Biology and economics face similar challenges: both seek to explain survival and innovation in an unpredictable world. For example, Nassim Taleb, famous for his prescient identification of rare “black swan” events that are correlated with economic catastrophes, recently proposed the notion of “anti-fragility” as a way to conceptualize the reproduction of markets and output in the face of such events. In fact, anti-fragile structures and processes are all around us – suffusing life itself.
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To define anti-fragility, Taleb asks what would be the true opposite of “fragile.” Starting with the Sword of Damocles, he chooses as its opposite not the robustness of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, but the inventiveness of the Hydra, who sprouts two heads whenever one is cut off. Can we think of entities that not only resist the ravages of time, but that, through the creation and recombination of novel components, become able to cope with an unpredictable future?
The inevitability of death might seem to suggest that life is not constructed to be anti-fragile. But consider King Mithridates VI of Pontus, who took a tiny daily dose of poison to protect himself from poisoning by his enemies. The idea that better fitness results when systems are challenged by a low level of toxic or other dangerous influences is at the root of an ongoing heated debate about whether low-level radiation benefits, rather than harms, humans.
The problem is the lack of unambiguous evidence of Mithridatism. We know that exercise, for example, will change muscle strength and bone mass and structure, but is this what we are looking for when seeking anti-fragility’s essence?