Black Swan Events

For centuries, swans were white. The idea that swans could come in another color has a long history and, I think, an appealing relevance to ordinary life.

For the Romans, a “black swan” was a synonym for an impossibility. In philosophy, it stood for the unlikely possibility that an assumption might be wrong. Then in 1697 an expedition led by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh found black swans swimming in Australia. Swans were no longer defined as white birds.

Recently Nassim Nicholas Taleb revived interest in the phrase in two books written in 2001 and 2007. Taleb extended the term “black swan” to unpredictable or unlikely events that can impact financial markets, history, and the progress of science. Such turning points, he argued, result not from the normal course of affairs but from occurrences that seemed unpredictable at the time and that in retrospect we think we could have seen coming. Examples include the start of World War I, the discovery of the Internet, and September 11th from the point of view of Americans (Wikipedia). I think genetic mutations that lead to evolutionary adaptations are examples as well.



But I’m interested in black swan events of a more personal nature and defined a little differently. I think of a black swan as something or someone that has been in existence for a while but has been unknown to us until it, he, or she intersects with our lives and creates a significant change of some kind.

Usually, we think of the events that impact us as emerging from current circumstances, as having just happened—the boss fires us because the business is failing, a car crashes into ours, our short story wins a prize. But in reality many life-changing events have roots in something that has been on-going, near us all along but out of our sight. We may discover, for example, that a person we know well has an unexpected dark side, or a shining one. An unknown relative or ancestor may show up in an analysis of our DNA, or at our front door. The love of your life may have been living one street over for years or decades until you bumped into each other at the corner. And even within oneself, the black swan of a dormant disease or a hidden talent may suddenly spread its wings. I’ve known people who have experienced variations of all such black swans. They have an eerie always-been-around-but-just-out-of-reach quality.

So black swan events in general remind us how limited our knowledge is, even our knowledge about everyday life. We’re not very comfortable with such reminders. We need to feel confident about our understanding of things, and too much exposure to the enormity of the unknown can be paralyzing. A black swan event seems aptly named not because the event is sometimes negative but because the massiveness of the unknown that could step into our lives at any moment, for better or worse, feels ominous.




“There’s No Natural Selection For Happiness”

“Like evolution, history disregards the happiness of individual organisms” (p. 243) writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari analyzes early human history for its indifference to personal well-being and its drive toward population growth—the same features that mark the forward motion of evolution. It is only in the modern era that civilization may be doing more for individual happiness, and the price we pay for that shift may be that we leave nature further behind.

It’s a provocative view. I, like many Americans, carry around a vague and positive sense of the “progress” of history— as I sit here with my computer, with food and water nearby in the kitchen, in a peaceful town. But Harari vividly sees the costs as well as the gains.

He looks at three “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution about 70,000 years ago, when we attained language and our current intelligence level; the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago, when food gathering slowly gave way to food growing; and the Scientific Revolution of the last 500 years.

In between the Cognitive Revolution and the Agricultural one, intelligent foragers led healthy, mobile, and interesting communal lives. Their diet was varied, labor was not arduous, and members of the small communities were closely connected. But as they took up growing a very few crops, raising animals, and settling down, they gave up such lives in exchange for towns, cities, and elites. The food supply and the farmers themselves became susceptible to drought and disease, and daily labor became exhausting and monotonous. Agriculture led to larger populations but not happier ones. And it did so in small steps, as each new luxury—food storage, land ownership, cities—became a necessity that no one wanted to give up.



The process of irreversible steps towards a growing population is also the footprint of  successful evolution. Variation and reproduction are partners in trying to make a growing number of DNA copies, while along the way “There’s no natural selection for happiness” (386).

Since the Scientific Revolution 500 years ago, the ambivalence of cultural progress has deepened. Sapiens, Harari writes, have attained more control over nature while destroying a growing number of species. We have reduced extreme poverty and illness and raised global population numbers, but we’ve also raised material expectations and have raised individual discontent along with them. We Sapiens are on our way to becoming god-like in prolonging and even designing life itself, yet we remain in the dark about what we want to become in the future.

