In Praise of Imperfection

In pagan times, people worshipped various humanoid supernatural deities who did not even pretend to be perfect. Gods like Zeus and Odin, busy smiting and seducing, seemed to make many mistakes and to have a lot of problems for supposedly all-powerful head gods.

Nowadays, the word “perfect” tends to be restricted to the products of ad agencies, the unfathomable (to me, at least) ideas of mathematicians, and, of course, the notions of religious fundamentalists, especially those who believe in perfect creation by their own perfect supernatural deity.

This reminds me of a cartoon idea Isaac thought up many years ago and sent to me in a letter:

…A conventional representation of God (flowing white beard, etc.) is hovering over the Earth, which has just been created, because you can see a little tree on it, with a naked man and woman near it and a serpent entwined in the branches. At the top of the picture is a still more majestic creature with an even longer flowing beard, an obvious super-God. He is speaking, and the caption reads: “And for this you expect your PhD?”

Being hopelessly imperfect myself, I am all in favor of imperfection. After all, we living creatures would not even be here, on a small planet in a galaxy among many others, except for the fact that imperfections in the Big Bang started the evolution of the universe instead of producing a smooth, unchanging, perfect…whatever. I may have slightly oversimplified this, but perhaps cosmologists will forgive me.

I am also comfortable with what I think is another fact, that there is no perfect proof for anything (except in the minds of those aforementioned mathematicians). A recent lively debate at AMNH (the American Museum of Natural History) explored the idea that what we think of as reality may be just a computer simulation. You can’t prove it isn’t.

Fundamentalists don’t need to prove the existence of their supernatural deity because they have faith, which bypasses the scientifically intellectual progress of Homo sapiens. If you have faith, proof doesn’t matter.

You have to stay ignorant to be a happy Fundamentalist. It may not be enough to say “God moves in mysterious ways” when confronted with the imperfections of the universe. It’s hard to rhapsodize about the beautiful perfection of the heavens when you have seen photos of such events as stars exploding and galaxies colliding—photos that I think are certainly beautiful.

The many changes in our own planet are fascinating because Earth is not a perfect, created thing but embodies constant geologic change, from the slow movement of continents to the sudden disasters of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Astronomy and geology fail to prove perfection in creation. Pick any science and its ideas conflict with religious fundamentalism. Earth is more than 5,000 years old. Global warming is happening.

Then there’s biology. Life evolves, not perfectly but with a strong tendency to make do with what’s there, especially if bits of biology got lost along the way. For instance, Fundamentalists should close their eyes when they look at birds, which are—as AMNH puts it—the dinosaurs among us.

Some old movies featured scaly dinosaurs (Hollywood didn’t yet know that many of them had fuzz or feathers) with cute little mammals scampering around those gigantic legs. When I walk down a Manhattan sidewalk, I smile at the pigeon that manages to get out of my lumbering way, and then I wonder if we big mammals with our overdeveloped brains might eventually become as extinct as the pigeon’s ancestors. And maybe we deserve it for not using those brains to avoid overpopulation, global warming, global pollution, global…sorry, but it’s a sad subject hard to leave in these days when there’s so much evidence of our greed and stupidity.

Not all of the advances in knowledge are sad. Birds are not only modern dinosaurs, but they have made good use of the evolutionary principle of making do. Life, you see, does not progress neatly upward to perfection, but stumbles, falls, and tries again. Zillions of living organisms have existed and still do (most of them microscopic), and all this life on Earth is related in some basic way to what came before. None of it was created in the Garden of Eden, and especially not for Man’s benefit.

Terrestrial vertebrates—even snakes—started with a basic structure consisting of a body, head, and four limbs. Primates, especially humans, have retained the four limbs, unmodified into hooves or wings. We have also retained that primitive marvel—the five-fingered hand, evolved from five-boned fins of certain fish. Retaining the hand made it possible for us to capitalize on bigger brains that could use those hands.

It pays not to be trapped in an anatomical specialty that makes it difficult to adapt to the ever-changing conditions on planet Earth (with said change speeding up, thanks to us). Animals supremely adapted to eat one food or live in one place tend to become extinct when things change too quickly.

We now know more about the strange adaptations that have evolved after the loss of some parts of the anatomy. Since no supernatural deity created everything perfectly, once and for all, it’s now obvious that biological change usually means that when parts are lost, they do not come back. Other parts of the body make do with what is left.

There are birds that have lost flight feathers and sometimes wings altogether. Have they regained the forelimbs and mobile claws that their ancestors had? Have you ever seen a bird with hands?

It’s astonishing to us “handy” species that birds can accomplish much without hands. Some birds are experts in using strangely shaped bills. And many others use their tongues! Joel Cracroft at AMNH says that “tongue morphology in birds has evolved along many different lines depending on what and how birds eat and how they sing.”

When marveling at how birds accomplish what we humans appreciate as feats of amazing manipulation, remember that the word “manipulate” refers to using one’s hands.

Many birds, especially corvids, approach primates in intelligence, although their brains are much smaller. I think bird brains are more efficiently organized, and birds certainly do learn.

I was once having lunch at the boathouse restaurant beside Central Park’s lake and noticed a small black-backed night heron on one of the unused rowboats trying to get his fish catch to go down his gullet head first. The fish must have been too big, for the bird gave up and flew to the edge of the restaurant’s deck. I could have reached out and touched him. The heron angled himself out over the water, froze, and waited.

I threw a piece of bread into the water below the heron. As soon as a fish came up to nibble on the bread, the heron grabbed it, by the tail. All of us eating lunch out there paused in fascination while the bird juggled this fish around until it was headfirst, and swallow-able. Four more fish went the same way.  It was clear that the heron, which normally does not fish in bright sunlight, was making a living by training us primates to cast bait upon the waters to make his fishing easier.

I went home thinking about brains. Sufficiently complicated brains make connections, create new ideas about the way things were and are and might be. We can be proud to have such a brain, but ashamed by the way it often gets used.

Humans are working on the manufacture of a type of brain called Artificial Intelligence. We’ve tended to try making them as perfect as possible, so that most computers don’t make mistakes, and when your AI car tells you it’s out of gas, it is.

Lately there have been scientists who question this search for perfection in our own creations.  According to a recent editorial in New Scientist, our brain is “an unrivalled piece of hardware using electrical fluctuations and requiring a million times less power than a computer.”

Our brains do not function perfectly. Intuition, reasoning, creativity—the mental skills we’re so proud of—do not operate like perfect computers. You might as well say that we not only manage with the imperfections of our brains, we use them. At very little energy cost.

In that same issue of New Scientist, I read a profound and somewhat beyond me article called “Let’s Cut Them Some Slack” by technology journalist Paul Marks. It seems that roboticists are now trying to create energy-saving AI that makes rough guesses and mistakes.

By the time we succeed in creating Artificial Intelligence that is indeed in our own imperfect image, it will be learning from its mistakes and perhaps evolving, on its own. And someday our AI descendants might tell their descendants sad stories about their creators—who were not gods.