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Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

by Daniel S. Milo Harvard University Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 320 pages
AU$66.99 NZ$69.56
Product Status: In Stock Now
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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. Questionable Icons

1. The Giraffe: An Evolutionary Wonder on Trial

2. The Domestication Analogy: Darwin’s Original Sin

3. The Galápagos: An Unrepresentative Case

4. The Brain: Our Ancestors’ Worst Enemy

II. The Theory of the Good Enough

5. Embracing Neutrality

6. Strange Ranges: Not Selected, but Tolerated

7. Nature’s Safety Net

III. The Good-Enough Society

8. The Invention of Tomorrow

9. Humanity’s Safety Net

10. The Critique of Evolutionary Ethics



Illustration Credits


'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
Daniel S. Milo is Chair of Natural Philosophy at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago; Mills College; the University of California, Berkeley; Wissenschaftskollege zu Berlin; and Tel Aviv University. He has directed two theater productions and produced three films. Good Enough is his ninth book.