In this spirited and irreverent critique of Darwin's long hold over our imagination, a distinguished philosopher of science makes the case that, in culture as well as nature, not only the fittest survive: the world is full of the "good enough" that persist too.
Why is the genome of a salamander forty times larger than that of a human? Why does the avocado tree produce a million flowers and only a hundred fruits? Why, in short, is there so much waste in nature? In this lively and wide-ranging meditation on the curious accidents and unexpected detours on the path of life, Daniel Milo argues that we ask these questions because we've embraced a faulty conception of how evolution – and human society – really works.
Good Enough offers a vigorous critique of the quasi-monopoly that Darwin's concept of natural selection has on our idea of the natural world. Darwinism excels in accounting for the evolution of traits, but it does not explain their excess in size and number. Many traits far exceed the optimal configuration to do the job, and yet the maintenance of this extra baggage does not prevent species from thriving for millions of years. Milo aims to give the messy side of nature its due – to stand up for the wasteful and inefficient organisms that nevertheless survive and multiply.
But he does not stop at the border between evolutionary theory and its social consequences. He argues provocatively that the theory of evolution through natural selection has acquired the trappings of an ethical system. Optimization, competitiveness, and innovation have become the watchwords of Western societies, yet their role in human lives – as in the rest of nature – is dangerously overrated. Imperfection is not just good enough: it may at times be essential to survival.
I. Icons as Test Cases
1. The Giraffe: Science Begins in Wonder
2. The Domestication Analogy: Darwin’s Original Sin
3. The Galápagos and the Finch: Two Unrepresentative Icons
4. The Brain: Our Ancestors’ Worst Enemy
II. The Theory of the Good Enough
5. Embracing Neutrality
6. Strange Ranges: The Bias toward Excess
7. Nature’s Safety Net
III. Our Triumph and Its Side Effects
8. The Invention of Tomorrow
9. Humanity’s Safety Net
10. The Excellence Conspiracy: Critique of Evolutionary Ethics
Daniel S. Milo is Chair of Natural Philosophy at the cole des Hautes tudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, Mills College, the University of California, Berkeley, Wissenschaftskollege in Berlin, and Tel Aviv University. He has directed two theater productions and produced three films. Good Enough is his ninth book.
"Bold but carefully reasoned [...] An argument that pays reverence to Darwin as revolutionary thinker while nonetheless insisting that both he and many others have indeed 'extend[ed] too far the action of natural selection.' [...] Milo insists that nature is full not of excellence but of mediocrity – not cut-throat competitive champions but merely the manifold forms of life that survive just well enough not to die [...] Good Enough is an important intervention that boasts none of the mediocrity that Milo finds everywhere at work – or rather, asleep on the job – in the natural world."
– Ben Murphy, PopMatters
"Good Enough is a book that changes key cultural assumptions, offering a radical revision of the ideas of evolution and selection. Daniel Milo argues that nature follows the law of inertia, makes do with mediocrity, and relies on chance rather than maximization. It is a rare book that will leave a lasting impact on scientific discourse and on popular imagination."
– Eva Illouz, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris
"Through a marshaling of facts and a careful reading of scientific opinions, Milo shows himself to be a persuasive analyst and historical detective, revealing critical sides of the evolution argument that have often been ignored. The book, full of humor and unexpected examples, showcases Milo's skill for storytelling."
– Marc Kirschner, Founding Chair, Department of Systems Biology, Harvard University
"In this salutary essay, Daniel Milo tells biologists with delight what they already know but never confess. Rooting his argument in the genesis of Darwin's theory, Milo emphasizes the place of the mediocre, the useless, and the level-down in natural variation. Without contradicting the power of natural selection, Good Enough suggests that the long tails of trait variation govern survival more than optimization, subsequently shaping the diversity of life."
– Nicolas Gompel, Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich