AntiFragile 4: What Kills Me Makes Others Stronger

Following our reading calendar, here it is chapter 4.

In this chapter, Taleb explores the paradox between individuals and the collective. Individuals want to be antifragile themselves, but the collective needs lots of fragile individuals that try it hard, make mistakes and disappear, so the collective ends up as antifragile as possible. That’s the way natural selection works, killing millions of individuals in order to make species appear and improve, and also the economy: restaurants as an institution are antifragile, because individual restaurants are tremendously fragile.

This is because antifragility loves, needs stressors and disorder in order to be built. Otherwise they wouldn’t develop the mechanisms that go beyond robustness in order to “reinvent themselves each generation”.

I’m not an expert in biology, but in my readings -mostly of popular science- I’ve never met such a interesting idea: evolution is possible not only because of the randomness of the reproduction process (sexual reproduction, mutations) but also because the environment is subject to big random transformations. No stressors, no evolution. This is another indication of how important the idea of antifragility can be.

The text also points out at the importance of commiting errors, and how helpful are for us. It is important, though, to learn from errors, and try not to make the same error a second life. A “loser” for Taleb is someone that instead of accepting his or her errors and try to learn from them, imagines instead excuses to explain why it wasn’t really an error, or it wasn’t really his or her fault.

However, in order to do so, we need to keep the effect of errors confined. Taleb compares here commercial aviation, in which every car crash helps to get better flying and better security and economics, in which errors propagate without control.

Taleb also points out to an interesting bias on how endurance makes people that are more prepared for life. He points at the common talk in the press on how Russian mafia members are very tough because some of them were hardened in the Gulags. Taleb observes that it could be the other way around, Gulag could be just a selection machine that kills people that are weak and only the ruthless survive, but the Gulag didn’t turn them into ruthless people, they were already.

By the end of the chapter, Taleb makes a very important ethical point. He is not defending the wisdom of markets or the right of the fittest to live and the others to disappear. Taleb presents himself as a Humanist. In Taleb’s words:

I detest the notion of improvement thanks to harm to others. As a humanist, I stand against the antifragility of systems at the expense of individuals, for if you follow the reasoning, this makes us human individually irrelevant. (p. 142)

On a happier note, the chapter (and the first book) ends up with this fascinating idea of the National Enterpreneur Day:

Most of you will fail, disrespected, impoverished, but we are grateful for the risks you are taking and the sacrifices you are making for the sake of the economic growth of the planet and pulling others out of poverty. You are at the source of our anti





2 thoughts on “AntiFragile 4: What Kills Me Makes Others Stronger

  1. I think that Taleb is victim of a disease that he himself described: the fallacy of the storyteller. I mean, this book is full of very good points, some of them fundamental mind changing insights. He explains them with a mix of theoretical approach and examples and jokes in his style. However, in this book unlike the previous ones, he tries to make a theoretical frame that comprises all his wisdom. And that brings out a process of rationalization that sometimes goes too far.
    He makes a point with the antifragility of the system (evolution, restaurant supply) at expense of the fragility of the part (the individual, a particular restaurant). And that is OK. Then he goes on to justify the antifragility of the individual as a result of the fragility of its parts.
    I think he has not any evidence to support this. The supposed antifragility phenomena that he describes in humans can be explained by a lot of different mechanisms. There is not evolutionary competition in the proteins of an organism. The evolution happens because of the reproductive success of individuals and the set of proteins and the physiology of an individual that responds to stress in the way that Taleb describes has been selected in the past according to its effect in the reproductive success of individuals.

  2. I see what you mean, and it makes a lot of sense.
    I’m not expert of evolutionary biology, but I was wondering whether reading Taleb’s description from a “selfish gene” point of view, we could say that natural selection takes place at the gene level and, therefore, the antifragility of the individual is the result of the different fragilities of the genes.
    The fallacy of storytelling can be quite dangerous. I see it a lot in the Humanities world, in which people fall in love with their theories and try to explain everything based on unchecked general visions of the world that can’t really pass a reality check.
    However, I’d say that Taleb is different, and he knows that he is speculating, pointing at possible reinterpretations of biology, and not pretending to create a new theory of natural selection

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