A caveman contemplates modernity

The human predicament according to N. N. Taleb can be described in a few broad strokes.  Our species, he maintains, evolved in an environment of social simplicity.  Individuals knew what they knew by direct observation – and that included one another.  The past largely repeated the present.  Choices were few and stark.  The decision-making mechanisms evolved by our Paleolithic ancestors were powered by rough-and-ready assessments and played out over a limited number of possible situations.

We still carry that Paleolithic decision-making mechanism inside us, but our social environment has changed beyond recognition.  From a few thousands, we are now billions.  A small fraction of the knowledge in our heads, whether social or material, got there from direct observation.  Global trade and labor specialization have made into a mystery the origins and ends of things.  The present has broken away from the past.  Survival no longer hinges on personalities but on probabilities, and our Paleolithic minds, Taleb insists, are warped by inherited biases that blind us to the next catastrophe.  The modern world, so rich in choices and prosperity, is defined by a terrible uncertainty.

It appears to be an irremediable condition.  The human race is knowledgeable enough to evolve massively complex societies, yet too ignorant to protect itself within them.  We are all cavemen thrust uncomprehendingly into the digital age, congenitally overestimating our capacity to influence the future, thus a danger to ourselves and our communities.  Some unforeseen disaster must, in the end, lay us low.

Without necessarily agreeing with this extreme vision of human incapacity, I believe the same facts can be made to tell a different story.

Taleb is concerned almost exclusively about causation.  Despite his protests, he is at heart a financial trader:  he wants to avoid “being a sucker.”  While a worthy goal, this is rarely at the core of most people’s aspirations.  Rather, most of us pursue integrity.  We demand that life be more than a series of self-interested ploys, and we strive mightily to impose a theme on our actions which transcends private pleasure and satisfaction.  That’s the reason we use words like “duty” and “obligation,” firemen rush into collapsing buildings, and most bank employees don’t steal their bank’s money.

A powerful need to be true to something larger than ourselves is part of the human endowment.  Interest in predicting how the dice will fall plays a secondary role to this overarching wish.

I would guess our hunter-gatherer ancestors, bound to tight families and clans, had an easier time being true to goals larger than any individual.  They were less free than we are, but possessed far more integrity – it was imposed on them by the very lack of freedom in their environment.  To endure, they had to become what they aimed to be.

We latter-day cavemen are in many ways freer, but find personal integrity much more difficult to achieve.  An abundance of choices pulls us in incompatible directions – hours invested in my career must be subtracted from my performance as a father, for example.  Yet we haven’t escaped human nature.  Taleb is correct in insisting that Paleolithic decision-making mechanisms still reside within us, but such mechanisms include, and are often controlled by, a craving for personal integrity.  If, in the complexity of present-day life, integrity has become scarcer, this merely means we now find it a more valuable commodity.

Today we shuttle between two interlocked social domains, and our inherited talents help us to navigate both.  One is the small world I described in an earlier post, which is based on direct observation and thus can be compared to the ancestral environment.  This is the domain of family, friends, locality, and all interactions built on personal trust.  In a real sense, we evolved to succeed in this reduced space, where people are known by name, facial expressions are readable, and cheaters tend to be found out and swiftly punished.

The small world is the realm of morality:  the cradle of character and personal integrity.  Here are the people who matter, the critical audience to the drama of our lives, before which we wish to appear admirable and noble; here too are the teachers, alive and dead, who show us by example what admirable and noble behavior must mean upon this stage.  Every virtue is a small-world product.  The question Taleb poses is whether they can be exported beyond the horizon, to distant and anonymous spaces.

This takes us to the second domain:  the realm of freedom and material prosperity, but also the womb of Talebian uncertainty and of the unforeseen disaster.  Here billions interact without knowledge of one another.  Here is the workplace and the marketplace, modern science and medicine, representative government and a flood of free information; here too is the traffic accident and sudden unemployment, terrorist violence and financial collapse, ethnic holocausts and a frightening blindness about what the future will bring.

The small world in which we are nurtured is submerged in a fantastically complex social universe, where people become statistical units and observation yields to probability.  Taleb, obsessed with causation, believes such complexity and radical uncertainty are new things under the sun, never before encountered by human experience.  On this observation he builds the argument about Paleolithic minds defeated by bias in a transformed environment.

The observation, however, is factually incorrect.  Our first ancestors evolved in a world far more riddled with uncertainty and unpredictability than our modern environment.  They were nearly wiped out 70,000 years ago – a black swan event that makes the current financial crisis seem like a carnival by comparison.  Complexity was probably generated by the natural, not the social, environment.  Paleolithic people left their simple groupings and personal relationships to wrest a living in the face of drought, scarcity, disease, and predatory mayhem.

But this is a distinction without a difference.  If we evolved in the teeth of complexity, Taleb’s argument that we are congenitally unprepared for it must at best be incomplete.

The longer one reflects on the conditions of human evolution, the more apparent it becomes that, while character and integrity are taught and nurtured in the small world of family and clan, they were developed for an ultimately unpredictable natural environment.  Personal integrity, that is to say, had to be earned face to face in the dispensation of everyday duties, but was needed most when daily routine collapsed and all hell broke loose.  For such black swan moments a whole range of complementarary virtues were called for:  courage and prudence, self-reliance and public-mindedness, the biblical mercy and righteousness.  Behaviors embodied in these virtues offered our first parents the best chance to succeed in the face of uncertainty — and to endure in the face of catastrophe.

Thus the original cavemen lived in many ways like their descendants.  They were nurtured in a simple, personalized domain, and earned a living in complex and dangerously unpredictable places.  Using the skills we have inherited, we do the same.

How could Taleb have missed this?  To be fair, given his perspective, he got it right.  Taleb, the Levantine, wants very badly to be a prophet, so he can peer into the heart of causation and dodge black swan disasters.  But he knows he can’t, in theory or in practice, and the uncertainty chafes and fills his mind until it spills over into his writings.  We can’t see or control the future.  We never will.  For this ignorance, we will pay a heavy price.  This has been an integral part of the human experience from the dawn of time, but for Taleb it’s unbearable.

In The Black Swan, he imagines history as a series of numbers, like software code.  That’s a peculiar perspective, pure cause and effect.  For the rest of us history is the theater of uncertainty, where persons and peoples play out their characters.  Control matters less than integrity, causation less than endurance, and greatness in the drama of life is unrepeatable but admirable nonetheless, and will always inspire emulation.

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