Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini a Nobel-winning biologist, has died. I was reading her obituary in this morning's New York Times and came across this quote from her autobiography:
“It is imperfection — not perfection — that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain..."
What an amazing remark from someone who was immersed in the biology of the brain, someone who had spent decades studying the intricacies of cellular mechanics.
We learn biological systems from handed-down models developed by scientists who we tend to see as flawless. Because so much depends upon our successful assimilation of scientific "facts" we overlook the complexities in biological systems--complexities that by nature introduce and perpetuate imperfection.
Ironically, it may be these very imperfections that permit our continued evolution. "Mistakes," variations, exceptions to the rule all are the raw ingredients that make biological systems malleable, permeable, and changeable. Without these variations, a population of organisms would be unable to survive the random environmental perturbations that occur in every generation. One of Darwin's key concepts was that variations confer "fitness," the ability to survive and reproduce. Variations generally fall outside of the "norm" and may be perceived as mistakes, extremes, or oddities. Nevertheless they fuel the engine of evolution.
I am reminded of the beautiful limestone scholar's rock outside Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. The rock is riddled with holes and irregularities, the characteristics that make it a "perfect" example of traditional Chinese art. Vulnerability, imperfection, and flow characterize its features. Unenhanced by the human hand, it represents an awkward yet elegant "ideal," an ideal that accepts nature in all its"imperfections." As a piece of art or as a piece of nature, these features reflect an aesthetic and philosophical understanding of the world that Dr. Levi-Montalcini reached from her analytical-scientific perspective.
It is this kind of unifying world view that makes the study of art and science together so rewarding. How can we encourage this odd kind of appreciation in our own scientific and artistic practices, nurturing variability and "imperfection" in ourselves and in our students?