Casualties of Perfection

The key thing about evolution is that everything dies. Ninety-nine percent of species are already extinct; the rest will be eventually.

There is no perfect species, one adapted to everything at all times. The best any species can do is to be good at some things until the things it’s not good suddenly matter more. And then it dies.

A century ago a Russian biologist named Ivan Schmalhausen described how this works. A species that evolves to become very good at one thing tends to become vulnerable at another. A bigger lion can kill more prey, but it’s also a larger target for hunters to shoot at. A taller tree captures more sunlight but becomes vulnerable to wind damage. There is always some inefficiency.

So species rarely evolve to become perfect at anything, because perfecting one skill comes at the expense of another skill that will eventually be critical to survival. The lion could be bigger and catch more prey; the tree could be taller and get more sun. But they’re not, because it’d backfire.

So they’re all a little imperfect.

Nature’s answer is a lot of good enough, below-potential traits across all species. Biologist Anthony Bradshaw says that evolution’s successes get all the attention, but its failures are equally important. And that’s how it should be: Not maximizing your potential is actually the sweet spot in a world where perfecting one skill compromises another.

Evolution has spent 3.5 billion years testing and proving the idea that some (Read more...)