As we modify the human body more drastically, through surgery and genetics, will we even remain human? The “Brief History” in Harari’s title refers not only to the length of the book but also to the question of the duration of Sapiens as a distinct species.

I found the first half of Sapiens, about the foraging era and the Agricultural Revolution, more compelling than the second part about recent trends. I don’t think we can effectively judge the deepest shifts in the era that we are still living in, and we are generally poor prophets. But the book is a fascinating application of evolutionary thinking.

I’ll conclude by letting Harari speak for himself, especially about language, the growing power of human “fictions,” social groups, and the foraging and agricultural cultures.

The new linguistic skills that modern Sapiens acquired about seventy millennia ago enabled them to gossip for hours on end. Reliable information about who could be trusted meant that small bands could expand into larger bands and Sapiens could develop tighter and more sophisticated types of cooperation…. Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all….Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution….Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate in large numbers. (21-25)

Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals….Below this threshold, communities, businesses, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based mainly on intimate acquaintance and rumour-mongering….But language enables us to create fictions, myths that could unite hundred of millions of people….Churches…States…Judicial systems are rooted in common myths….There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings… [So-called “primitive” people] cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. Modern business-people and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. (26-28)

Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google. (32)

Sapiens did not forage only for food and materials. They foraged for knowledge as well. To survive, they needed a detailed mental map of their territory. To maximize the efficiency of their daily search for food, they required information about the growth patterns of each plant and the habits of each animal….Each individual had to understand how to make a stone knife, how to mend a torn cloak, how to lay a rabbit trap, and how to face avalanches, snakebites,or hungry lions….The human collective knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history. (48)

On the whole foragers seem to have enjoyed a more comfortable and rewarding lifestyle than most of the peasants, shepherds, labourers and office clerks who followed in their footsteps. …The forager economy provided most people with more interesting lives than agriculture or industry do….In most places at most times, foraging provided ideal nutrition… The foragers‘ secret of success , which protected them from starvation and malnutrition, was their varied diet. Farmers tend to eat a very limited and unbalanced diet….Ancient foragers also suffered less from infectious diseases. Most of the infectious diseases that have plagued agricultural and industrial societies (such as small pox, measles and tuberculosis) originated in domesticated animals and were transferred to humans only after the Agricultural Revolution….Average life expectancy was apparently just thirty or forty years, but this was due largely to the high incidence of child mortality. Children who made it through the perilous first years had a good chance of reaching the age of sixty, and some even made it to their eighties. (51)

[About 10,000 years ago,] Sapiens began devoting almost all their time and effort to manipulating the lives of a few animal and plant species. From sunrise to sunset humans sowed seeds, watered plants, plucked weeds from the group and led sheep to prime pastures.…  Scholars once proclaimed that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity. They told a tale of progress fueled by human brain power. Evolution gradually produced ever more intelligent people. Eventually, people were so smart that they were able to decipher nature’s secrets, enabling them to tame sheep and cultivate wheat. As soon as this happened, they cheerfully abandoned the grueling, dangerous, and often Spartan life of hunter-gatherers, settling down to enjoy the pleasant, satiated life of farmers.

       That tale is a fantasy. There is no evidence that people became more intelligent with time. Foragers knew the secrets of nature long before the Agicultural Revolution, since their survival depended on an intimate knowledge of animals they hunted and the plants they gathered. Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure….The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud. (79)


Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”

Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is a terrific read for anyone who is curious about science but bewildered by the  details. Bryson’s signature style—friendly, humorous—is easy on the comprehension and evocative for the imagination.

The book, for example, begins, “Welcome. And congratulations. I am delighted that you could make it. Getting here wasn’t easy, I know. In fact, I suspect it was a little tougher than you realize. To begin with, for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you.” You is one of the most frequent words in the book.

Bryson begins with the Big Bang, discovered in 1965 by scientists wondering about a hiss in the reception from a communications dish, a noise that turned out to be the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang.

