The Pursuit of Perfection

The Pursuit of Perfection

'Theobroma.' Harper's & Co's Perfection Finest Cocoa Showcard

‘Theobroma’ Harper & Co’s Finest Perfection Cocoa Melbourne & Sydney (Charles Troedel & Co.) via State Library of Victoria

Over a wide-ranging breakfast discussion this morning, Toseland described evolution as the pursuit of perfection. I thought that was a pretty interesting way to describe natural selection, but it’s true. It is the creatures that are best adapted to their environment that will survive long enough to reproduce. For example, Britain’s peppered moth exists in both light (typica) and dark (carbonaria) coloured forms. Originally, the light coloured form was predominant, but during the nineteenth century, the dark form came to the fore. This was attributed to the rise of coal fuel and the subsequent blanketing of the countryside in soot making the light form easy pickings. As time passed and cleaner fuels became more prevalent, the light coloured moth became widespread again as the dark form became the easy target. Though as Professor Miller says, science has progressed and we know the answer is not as easy as the bird food theory might suggest [1].

So naturally, that leads to the biological imperative by which we are driven to perpetuate the species when the physical and environmental conditions permit (unless we are maladaptive…) In some species, males will compete for the attention of the female, and in others the female for the male. Not that I have bothered to look up what peppered moths do, I’m just mentioning this as an alternative argument – perhaps moths have their own urban myths about colour. But in terms of survival of the species, there is also self-sacrifice for or abandonment of offspring and the creation of groups.

Humans have been quite good at forming groups for protection; from families to tribes to city-states to nations. And (dare I say it) theocracy, oligarchy, monarchy, democracy. And interestingly, society follows its own search for perfection. Modernisation theory posits that all societies go through their own evolutionary process, developing through a series of stages from traditional to the peak of development (by which the original theorists meant industrial, civilised and democratic – a lot like the nineteenth-century Western society that dreamed it up).  Hard to know if that’s evolution or world conquest though.

But if we take a step back, we can see that there is a balance between society and the individual. This is described by social theories as structure versus agency, whereby the structure determines the life chances of the individual – but the individual can bring about change in the structure. Today (June 28) commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots – demonstrations against police raids on a proto-gay bar in New York.  At the time homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, and homosexuals were thought as bad as the anarchists and communists rounded up under McCarthy. They were similarly harassed, arrested, exposed and incarcerated in mental institutions.  It took a while, but now the US Supreme Court has legalised gay marriage and Facebook is a sea of rainbow coloured profile pictures.  It only took 46 years, but you have to agree it wouldn’t have happened without the first courageous individuals.

And we as individuals follow our own search for perfection, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at any rate.  In some ways it mimics modernisation theory, but on a micro level. We get our survival and social needs taken care of, then we look for respect from others and for ourselves.  And only then can we move onto the search for what he calls self-actualisation, our need to realise our potential – to become the perfect writer, secret agent, parent, whatever.

So people, other creatures (except spiders on drugs) and social orders all seek perfection. But what is this perfection that we seek?  It’s generally considered an ideal – something utterly without flaw, or exactly the right thing at the right time.

And this is my point (at last) – we are all exactly the right thing at the right time.  But we should enjoy it while we can because tomorrow’s perfect will be something else. It may not seem perfect (how could it), but we are in exactly the right place to advance the cause of perfection to where it has to be.

Have you ever thought of your life as a search for perfection?  Does it make your life seem better or worse when you look at it this way?

[1] Miller, Kenneth. 1999. The Peppered Moth – An Update.  Accessed June 28, 2015

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