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Academic & Professional Books  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

Good Enough The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

By: Daniel S Milo(Author)
310 pages, 16 colour & 1 b/w photos, 21 colour illustrations, 2 tables
Iconoclastic in its outlook, but gentle and respectful in its approach, Good Enough is a mightily interesting and thought-provoking critique of adaptationist storytelling in evolutionary biology.
Good Enough
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  • Good Enough ISBN: 9780674504622 Hardback Jun 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £24.95
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About this book

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
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Customer Reviews (1)

  • thoughtful critique of adaptationist storytelling
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 8 Aug 2019 Written for Hardback

    In popular discourse, the theory of evolution has become a victim of its own success, reduced to sound-bites such as “survival of the fittest”. Biologists will of course quickly point out that this is an oversimplification, though Philosopher Daniel S. Milo takes things a few steps further. Good Enough is a thought-provoking critique of the dominance of adaptationist explanations. He argues that, while natural selection is important, it is not the only, possibly not even the default mechanism, in evolution. No, Milo claims, the mediocre also survive and thrive.

    Good Enough is a book in three parts. First thing to take care off is the obvious danger of creationist misappropriation of *any* critique of evolutionary theory, which Milo does with due diligence. Then, without disrespecting Darwin’s legacy, Milo critically examines the history of evolutionary theory to explain how today’s thinking originated, offers alternative explanations, and provides sharp observations on how evolutionary thinking pervades many aspects of human society.

    Darwin’s original sin, says Milo, was his obsession with domestication. Given that he was writing in the 1850s for an audience unprepared for the concepts of evolution and natural selection it is only understandable that he turned to this familiar analogy. Animal and plant breeding was something everyone understood. So, both the Origin and the subsequent The Variation... leaned heavily on domestication as a model of evolution. This led to the idea that natural selection is as relentless as breeders are, to which Milo outlines several objections, arguing that all that matters is that organisms are good enough to reproduce and survive.

    The second part is where Milo offers his explanation. The history of the theory of evolution has led to a near-myopic focus on natural selection. In the process, scientists often ignore anomalies or try and find adaptive explanations – biologists, it seems, just cannot resist the temptation. In a conceptual move that parallels Brandon & McShea’s Zero-Force Evolutionary Law (see my recent review of Biology's First Law), Milo argues for a change in perspective. Rather than assuming function to be the default, neutrality is. A lot of traits are simply not selected for and vary randomly.

    There are two noteworthy examples Milo discusses. One, the messy organisation of genetic material: many genomes are unnecessarily large and riddled with non-coding sequences. Already back in 1968, Motoo Kimura argued that most genetic variability is neutral and of no evolutionary consequence (see his two books, but see also Junk DNA). Two, wide ranges in phenotypic trait values. Phenotypic polymorphisms (e.g. eye colour) can easily be brushed off as irrelevant when they are equally costly. But where traits differ, sometimes dramatically, in number or size there are energetic costs to their production (e.g. sperm count, or the bizarre headgear of treehoppers). Such variation is often taken to be the substrate for evolution to proceed by leaps and bounds. Though clearly, says Milo, such traits are not under strict natural selection themselves, they are not being optimized. And they are far too numerous to ignore.

    Milo patiently considers and disarms the usual adaptive explanations and then proposes several mechanisms explaining this bias towards excess. Invoking “conserved core components and processes” (widely shared and conserved features of organisms such as DNA replication, see The Plausibility of Life) and Pareto’s 80/20 rule, he argues that a small number of optimized traits are under strong natural selection and contribute most to survival. This leaves many traits that need to be present without needing to be optimized. For those, excess and wastefulness are the safer options; “better to be inefficient than to be dead”.

    So far, so fascinating. I have often questioned why “no selection” is not considered more often as an explanation, so I find this argument appealing. That, of course, does not mean it is not worthwhile to look for adaptive explanations (Milo says as much). My main criticism here is that Milo might be perceived to conflate two concepts. He argues that many traits are selectively neutral and evolve randomly, something that others have done before him (see e.g. Randomness in Evolution). But he couches this in language that still sounds adaptationist. Saying that the mediocre also survive, that merely being good enough is sufficient, still implies selective pressures, albeit weaker ones.

    The third part of the book is equally fascinating. Here, Milo looks at human society and offers some of his most incisive and sharp-witted observations. What sets humans apart evolutionarily is that we can perceive of a future, and with that came a seed of restlessness, of wanting to improve our lot. Through cooperation, delegation, and specialization we have created societies where we care for each other’s needs. The drive for excess led to imaginative brains that became very successful in ensuring survival for all through technology, agriculture, and health care.

    We have achieved this now, but the drive persists, “our bored neurons crave action”. So we construct problems for ourselves to solve, endless diversions to lose ourselves in. Politics, sports, cuisine, art, fashion, science, work. They are all but exercises, endless loops, to give our lives meaning. Even though we have never had it so good, we continue to compete as if our lives depend on it, for without it “we would succumb to boredom and despair”. Now, says Milo, contrast that with the tales we tell ourselves. Our economies are steeped in Darwinian metaphors of relentless optimization and cut-throat competition, and we continue to educate our children to excel. We have taken Darwin’s good ideas and extrapolated them to many other fields where they just do not apply.

    Good Enough is nicely produced with numerous carefully designed colour illustrations. On the biological details, Milo is clearly not alone (neutral selection has been mooted by others), but his application of it to human affairs is both insightful and unsettling. His ideas are thought-provoking, no doubt controversial to some, and I look forward to pushback from evolutionary biologists. But a fun and accessible read like this is suitable for a wide audience. What a fantastic book!
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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.

By: Daniel S Milo(Author)
310 pages, 16 colour & 1 b/w photos, 21 colour illustrations, 2 tables
Iconoclastic in its outlook, but gentle and respectful in its approach, Good Enough is a mightily interesting and thought-provoking critique of adaptationist storytelling in evolutionary biology.
Media reviews

"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

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