Antifragility and First World Diseases


TheWildLifeofOurBodiesI was sitting at an outdoor cafe as I thought about how to write this post. I’d just finished reading chapter 5 of the Rob Dunn book entitled The Wild Life of Our Bodiesand was reflecting upon how interesting it was to be reading two books whose central premise–in broad brush strokes–was the same. As I was ruminating, a family of four–a couple and their two daughters, an infant and a preschooler/kindergartener–came and sat down at an adjacent table.

For a while the preternaturally-cute infant crawled around on the table top, but as the mother became concerned that the wriggly little child might fall or spill scalding coffee, she eventually set the child down. The child proceeded to crawl around on the ground–ground on which one could easily imagine pigeons trolling for crumbs. [Full-disclosure: I didn’t actually see any pigeons, or even any noticeable filth on the ground for that matter, and–while this is India–it was a major coffee chain attached to the side of a popular up-scale shopping mall, and so that particular ground was probably at least hosed down daily.] The child crawled on all-fours, except that she had the plastic number placard which told the waitress where to bring the order in one of her hands, and she would alternate between dragging it across the ground and–when she got tired of crawling–she would roll onto her rump and pop a corner of the placard into her mouth.

If reading the preceding scene made you a bit queasy, you should be reading one [or both] of books mentioned above. Doing so gave me a totally different perspective on this event. There was a point when I–like many–would have assumed the little girl would get some sort of ailment and that her parents would pay in lost sleep for letting the kid crawl on the ground in an urban public space, but I’m now more inclined to think that probably nothing will happen, and she could–theoretically–end up better off for the wear. I’m not advocating wallowing in filth, but I have come to see biological stressors in a new light. I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate letting a child crawl around sticking things in his or her mouth that have been on the ground at a cafe, but it would no longer surprise me to hear that this child lived a healthier life than children of germophobic (properly “mysophobic”) first-world moms who are about one cookie-off-the-kitchen-floor from forcing their children to live in a bubble.

The reader may be wondering two things: 1.) how these books could mitigate one’s queasiness, and 2.) what the books even have in common. If  you’re familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it’s likely you associate him with criticisms of the misuse of statistical methods, and the failure to understand under what conditions the usefulness of these methods break down. While Taleb does consider a wide range of examples in his popular books Black Swan,  Fooled by Randomness, and–most recently and most relevantly–Antifragilethe world of business is where Taleb’s background lies and where much of his discussion is centered. The Dunn book, one the other hand, fits squarely in the domain of biology and medicine.

Both of these books take as their core idea that there are systems that must face constant and occasionally serious challenges to grow stronger, and that the removal of these challenges can have adverse and sometimes dire consequences. Taleb looks at such systems in a broad and general sense, and coins a term, “antifragile”, to describe such systems. A system is antifragile if it gets stronger (i.e. in some way better) when subjected to stresses. This shouldn’t be confused with robustness, which is being indifferent to stressors. Robust systems can take or leave stressors, but antifragile systems need them or they become weakened. Dunn’s book deals with a specific example of an antifragile system, our guts. The biologist suggests that our war on parasites and germs has created a whole raft of problems never before seen. It’s probably not a new idea to most readers, as there are ongoing arguments about the risks of our antibacterial frenzy.

While first-world dwellers tend to take a superior view of those poor third-worlders and their myriad ailments–a number of which have been stamped out in the developed world–Westerners may not even be aware that there are a number of ailments that exist almost exclusively in the first world. Increasing evidence is developing that certain forms of diabetes and allergies are linked to “clean living.”  Interestingly, while one might readily imagine how a digestive tract ailment like Crohn’s Disease is tied to insufficiently populated digestive ecosystem, there’s reason to believe that diverse issues such as autism and anxiety disorders may also be linked to loss of internal predators and the imbalances their loss causes.

It’s not entirely a coincidence that I’m reading these books concurrently. I’ve been interested in the issue in a broad sense as of late. How does the craving of comfort weaken a population? What are the risks of indiscriminately weeding the stressors out of one’s life? (As seems to be a major objective of modernity.)  Of course, stressors are not eliminated, but instead stressors that are relatively feeble may become the 800 lb. gorilla of stressors.

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