Antifragile

Book Review: Antifragile

Not too long ago I wrote a short post about Antifragile.  At the time I wrote that post, I was working on this review, with plans to submit it to a few publications.  Alas, I came to find out that several other reviewers beat me to the punch.   The beauty (and perhaps tragedy too) of having a blog is that no piece of writing goes to waste — there is always a place to publish your writing.  Sorry about that! 

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In The Bed of Procrustes, Nassim Taleb’s book of aphorisms, he wrote: “An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion.”

Here’s a thought experiment: suppose you were sending a package with delicate items to a friend – what would you write on the package?  Since you don’t want the ornaments to break, you’d likely write “fragile” on the package.  Now, suppose for some strange reason you were sending some rocks (say, a pet rock) in a package to a friend – what would you write on the package then?  Obviously you wouldn’t need to write anything on it because the rocks are robust and wouldn’t be harmed even if they were grossly mishandled.

Those may sound like banal questions, with trivial answers, but here’s a more interesting question: what would you write on a package that you wanted to be purposely mishandled?  Or, what should we call something that is the exact opposite fragile, i.e., something that is not only robust, but actually gets stronger from being mishandled?  Until fairly recently there was no word for this term, but the answer is that you’d write the neologism “antifragile”, coined by Taleb in his provocative book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

Antifragile is part of a larger corpus called Incerto, which includes the books Dynamic Hedging, Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, and The Bed of Procrustes.  Technically, Antifragile itself is composed of seven books, but I will simply refer to it as one book for the purpose of this review. [1]

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One of the most interesting things about being human is that we can understand things we can’t necessarily articulate.  Often the reason we can’t articulate an idea is that we lack the linguistic tool to talk about it, but lacking the tool to talk about an idea doesn’t necessarily preclude us from understanding it.  Taleb is not the first human to understand antifragility, but he is the first person to give us the linguistic tool to talk about it.

Taleb cites an interesting anecdote from the linguist Guy Deutscher near the beginning of the book.  What Taleb learned from Deutscher was that until 140 years ago the Greeks didn’t have a word for the color blue.  Strangely though, they still saw the color blue when they looked to the sky.  They weren’t, then, physically color blind, but rather culturally color blind.  Similarly, even though we have long understood some of the ramifications of antifragility when we’ve seen it, we moderns have been culturally blind to it.

Evolution is the perfect example of a system with antifragile properties.  Biological evolution, in particular, thrives off of randomness, stressors, and volatility, which ultimately cause adaptations to occur in individual organisms, and evolution to occur in the species.  For example, consider the discovery of penicillin.  It was an evolutionary (and harmful) shock to bacteria, but new forms of bacteria have adapted to the point where they are immune to the devastating consequences of penicillin.  By trying to harm the bacteria, we have actually made them stronger, and this is precisely because they are antifragile.  Although Taleb never explicitly puts it this way, I think for things biological, antifragile properties are a necessary trait.

One of the more practical things Taleb points out in the book is that the human body is also antifragile.  Intuitively, and more importantly empirically, weightlifters have long understood this.  They purposely break down their muscles through the stress of lifting heavy weights and their muscles rebuild themselves to be stronger than they were before adapting to the stress.  Antifragile systems (like humans) benefit from the recently revived concept of hormesis, which is the idea that small doses of harmful substances (like alcohol) are actually good for you because they make you stronger. [2]  Or, as the toxicologists would say, “The dose determines the poison.”  Taleb, however, is scornful of those who use his ideas to justify the pseudo-science of homeopathy.

Another ancient idea that is discussed in the book is iatrogenics, which means harm caused by the healer.  Taleb suggests that Mother Nature and our bodies have a natural way of healing themselves and we often cause more harm through trying to naively “fix” things with medicines and surgical procedures (although this is not to say that all medicines and surgical procedures are bad).  The old practice of bloodletting is the perfect example.  Taleb reminds us that iatrogenic effects occur in fields outside of medicine too, like our economies and educational institutions.

As astute readers of his prior works know, Taleb is not particularly fond of most bankers, academics, economists, and journalists for a plethora of reasons, namely because they suffer from a form of epistemic arrogance and naïve rationalism that not only harms themselves, but harms others as well.  In Antifragile, Taleb has coined the term “fragilista” to refer to these individuals.  Fragilistas, according to Taleb, naively try to suck the antifragility out of systems that depend on it for its wellbeing, and they occasionally suffer from severe ethical lapses too.

Neurotic soccer moms are one such type of fragilista and they join the company of fragilista economists and journalists like Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Friedman.  Fragilista Robert Rubin, the former high ranking Citigroup official, had the honor of having “The Bob Rubin Problem” named after him because of an ethical lapse in which he finagled his way into getting financial upside without any possible downside at the taxpayers expense (a violation of Hammurabi’s Code).

For readers unfamiliar with Hammurabi’s Code, Taleb described it as follows in a 2011 New York Times editorial: “If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.”  The central idea behind the code, then, is that no one knows more about the house than the architect and they should not gain the upside without being exposed to downside.  The ancient Babylonians clearly recognized that the code would remedy the problems that occur in situations where there was an upside-without-downside asymmetry problem, like there is with modern banker’s bonuses.

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For as much as I love this book (and Taleb’s other work), there is one thing that I must take issue with.  It seems to me that being both a humanist and a proponent of antifragility are incompatible views.  Taleb, however, claims that he is both of these things.  The reason I see this as a contradiction is because human biological evolution cannot progress without stress and selection pressures (of all kinds) on individual humans.  Thus, our attempts at saving weak individual people and trying to eliminate individual suffering may come at the expense of fragilizing the human species as a whole.  Humanists, in this sense, are fragilistas.

As a humanist, one should innately value all human life and want to limit human suffering to any extent possible (a position I’m in favor of).  However, should this be done at the expense of fragilizing the species?  Not all fragilistas have ill intentions, and good-hearted efforts to improve the human condition often paradoxically make things worse.  As the old cliché goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

In his philosophical novel Thus Spoke Zarathustra Nietzsche introduced the ideas of both the ubermensch (translated to be the overman or superman) and the last man.  One interpretation of Nietzsche’s work could be that the last man is the evolutionary byproduct of a society run by fragilistas and that the ubermensch is the human ideal for proponents of antifragility (i.e., all that humans can become).

As a proponent of antifragility myself, this interpretation makes me uncomfortable, but I cannot deny the fact that there is definitely a Nietzechean ring to the idea of antifragility.  If Nietzsche’s ubermensch can be understood to be the byproduct of humanity’s antifragility, then, Zarathustra was right, humanity can overcome itself if only it avoids fragilizing itself.

Perhaps one of the things that defines us as humans, then, is that we morally, ethically, and systematically try to remove antifragility from the very antifragile system that created us (i.e., Mother Nature).   After reading this book, I can’t help but think that Nietzsche understood something startlingly haunting about the human condition: whatever supersedes humanity will embrace its antifragility.

Notes:

[1] You can find my review of Fooled By Randomness here.  You can find my review of The Black Swan here.  You can find my review of The Bed of Procrustes here.

[2] See my post “Why I Practice Hormetism”

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