Not everything that happens happen for a reason, but everything that survives survive for a reason. - Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Skin In the Game, 2018)
Nassim Taleb’s point here is extremely important: Just because we don’t understand the logic of something, does not mean it does not have a logic. And if we see something that perplexes us that has persisted across history, there likely is some underlying logic to it.
In a similar vein we have “Chesterton’s Fence”. Briefly, GK Chesterton presents us with a thought experiment: one comes to a gate across some road without knowing what it is there for. What assumption does one make: that because the purpose of the fence is not obvious, it is likely that it has no purpose? Or is it more likely that it has a purpose which we do not know about?
The mere possibility of the latter means we don’t know what risks we are really taking if we decide to take down the fence to make our travels more convenient. Moreover, it is unlikely someone put it there for no reason.
As I said, this is important. However, if I were to be pedantic, which I will now be,1 I would take some issue with the idea that things survive for a reason.
Why does something survive?
Let’s run another thought experiment: Can you tell me, what the reason is that human beings have survived? Or the reason a particular person has survived?
You might say, well they have a working cardiovascular system that is supplying their body’s tissues with nourishment, and that’s why. Or you might say, their immune system is up to the task of identifying and eliminating harmful pathogens, and that is why. Or you might say they have keen hunting or farming skills, and so have been able to stay fed, and that’s why they survived.
And of course you could go on and on with these reasons — there seems to be no end to the list of reasons that something has survived. And really, what you’d be doing, is identifying possible reasons something would not survive, some vulnerability, and articulating the manner in which that vulnerability has been mitigated and accounted for through the structure or behavior of the person. In technical terms, we might say the reason something survives it because it has requisite variety. Requisite variety means something has enough internal richness to respond to the myriad stresses the environment delivers, and is able to avoid system failure due to a vulnerability being exposed.
This “requisite variety” is not one thing, but many things. Again, the list of reasons something survives can go on and on.
So the real reason something survives is because, bluntly, it hasn’t died.
And the reason something dies is because some vulnerability is exposed that disrupts that thing’s ability to self-persist. For organisms, it is generically that some closure property becomes interrupted. This interruption begins somewhere: e.g. the heart stops which ceases blood-flow which undernourishes tissues, which are then unable to perform their function, etc. etc… “cause of death”: cardiac arrest.
Everything that dies, dies for a reason.
Being fit and fitting in
We all know the cliche that evolution amounts to the “survival of the fittest”. Typically, the colloquial interpretation of “fittest” conjures up an image of a guy with big biceps and a 6-pack, but if we read the word in a more literal way, we see that “fitness” has to do with how well something “fits in” its context. It’s more like a puzzle piece in the right location than like a body-builder. There is no one-size-is-fittest.
And it is truly difficult, perhaps impossible, to say what the “fittest” is in some context; especially because part of how one thing fits in is in fitting well with the other things.
Consider the crucible of the mammals: once only a tiny (literally) player on this Earth, the transpiring of events led to opportunities for those little guys to spread, mutate, evolve, and grow to be one of the most successful classes on animal. Not because in their original context they were the “fittest” — whatever that might mean — but because they were fit-enough. Fit-enough to not die.
So I believe a more accurate, though admittedly less aesthetically satisfying formulation of these issues is as follows:
Everything that dies, dies for a reason. And it follows that:
Evolution properly understood is not survival of the fittest, but the non-survival of the not-fit-enoughs.
As Taleb often reminds us, first we must survive. All else is secondary.
Our existence depends on countless conditions being met — both within ourselves and in the world at large. It is a miracle that we get to play the game at all.
Yes, I am essentially nitpicking an aphorism, but I enjoyed where the thought took me so I’m sharing it with you, reader.