Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

Anti-fragile life of economy

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 conceptualise 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.


Anti-fragility, as defined by Taleb, seems less biologically disputable than Mithridatism. Indeed, anti-fragility appears to be a general quality of evolving systems. It does not correspond to isolated objects, but to populations. And here we do indeed observe Hydra-like behaviour in the evolution of living beings: in the course of time, natural selection will use genetic mutations in populations to split their progeny into two or more distinct species.

Standing out from the crowd

By allowing some individual entities to stand out from the crowd, anti-fragility improves the fate of a population under a challenging situation. The number of candidates for anti-fragile behaviour among biological structures is enormous. Cells are essentially made of macromolecules, which, even when coded from the same gene, are never entirely identical to one another. The very process of macromolecular biosynthesis is tied to the structure of the environment. No two cells are the same.

This remarkable variety, deployed within a strict genetic envelope that limits its range, roots life in anti-fragility. This is an essential point that biology should retain. And, as the global economy responds to the unpredictable challenges of economy crisis and recovery, it is a point that economists, too, should bear in mind.

Continue Reading

Still curious? You can learn more about Nassim Taleb by reading his books The Black SwanFooled By Randomness, and, The Bed of Procrustes.