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The Pursuit of Perfection

This page describes the book The Pursuit of Perfection: Aspects of Biochemical Evolution by Athel Cornish-Bowden, published by Oxford University Press in September 2004: ISBN. 0-19-852095-6 (hardback) or 0-19-852096-4 (paperback).

 Cover design

This page is also available in a Swedish translation by Catherine Desroches.

An extensively revised and enlarged edition, with three new chapters and many more illustrations, is to be published, probably in July 2016, by Garland Science, New York, under a revised title Biochemical Evolution: the Pursuit of Pefection.

Contents of this page

Publication details

Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2004

160 + viii pages, 50 line, 10 halftone illustrations

ISBN 0-19-852095-6, hardback; £55.00 or $99.50; ISBN 0-19-852096-4, paperback £25.00 or $49.50.

These prices were checked with the publisher on 23rd November 2004, but as they may change without notice, please do not take pricing information given here as definitive.

By post from the UK: send your order and payment to CWO Department, Oxford University Press, FREEPOST NH 4051, Corby, Northants NN18 9BR. No stamp required

By post from elsewhere: send your order and payment to CWO Department, Oxford University Press, Saxon Way West Corby, Northants NN18 9ES.

By phone: 24-hour credit card hotline, from the UK 01536 454 534; from elsewhere +44 1536 454 534

By fax, from the UK 01536 746 337; from elsewhere +44 1536 746 337

You can obtain an order form through the web from Oxford University Press in Oxford



This book is available through the web from and

What the reviewers think

Highly readable and accessible to students...

I know of three reviews. The first, by Elizabeth Hatton, appeared in The Biochemist, and expressed the following assessment:

This is Cornish-Bowden’s achievement; to bring complicated biochemistry down to everyday phenomena, making the book highly readable and accessible to students.

Two others are at the Amazon web site:

What the book is about: extract from the Preface

Popular books about evolution are now quite easy to find, and some of them are excellent, but they tend to be books about anatomy or behaviour and to ignore biochemistry except insofar as it impinges on these other aspects. Yet in some respects our view of evolution, especially in relation to the questions that interest non-specialists the most, has been transformed by biochemical information. Thirty years ago all palaeontologists agreed that humans had no close relatives in the animal kingdom: they thought that the great apes were far more closely related to one another than any of them was to us, and that they separated from the human line about thirty million years ago, about the same time as both apes and humans diverged from the monkeys. Now nearly all palaeontologists agree that the separation between the African apes and humans is far more recent, around five million years ago, after the separation of these species from other apes such as orang-utans and gibbons, and long after the separation of the apes and monkeys. This is a radical change of opinion. What has caused it? A vast haul of new fossilized bones, perhaps? A series of chimpanzee and human teeth with representatives of every millennium from thirty million years ago until now? No. The supply of hominid and ape fossil bones and teeth is almost as sparse today as it has always been, and it would still be possible to store the entire collection in a small room. No, the change has come from biochemical information, first from protein structures determined in the 1960s, and more recently from gene structures. As new information is accumulating rapidly, and the information available now is a tiny fraction of what will be available in a few years time, the trend towards basing evolutionary conclusions on biochemical information can only continue.

Deductions based on protein and gene structures are now finding their way into popular books about evolution, but there are other kinds of biochemical information that continue to be largely unknown other than to specialists, and it is with these that I shall be mainly concerned in this book. For example, some aspects of metabolism can be rigorously tested against mathematical criteria to determine whether living systems organize their metabolism in the best way they possibly could, or whether we see just the haphazard result of a series of arbitrary choices of approaches that happened to work but which were not necessarily any better than others. To a considerable degree we find that metabolism is indeed optimized, but biochemists have also been as prone as any other biologists to see adaptation wherever they look, and so we also need to be on our guard against the sort of mistakes that can result from a lack of rigorous logic. We shall see examples of nonsensical adaptation that derive from nonsensical analysis, and of genuinely useful properties of biochemical systems that derive from necessity rather than selection; but we shall also see examples of optimal design in cases where it can only be explained by selection of perfection.

The title of the book is ambiguous: does it refer to the capacity of natural selection to arrive at the best solution to a problem, to the capacity of some biologists to find adaptations wherever they look, or even to the hope of some modern biotechnologists that by tinkering with the genes of microorganisms they can achieve a state of perfection that natural selection has not managed to reach? In truth, it refers to all three, though the first is the most important and was what I had in mind in choosing it.


  1. Some basic biochemistry — elementary terminology and information needed for the rest of the book
  2. The nuts and bolts of evolution — basic information about evolution from a biochemical point of view
  3. Adaptation and accidents — distinguishing adaptations from other kinds of evolutionary change
  4. Metabolism and cells — the role of metabolism in cellular chemistry
  5. The games cells play — optimization of cell metabolism analysed from the point of view of combinatorial games
  6. The perfect molecule — the carbohydrate storage polymer glycogen has a structure that is optimal for its function
  7. Fear of phantoms — a phoney example of biochemical adaptation
  8. Living on a knife edge — systems of interacting enzymes have no need of evolutionary adaptation to arrive at stable steady states
  9. Brown eyes and blue — dominance and recessivity are most easily explained in biochemical terms
  10. An economy that works — regulatory mechanisms ensure that biochemical systems obey the fundamental economic laws of supply and demand far better than any real economy does
  11. A small corner of the universe — proposing an extraterrestrial origin of life introduces many more difficulties than it removes
  12. Genomic drift — understanding cancer in terms of the principles of metabolic regulation