Incidentally, disturbance from cosmic background radiation is something we have all experienced. Tune your television to any channel it doesn’t receive, and about 1 percent of the dancing static you see is accounted for by this ancient remnant of the Big Bang. The next time you complain that there is nothing on, remember that you can always watch the birth of the universe.

Facts brought down to earth, with imagination and humor—that’s Bryson’s signature. Indulge me while I recast this passage to highlight its appeal:

Tune your television to any channel
It doesn’t receive, and
About 1 percent of
The dancing static
You see
Is accounted for
By this ancient remnant
Of the Big Bang.

The next time you complain that
There is nothing
On, remember
That you can always watch
The birth of the universe.

TV static

Echoes of the Big Bang. Really. (

From the cosmos Bryson moves on to the earth. About the oceans, he writes:

There are 320 million cubic miles of water on Earth and that is all we’re ever going to get. The system is closed: practically speaking, nothing can be added or subtracted. The water you drink has been around doing its job since the Earth was young. By 3.8 billion years ago, the oceans had (at least more or less) achieved their present volume.

Fact and relevance, back and forth: “320 million cubic miles,” “all we’re ever going to get.” Scientists provide the facts; the humanist in Bryson provides the meaning. The message here is not only the environmental nudge but also that our past, the past that created us, is all around us.

I was delighted to see Bryson write at length about the bacteria that were life itself for its first 2 billion years. These eons are usually a tedious blur for those who are curious about evolution and the emergence of flowers, mammals, and humans. I’ve written about this unfamiliar period in Genesis for Non-theists and I can report with assurance that Bryson does it better. Here’s part of his discussion of ancient stomatolites, discovered in 1961, at Shark Bay in Australia:

Today, Shark Bay is a tourist attraction.…Boardwalks have been built out into the bay so that visitors can stroll over the water to get a good look at the stromatolites, quietly respiring just beneath the surface. They are lusterless and gray and look… like very large cow-pats. But it is a curiously giddying moment to find yourself staring at living remnants of Earth as it was 3.5 billion years ago….Sometimes when you look carefully you can see tiny strings of bubbles rising to the surface as they give up their oxygen. In two billion years such tiny exertions raised the level of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere to 20 percent, preparing the way for the next, more complex chapter in life’s history.


Stromatolites at Shark Bay, ancient and oxygen-producing. (

The next step was the formation of cells that enclosed nuclei and lived on oxygen; they were bigger and more complex than their predecessors, and they eventually gave rise to us. Bacteria don’t get enough respect. “Bacteria may not build cities and or have interesting social lives, but they will be here when the Sun explodes. This is their planet, and we are on it only because they allow us to be.”

Bryson’s vivid, colloquial writing reflects so much more talent and hard work than its easy-going quality suggests. And it is risky: in less capable hands it could be misleading, overgeneralized, sentimental. But Bryson succeeds at a task that is crucial today when science seems too cold to appeal to many people and conventional religion seems too hide-bound for others to swallow. Bryson makes scientific information evocative, personal, the stuff of life itself. He brings us up close to the reality that the history of the universe—from the Big Bang to the building blocks of life—is around us, is in us, and is us.

He writes about lichens. “Lichens are just about the hardiest visible organisms on Earth, but among the least ambitious.” They thrive in Antarctica and other harsh climates, and they are so successful that there are 20,000 species of them. They are very slow-growing and as a result are often hundreds if not thousands of years old.

As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of all the intoxicating existence we’ve been endowed with. But what’s life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours—arguably even stronger…. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer hardship, endure any insult, for a moment’s additional existence. Life, in short, just wants to be.


Lichens. “Life just wants to be.” (

We humans
Are inclined to feel
That life must have a
Point. We have

What’s life
To a lichen?
It’s impulse to exist,
To be,
Is every bit as strong as ours–
Even stronger.

They will suffer
Hardship, endure
Any insult,
For a moment’s
Additional existence.

Just wants to be.