In his Notebook B (September 1837), a young Charles Darwin wrote: “When one sees nipple on man’s breast, one does not say some use. So with useless wings under elytra of beetles, born from beetles with wings and modified. If simple creation, surely would have been born without them”. Where there is perfection, there is no history.
Where there is perfection, everything has already happened. When we look at nature, our goal is not perfection. We should be interested in imperfections, because they are a promise of change, something is happening there and not everything has already been written. Evolution feeds on imperfections.
Acclaimed Italian science writer and evolutionist Telmo Pievani, in the wake of the work of his masters like Stephen J. Gould and Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza, traces the history and the role of imperfection in natural history, starting with the tiny imperfection into the primordial quantum vacuum that gave birth to our universe from an infinitesimal and random physical anomaly, from a contingent fluctuation.
The story continues with the evolution of our planet, randomly in the right place at the right time, the origin of life, the Great Oxygenation Event, the Cambrian explosion and its oddities,
the evolution of terrestrial tetrapods and their anatomical imperfect adjustments. And again, other frozen accidents on the scene, like the lucky evolution of mammals, the imperfections
of bipedalism in our family tree, the risky adaptations of human language and neoteny. Homo sapiens is the son of successful imperfections. And now, such an imperfect species is the master of the ecological world. Our body, our brain, our DNA are repositories of imperfections, and therefore they are so creative systems. Evolution works on existing constrained material and it does what it can, not the best. Tinkering is the right metaphor, not optimal engineering.
In this brilliant book, Lucrezio’s clinamen is revisited for the first time through the lenses of contemporary science. Imperfection, like diversity, is seen as our major ally, not enemy. But imperfection associated with power could be dangerous.
The title of the final chapter is: Would you buy a used car from Homo sapiens?
He is a columnist for Il Corriere della Sera, and the magazines Le Scienze and Micromega.
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