Imperfection: A Natural History

Telmo Pievani
MIT Press, £22.99

The striking cover of Imperfection features a dog with one blue eye and one brown. Telmo Pievani, philosopher of science and evolutionist, in fact goes far deeper and further back in natural history than just the imperfections of our animal-centric world. He takes us back all the way to the formation of the planets and to the very universe itself, exploring how anomalies and asymmetries make our existence the way it is and drive complexity.

Pievani’s prose is soaring and epic. On the beginnings of the universe from “a void containing everything”, he describes “a rebellion against the established order in the heart of the darkest nights… an infinitely tiny anomaly became the source of all things”.

The book not only describes how imperfection and imbalance drive evolution and complexity at various scales, but challenges our perceptions of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in nature. The idea that the Earth has the ‘perfect’ conditions for life to develop, for example, is a flaw of hindsight that “points our minds in the wrong direction,” he writes.

Drawing from ancient philosophical wisdom and the latest scientific research, Imperfection goes on to highlight the role of error, imprecision, disruption and randomness in processes such as DNA replication and the evolution of the human brain. Towards the end of the book, Pievani begins to reflect on how humans’ quest for perfection – or at least the abolition of error – may impact the future development of our perfectly imperfect species.

Iain Adams CBiol MRSB