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the Complete Review
the complete review - science


Good Enough

Daniel S. Milo

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To purchase Good Enough

Title: Good Enough
Author: Daniel S. Milo
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019
Length: 251 pages
Availability: Good Enough - US
Good Enough - UK
Good Enough - Canada
  • The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society

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Our Assessment:

B : useful discussion of natural selection in the real world

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Wall St. Journal F 28/6/2019 David P. Barash

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr. Milo knows just enough to mislead himself, and his readers. (...) I cannot recall, in many years, so ill-informed a treatment of evolution as Mr. Miloís from a publisher as prestigious as Harvard University Press. The authorís distorted understanding of natural selection seems of a piece with his misguided attempt to "debunk" social Darwinism -- which was debunked long ago." - David P. Barash, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Daniel S. Milo has a beef with the popular conception of Darwinism -- the familiar summing-up of the theory of evolution as the: 'survival of the fittest'. 'Survival of the fittest' is, of course, a tautology, with 'fittest' defined, a posteriori, as that which has survived, with the reasons why certain traits have facilitated or allowed for survival only becoming obvious after the fact. The 'Darwinian struggle' is said to see the strong survive, but often it's not that simple -- or rather requires a different conception and definition of 'strength' and the like (not to mention the role of chance as a significant factor in the whole process, too often or greatly ignored, at least in the popular imagination). Bigger can be better -- or worse --, etc. More to the point -- Milo's point, at least -- for all the supposed optimization and perfection of species around us -- the Darwinian survivors ! -- a lot of them (including humans) are, when you consider their design, kind of a mess and hardly look and function like the fine-tuned end-product of selection one might expect: well (enough) suited to their conditions to keep them surviving, but also flawed -- often astonishingly so -- in countless ways.
       Milo notes that: "Specialists understand all this, so they avoid using 'survival of the fittest'", but he harps on it nevertheless -- in no small part because his beef isn't so much with the science of biological evolution, but because, he argues:

survival of the fittest continues to underwrite political principles. We see the notion of Darwinian competition at the foundation of a merciless meritocracy. The winner owes survival/success to excellence, and the loser owes extinction/failure to its absence. The former has only him- or herself to congratulate; the latter only him- or herself to blame.
       Even if it is hard to believe that anyone seriously equates Darwinism with the entirely empty concept of 'survival of the fittest' (i.e. of that which has survived), there is still some value to his exercise. The general presentation of Darwinism might not be as simplistic as that formulation, but he does have a point that scientists' focus tends to be on the exceptional, which in turn colors the whole popular sense of it, while the bigger but, in a sense, more boring picture of natural selection is mostly ignored. So there's certainly some value in taking a different tack, as Milo does here:
My unholy grail is the origin of excess, neutrality, and mediocrity, features neglected by evolutionary biology and despised by evolutionary ethics.
       Milo acknowledges he is not a scientist, but the focus of his book, at least for the first two of its three parts, is very much on biology -- and how scientists have presented Darwinism. He calls Darwin comparing the process of natural selection to artificial selection his: "original sin" -- a convenient analogy that easily caught on, but one that is both a stretch and ultimately dangerously misleading (setting the table, Milo contends, "for the horrors of eugenics"). So also:
Darwin wore his blinders so tightly that with the help of his domestication analogy, he was able to see in the ecology of the Galápagos confirmation that nature everywhere breeds the best.
       Milo sees Darwin's Galápagos focus -- with the wonderful-seeming example of its finches, Darwinism on full display -- as problematic cherry-picking, arguing even that:
If Darwin had not stumbled onto the finches, evolutionary biology would likely have taken another course: one less selectionist and less prone to the fallacies of the domestication analogy and to capitalism.
       As Milo notes, if you look in most places, the picture is one of natural selection that tends to stasis and suggests a lot of tolerance for mediocrity and for excess. Among his interesting reminders is of the C-value paradox -- "'genome size' is a fair simplification" of C-value -- "the absence of correlation between genome size and organism complexity".
       Even the oversized human brain proves problematic: the downsides -- it makes reproduction difficult and dangerous, and it requires an enormous amount of energy to sustain itself -- are obvious and great, and while Homo sapiens has obviously flourished in the very recent past no other hominims survived -- leading to the question of: "If the brain is the evolutionary killer app, how did they falter while we did not ?"
       In his final section, Milo looks ahead. He finds an explosion of excess, (hu)mankind having firmly established itself and, always forward looking, able to turn its attention to an incredible variety of distractions.
       Milo does state a bit too simply that: "our species" is "invincible" -- and considers neither some potential nearer-term dangers (the spread of antibiotic resistance; intensifying climate change) nor even demographic shifts caused by aging populations and still declining birth rates and their possible consequences (not threatening the species absolute survival, but certainly challenging parts of his rosy picture), much less the full-blown extinction events which are, after all, not that uncommon (on the grander time-scale of evolution, rather than just humanity's -- which has, after all, barely lasted for the blink of an eye so far). Indeed the rapid change in human society (rather than biology) stands in sharp contrast to the picture he points to, of a largely unchanging natural world; there's probably a bit more explore there.
       Overall, however, Milo does make a good point, a reminder that 'survival of the fittest' is not only an entirely vacuous claim but that, in its misreading, and misunderstanding of natural selection, it is dangerous. Better to understand that:
The survivor is merely the lucky one, and no one is better off for the extinction of the unlucky. There is no purpose or improvement in their replacement, no logic of the new. Life is an ocean of routine with islets of change.
       Milo strays a bit far afield in Good Enough and a tighter focus on, as the subtitle promises: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society might have been more successful, but even as presented here his argument is one worth wrestling with, and his basic point one well taken.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 July 2019

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Good Enough: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Daniel S. Milo was born in 1953.

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© 2019 the complete review

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