Prepare, Don't Predict: Strength via Uncertainty

Our negotiation with nature continues.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

If you are reading this in the midst of physical distancing, staying indoors, and wearing protective masks, you might wonder — how did we get here? Like the proverbial frog in a slowly heating pot of water, sometimes our extrapolations from data are slow to catch up with reality.

The heightened chronic anxiety of modern life might actually dull responsive anxiety needed in a crisis—the type of scenario that our sensory systems are in fact primed to manage. Then we scramble to respond — like the anxiously avoidant teenager frantically doing the long-assigned report the night before it is due. 

Under normal, familiar evolutionary circumstances such as a spreading fire, sensing human aggression, spotting mating opportunities, and foraging, our gut instincts to extrapolate or assume trends can be fruitful. We know that a small flame can quickly spread; a conflict can break alliances. 

In the modern environment —unexpected interconnections, path-dependency (like shooting pool, you can’t change what happens after the break), any small perturbation along the flow can profoundly disrupt the ability to navigate circumstances. 

Our evolved instincts are not naturally sensitive to data, to secondary effects, and complex interdependence. The COVID-19 experience highlighted that shortcoming. 

We learn how a problem develops, give it a name (virus) and a metaphor (spreads).  Then we know that we remain contagious if infected even if asymptomatic.  That knowledge came at great cost. 

Nando Pelusi/Personal archive
Peering past to see the future
Source: Nando Pelusi/Personal archive

A virus survives and evolves because we may not know we are ill or contagious.

The novel coronavirus is an ancient phenomenon with modern nomenclature: COVID-19 may indeed be "novel," in a biological sense, but threats such this caused our species to adapt to take precautions at the first hint of danger; a relatively low cost strategy. 

We are not prepared to apprehend the threat of viruses given current population scales and global connectivity. 

Challenges come out of nowhere: Two hundred and fifty million years ago a Great Dying of species occurred, wiping out 90% of marine species and 70% of land animals. That happened 185 million years before the extinction of the dinosaurs, which was a true outlier event. 

The COVID-19 pandemic is an extreme event, but not an outlier. We easily confuse these two phenomena. It is precisely because we can eventually expect—but not predict— a viral pandemic we need to prioritize protecting the most vulnerable members of society, as well as ourselves, and could have done so years ago, as Bill Gates and others warned.

Because we failed to do so, it's now up to us to embrace our relationships and connectedness with every living person, and the paradox of ecologically-imposed social distancing in a busy metropolis. Ancestral awareness and the complexities of modern life can make us stronger as individuals and as a group. 


The Great Dying (NASA): 

Evolutionary Psychology:

*Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2008). The evolutionary psychology of the emotions and their relationship to internal regulatory variables. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (p. 114–137). The Guilford Press.

Risk and Complexity:

Taleb, N. N :Errors, robustness, and the fourth quadrant New York University–Polytechnic Institute and Universa Investments, United States

Available online 11 August 2009.