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001 – Tim HARFORD (2011): Adapt. Why success always starts with failure. Abacus, London

Published on 30 September 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

Well and clearly written, entertaining, and clever, – Tim HARFORD (2011): Adapt. Why success always starts with failure. Abacus, London – is well worth your time. I’d suggest you take it on your next journey to an international meeting, or at least look at it on TED.

The book is in two parts. First the general framework is outlined: we learn by trial and error. Variation and selection is the strategy – based not so much on successful outcomes as failures. Be ruthless with failures, particularly your own is the message. The second part takes up case studies: Climate change, financial (and other) meltdowns.

Underpinning the argument is first the insight that variation is best done on a small scale: the resources invested in creating variation are small, so one can generate more of it. Also, each failure is containable.
Variation is not enough: it must spread within a population. This is best done when the population is small. Small means isolated. Once a novel population is established in its niche, it can spread and even outperform the “parent” population as the environment changes. Isolation also allows better containment of potentially catastrophic errors.

Biological evolution is mindless. We can learn – so the process of selection is speeded up immensely. That’s how we got to our current place on earth within 100’000 years rather than million years. One of the book’s strength’s is its analysis of how to incentivate the process of variation and selection. It also pays attention to the role of the genius – the person who is able to have a vision and the stamina to realize it. Such “leaps” complement, but do not replace, adaptation. This is important to understand, for we tend to favor “heroic tales” and blithely ignore the adaptive role.

The book is a delightful indictment of “top down” structures, which are shown, in many examples, to fail. The people at the top are unable to generate the variety needed for successful adaptation. Their perception of the changing environment is delayed or denied – group-think prevails. Finally, they are too busy sustaining their authority to bother about leadership.

Familiarity with evolutionary theory will help savoring the book. The book will facilitate understanding evolutionary theory. Two books for the price of one – what a great bargain!

{NOTE: this is the first blog of a new feature, where Diplo bloggers and faculty share their ideas for reading material which is relevant to Diplo’s core topics and which, more simply,  can also feed the mind!]


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