​​’Good Enough’ ​​​Is Great on Darwin

In Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, philosopher Daniel S. Milo argues that science and society have overemphasized Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection

Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society
Daniel S. Milo
Harvard University Press
June 2019

In Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society, philosopher Daniel S. Milo argues that Darwinism has gone too far. Evolution by natural selection accounts for much of the world around us, Milo insists, but this utility has blinded us to the limits of the theory. In this bold but carefully reasoned thesis, Milo undermines a “selectionist dogma” that has solidified in science and culture alike. Such an assault on what is seemingly settled finds surprising support from none other than Charles Darwin himself.

In The Descent of Man (1871) Darwin admitted that he may have overplayed his hand. Acknowledging critics who questioned the scope of his theory, Darwin reminded readers of his two goals in On the Origin of Species (1859): to refute the “dogma of separate creations” and to enforce—in its place—an understanding of the mechanism of natural selection. But Darwin confesses that this two-fold mission may have led him astray.

I was not, however, able to annul the influence of my former belief, then almost universal, that each species had been purposely created; and this led to my tacit assumption that every detail of structure, excepting rudiments, was of some special, though unrecognized, service. Any one with the assumption in his mind would naturally extend too far the action of natural section, either during past or present times.

Darwin is cagey, but the gist is that he sees now, 20 years on, that his commitment to undoing one totalizing worldview may have tipped towards instantiating another. Now well over a century later, Milo is making a similar argument—an argument that pays reverence to Darwin as revolutionary thinker while nonetheless insisting that both he and many others have indeed “extend[ed] too far the action of natural selection.”

For Milo, social Darwinism and neoliberalism alike are old and ongoing misappropriations of a scientific paradigm that is itself over-extended.


Bee image by image4you (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Milo’s patience to contextualize Darwin and his authorial discipline to forego the thrills of giant killing for well-intentioned engagement allows his critique to unfold in graceful, generous prose. Lucid and peppered with humor, insight, and tact, Milo’s ideas march forward with nothing to hide. Marshaling this progression of ideas is Milo’s theory of “the good enough”, which debunks the Darwinist assumption of adaptive efficiency. Milo insists that nature is full not of excellence but of mediocrity—not cut-throat competitive champions but merely the manifold forms of life that survive just well enough not to die.

In other words, rather than producing the best possible forms of life, nature simply comprises those forms that are “good enough”, that are sufficiently outfitted to get by despite any number of glaring deficiencies and excesses. Milo is advocating a perspective shift that re-situates natural selection as just one among a number of evolutionary explanations, many of which depend on chance and the forgiving parameters of survival instead of the straight and narrow of nature “red in tooth and claw”. Sometimes, too, Milo argues, the natural world resists explanation all together, demanding an approach that appreciates the non-signaling significance of “neutrality”.

It should be stressed that Milo’s desired perspective shift has no patience for non-scientific alternatives to natural selection, such as creationism. In fact, Milo explains, this shift would actually better reflect the methods upheld by every other domain of science. In long “overemphasizing” natural selection, biologists have allowed expectations to precede findings. Instead of proceeding along the well-worn path of the null hypothesis, which—like the presumption of innocence in law—dictates that scientists assume no significance until meaning is reliably demonstrated, adherents to selectionism inspect the world through Darwinist glasses, seeing any given specimen as confirmation of the theory rather than raw data in need of account. As Milo demonstrates in the first section of Good Enough, this propensity has produced some tortured results.

Chapter one argues that the case of the giraffe—long prized by Darwinists—actually resists explanation by natural selection. Chapter two charts Milo’s fresh take on Darwin’s “domestication analogy”, which introduced natural selection as something like an automated breeding program. The so-called “laws of the jungle” apply only to the farm and the garden, Milo explains, two spaces subject to artificially choosey arbitration. Any actual jungle, Milo says, is teeming with all manner of life, much of which does just fine despite not being particularly well-suited to its surroundings.

If the laws of the jungle do dictate any natural space, Milo shows in chapter three, it is perhaps the desert island, which is why the Galapagos Archipelago was a fitting place for Darwin to formulate his Malthus-inspired theory. Section one ends with Milo’s most surprising critique of Darwinism, which argues that the human brain itself should be understand as evidence to the contrary of natural selection.

Section two of Good Enough moves from deconstruction to recommendation—from debunking Darwinism to developing in its place the theory of “good enough”, which keeps what works from Darwin while widening the field to allow for non-Darwinian notions of mediocrity, excess, uselessness, chance, and natural safety nets. Section three discusses this newly elaborated theory in relation to human society. Throughout the book Milo insists that selectionist dogma is problematic not only for stifling good science but for the specious justifications provided to ruthless human systems.

For Milo, social Darwinism and neoliberalism alike are old and ongoing misappropriations of a scientific paradigm that is itself over-extended. Milo notes early on that he will not consider the “rightness” of drawing human lessons from nature. His point is merely that, if folks do insist on following the naturalistic fallacy of mistaking “is” for “ought”, they should at least understand how nature really acts. As things stand currently, the “prescriptive ramifications of evolutionary theory” see society learn from an all-too-human natural world, a jungle made on the model of the market. Milo severs this feedback loop by saving Darwinism from its own excesses. As he discusses somewhat wistfully, this severing makes room for a more enjoyable and generally less exhausting sense of what counts as success in nature as well as society.

As a self-proclaimed “natural philosopher”, Milo is transparent regarding how his methods and knowledge base make him uniquely capable to write this book. The copious footnotes and careful explanations of scientific findings demonstrate that Milo is well-versed in the primary material. But as other aspects of the book clarify, Milo relies on history, logic, and even the art of reasonable speculation in ways that depart from a more straightforward scientific inquiry. The book is concise but conversational, clear yet sometimes deceptively so, given the complexity under discussion. Undoubtedly there are moments when Milo pushes too far or where he has cherry-picked his targets. But such liabilities are to be expected in a book whose target is so overbearing. As a ranging and even-handed polemic, Good Enough is an important intervention that boasts none of the mediocrity that Milo finds everywhere at work—or rather, asleep on the job—in the natural world.