David P. Barash writes:
‘Imperfection,” by Telmo Pievani, begins as it should, with the big bang: “In the beginning, there was imperfection. A rebellion against the established order, with no witnesses, in the heart of the darkest of nights. Something in the symmetry broke down 13.82 billion years ago.” And it ends on a suitably ambiguous note: “There is something amazing in evolution . . . which in 3.5 billion years has taken us from an amoeba to Donald Trump.”
Mr. Pievani is a professor of biology at the University of Padua. His brief and thoughtful book (translated from the Italian by Michael Gerard Kenyon) isn’t just a description of imperfection, but a paean to it. There’s plenty of description and discussion, too, as “Imperfection” takes the reader on a convincing whirlwind tour of the dangers as well as the impossibility of perfection, how imperfection is built into the nature of the universe, and into all living things—including ourselves.
Mary Poppins congratulated herself for being “practically perfect in every way,” but of course she wasn’t, if only because she bragged about it. Moreover, perfection would make evolution stop dead in its tracks. In fact, it would never have begun—natural selection needs diversity upon which to operate. And diversity ultimately arises from mutation and sexual recombination, each of which is a perfect source of imperfection.
Yet another source of imperfection, unique to Homo sapiens and well described by Mr. Pievani, is the disconnect between our rapid cultural innovation and our slow biological evolution. (Immodest note: In 1986, your current reviewer wrote “The Hare and the Tortoise,” the first book calling attention to this troublesome imbalance.) For a homey example, consider that, being primates, our Pleistocene ancestors were naturally fond of sugars, which indicate ripe fruit, and of fats, present—albeit in generally small quantities—in game. Today, our culture provides us with excessive opportunities to indulge such fondness, which we overdo, benefiting only the confectionery and meat industries, along with dentists, cardiologists and morticians.
Abraham Lincoln had a cute way of undercutting our tendency to find perfection everywhere. It’s remarkable, he once pointed out, that no matter how tall someone is, their legs are always exactly long enough to reach the ground! Ironically, fundamentalists on both extremes of the evolution divide often converge in misinterpreting perfection, creationists proclaiming that only a supreme being could have produced such superb complexity, while hyper-adaptationists emphasize the power of natural selection to achieve the same thing, promoting a “gee whiz” perspective on evolution.
Counterintuitively, it is the imperfection of the organic world that provides some of the most cogent evidence for evolution as a wholly natural phenomenon, and against special creation, or, in its barely disguised incarnation,“intelligent design theory.” And here is where “Imperfection,” the book, is especially valuable.
As Mr. Pievani emphasizes, Homo sapiens are marvels of unintelligent design, “with their useless earlobes, their tedious wisdom teeth, . . . their vermiform intestinal appendage, their spinal curves, and their vas deferens, which carries sperm from the testicles to the penis not directly and by the shortest route but instead after going by a useless and lengthy route via the ureter . . . the remains of their ancestral quadrupedal gait, and the corresponding ills and pains, backache, sciatica, flat feet, scoliosis, and hernias.” Add the terrible structure of our knees, our lower backs, the fact that the opening of the tubes carrying food and air are so close that choking is a significant cause of mortality, the awkwardness of having our reproduction and sewerage emerging right next to each other. We are shot through with deficiencies that wouldn’t earn even a passing grade for a novice bioengineer, never mind an omniscient, omnipotent deity.Full article at The Wall Street Journal.
So, this article continues, but let’s not overlook the grandeur of a mountain by having one’s eyes focused downward on a crack in a rock. Anyone who says, “Homo sapiens are marvels of unintelligent design”, and can only myopically see subjectively critiqued imperfections, while not being awed by the suite of biochemical marvels that comprise the human body, is ignorant at best, and perhaps maliciously antagonistic towards God at worst.