Nature documentaries like to coo over creatures which are supposed to be “perfectly adapted to their environment.” But in Telmo Pievani’s new book, Imperfection, the biology professor at the University of Padua shows just how wrong that is—for nothing in nature is perfect.
Pievani argues that nature is a tinkerer, adapting bits and bobs to new ends. So the protein haemoglobin wasn’t designed to carry oxygen round the body: it does the best that it can. In fact, it is unable to distinguish between oxygen and other small molecules such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide, sometimes with lethal consequences.
Imperfection is not merely an intriguing philosophical angle on nature: there are practical applications that Pievani does not mention. For example, the imperfect design of proteins is spurring a growing body of remedial technologies to counter environmental ills. An enzyme found in the humble waxworm, the caterpillar of the wax moth, can digest the world’s most abundant nuisance protein: plastic polyethylene. Who knew? Not nature.
Pievani traces the imperfection of nature right back to the Big Bang, and goes beyond biology into engineering: the phone landline was not designed to deliver the internet; the transistor wasn’t meant to be the seed of the computer chip; GPS was not intended to be your phone’s satnav. The book ends with the evolutionary imperfection of humans themselves. We are too recently evolved from quadrupeds to be entirely happy in our own frame, and Pievani blames the evolutionary lash-up of our brains for the mess we are currently making of the world.
In clarifying the burgeoning complexity of biological studies, Pievani joins the great Italian tradition of science writing: Lucretius, Galileo, Primo Levi, Carlo Rovelli.