Fluctuating asymmetry measures random deviations from bilateral symmetry, and thus estimates developmental instability, the loss of ability by an organism to regulate its development. There have been few rigorous tests of this proposition. Regulation of bilateral symmetry must involve either feedback between the sides or independent regulation toward a symmetric set point. Either kind of regulation should decrease asymmetry over time, but only right–left feedback produces compensatory growth across sides, seen as antipersistent growth following perturbation. Here, we describe the developmental trajectories of perturbed and unperturbed leaves of pumpkin, Cucurbita pepo L., grown at three densities. Covering one side of a leaf with aluminium foil for 24 h perturbed leaf growth. Reduced growth on the perturbed side caused leaves to become more asymmetrical than unperturbed controls. After the treatment the size-corrected asymmetry decreased over time. In addition, rescaled range analysis showed that asymmetry was antipersistent rather than random, i.e. fluctuation in one direction was likely to be followed by fluctuations in the opposite direction. Development involves right–left feedback. This feedback reduced size-corrected asymmetry over time most strongly in the lowest density treatment suggesting that developmental instability results from a lack of resilience rather than resistance. © 2003 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society , 2003, 78, 27–41.