Thursday, December 03, 2009

Perfection

An article on cybersecurity in the December 13 issue of Science begins with this epigraph:
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
        --Antoine de Saint-Exupery in The Little Prince
The quote is from Saint-Exupery, all right, but not in The Little Prince. It is from Wind, Sand and Stars, a memoir of Saint-Exupery's adventures as a pilot for the French national air service flying the mail from France to her colonies in North Africa, in the late-1920s and 1930s.

The quote has been widely used in reference to everything from art to life. In fact, Saint-Exupery is writing about airplanes -- or, more generally, machines.
Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane, but about whatever man builds, that all of man's industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working drafts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. If anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
For an airplane, a bare simplicity of form and function is ideal. Anything superfluous adds weight and diminishes efficiency; anything less and the plane falls from the sky.

Saint-Exupery's analogy of the "elementary purity" of the human breast or shoulder invites us to compare human engineering with the "many generations" of biological evolution. Indeed, this is the argument for so-called Intelligent Design; that organisms are masterpieces of form and function -- nothing to be added, nothing to be taken away. In fact, any good human engineer could readily improve on the human organism. For all of the efficiency with which we are adapted to our environment, we carry within our bodies a myriad of inefficiencies inherited from our past. Anyone who thinks we are as perfectly designed as an F-16, say, need only read George C. Williams' The Pony Fish's Glow for a delightful compendium of things in the human organism that appear to be ineptly designed.

For example, you'd never expect a fuel line in an airplane to connect the fuel tank to the adjacent engine by way of a round trip to the other end of the plane -- like the tubes from the testes to the urethra in the human male. The ear is another body part that could use the attentions of a good engineer. Hammer, anvil and stirrup: Where did those crazy little mechanisms come from? Five separate membranes and three fleshy loops that seem, on the face of it, superfluous. It's no surprise that my doctor doesn't have a clue why I have ringing in my ear, or how to fix it. And while we're at it, ask my ten-year-old granddaughter about her recent bout of appendicitis.

Natural selection is efficient at adapting an organism incrementally to its environment, but must work only with what's at hand and with no awareness of the future. It does not "invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity."


(My copy of Wind, Sand and Stars is the 1940 Lewis Galantiere translation published by Harcourt, Brace and Co.. It does not strike me as a particularly adept translation, as the above differences in the quote suggest.)