imperfection: how life on our planet is a catalog of imperfections, errors, alternatives, and anomalies.

In the beginning, there was imperfection, which became the source of all things. Anomalies and asymmetries caused planets to take shape from the bubbling void and sent light into darkness. Life on earth is a catalog of accidents, alternatives, and errors that turned out to work quite well. In this book, Telmo Pievani shows that life on our planet has flourished and survived not because of its perfection but despite (and perhaps because of) its imperfection. He begins his story with the disruption-filled birth of the universe and proceeds through the random DNA copying errors that fuel evolution, the transformations of advantages into handicaps by natural selection, the anatomical and functional jumble that is the human brain, and our many bodily mismatches.

Along the way, Pievani tells readers about the Irish elk (incidentally, neither Irish nor elk), whose enormous antlers serve to illustrate the first two laws of imperfection; the widespread dissemination of costly or useless traits; and the neuroimperfection of the human brain—“a frozen accident of evolution that was not designed from scratch,” as Pievani calls it. He sizes up the alleged perfection of the human body, asking, for example, if everything in our bodies serves a purpose, why do we have appendixes? Why bipedalism, with the inevitable back pain that results? In this fascinating account, Pievani offers the first comprehensive explanatory theory for the ubiquity of imperfection.

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