of books by Henry Petroski

HENRY PETROSKI (1942) is a civil engineer and professor at Duke University. He is interested in why things (machines) fail.

The Evolution of Useful Things
by Henry Petroski
Vintage; Reprint edition, 1994

In the 'Evolution of Useful Things' Henry Petroski guides the reader through some simple but insightful developments leading to today's everyday objects like forks and knifes, safety needles and paper clips. The key term of his stories is innovation driven by the stubborn failure of tools that are perfected in some ways, but not others. The way we use our tools changes and so do the tools. It is somewhat like evolution, but more like artificial selection or breeding rather than natural selection. Clearly, for human artifacts the premise of intelligent design is abundant and obvious, since our machines cannot reproduce on their own. It is quite a revelation to think about the conceptual similarities between evolution of living things and the development of artifacts. It is certainly our intimate relation with our own tools and technology that depends on creative work that makes it difficult to accept a self-guided evolution independent of a creator. Yet, it is precisely because of the parallels between technological progress and evolution of life that reading this book is an excellent exercise in understanding or thinking about just this very crucial difference between the theory of evolution and intelligent design theory. It is particularly the last two chapters that are the most interesting in this regard: 'when good is better than best' (chapter 13) and 'always room for improvement' (chapter 14) are two key characteristics of natural selection.

May 8, 2007 /  © 2007 Lukas K. Buehler / go back to Book Review Home