A Natural History

By Telmo Pievani

Translated by Michael Gerard Kenyon

Foreword by Ian Tattersall

In praise of imperfection: how life on our planet is a catalog of imperfections, errors, alternatives, and anomalies.





In praise of imperfection: how life on our planet is a catalog of imperfections, errors, alternatives, and anomalies.

In the beginning, there was imperfection, which became the source of all things. Anomalies and asymmetries caused planets to take shape from the bubbling void and sent light into darkness. Life on earth is a catalog of accidents, alternatives, and errors that turned out to work quite well. In this book, Telmo Pievani shows that life on our planet has flourished and survived not because of its perfection but despite (and perhaps because of) its imperfection. He begins his story with the disruption-filled birth of the universe and proceeds through the random DNA copying errors that fuel evolution, the transformations of advantages into handicaps by natural selection, the anatomical and functional jumble that is the human brain, and our many bodily mismatches.

Along the way, Pievani tells readers about the Irish elk (incidentally, neither Irish nor elk), whose enormous antlers serve to illustrate the first two laws of imperfection; the widespread dissemination of costly or useless traits; and the neuroimperfection of the human brain—“a frozen accident of evolution that was not designed from scratch,” as Pievani calls it. He sizes up the alleged perfection of the human body, asking, for example, if everything in our bodies serves a purpose, why do we have appendixes? Why bipedalism, with the inevitable back pain that results? In this fascinating account, Pievani offers the first comprehensive explanatory theory for the ubiquity of imperfection.

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Michael Gerard Kenyon and Ian Tattersall.


  • “Telmo Pievani's lively prose carries weighty ideas and massive knowledge as though they were as light as a backpack full of feathers. This book is mesmerizing, delightful, profound, persuasive, and amiably conversational from the first page to the last, helping us understand how evolution works and why.”

    David Quammen

    author of Spillover and Breathless

  • “Why were writing and reading developed by us humans, rather than by the formerly dominant dinosaurs? Why is your computer keyboard designed to slow down your typing, not to speed it up? This thought-provoking, beautifully written book, full of surprises, will show you why imperfection is so pervasive.”

    Jared Diamond

    Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

  • “In this concise, original, and beautifully written book, Telmo Pievani tells the story of the natural history of imperfection: from symmetry breaks during cosmological evolution to accidents, compromises, and tinkering during biological evolution. The book offers a grand yet sobering depiction of the drama of evolution, making us face the dangers, but also the hopes, of human-made evolutionary futures.”

    Eva Jablonka

    Tel Aviv University; coauthor of The Evolution of the Sensitive Soul

  • “Flipping the picture from a cleanly perfect world to the messy, imperfect condition we find ourselves in, Telmo Pievani gives us hope as we strive to better ourselves. This book is 'perfect' for our troubled times!”

    Niles Eldredge

    curator emeritus, Paleontology, American Museum of Natural History, and author of Eternal Ephemera