Hormesis and antifragility: redundancy as an aggressive approach to life

Regularly shaking things up, subjecting a system to moderate stressors, is clearly necessary to keep it in fighting form for a day when it’s truly challenged. (The comfort zone feels OK for a while, but it’s deadly in the long-run.)

But Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminds in “Hormesis Is Redundancy” that staying in fighting form also brings competitive advantages every day. Being lean to the extreme isn’t optimal for a person or a company, you need to combine lean and mean. According to Taleb

Hormesis is when a bit of a harmful substance, or stressor, in the right dose or with the right intensity, stimulates the organism and makes it better, stronger, healthier, and prepared for a stronger dose the next exposure. That’s the reason we go to the gym, engage in intermittent fasting, or caloric deprivation, or overcompensate for challenges by getting tougher. […]

Now it turns out that the logics of redundancy and overcompensation are the same—as if nature had a simple elegant and uniform style in doing things. If I ingest, say, fifteen milligrams of a poisonous substance, my body will get stronger, preparing for twenty, or more. Stressing my bones (karate practice or carrying water on my head) will cause them to prepare for greater stress, by getting denser and tougher. A system that overcompensates is necessarily in overshooting mode, building extra capacity and strength, in anticipation for the possibility of a worse outcome, in response to information about the possibility of a hazard. This is a very sophisticated form of discovering probabilities via stressors. And of course such extra capacity or strength becomes useful—in itself—as opportunistic as it can be used to some benefit even in the absence of the hazard. Redundancy is an aggressive, not a defensive approach to life.


The word “fitness” in the common scientific discourse does not appear to be precise enough. I am unable to figure out if what is called “Darwinian fitness” is merely intrapolative adaptation to current environment, or if it contains an element of statistical extrapolation. In other words, there is a significant difference between robustness (is not harmed by stressor) and what I’ve called antifragility (i.e., gains from stressors).

For a good interview with Taleb about antifragility, see here. (Scroll down for a transcript.)

Aside: According to John Skoyles

Tim Noakes has shown that the limits upon exercise are set in our brains. The brain creates a kind of “flight protection envelope” for our bodies that determines what we can safely do. But there is a considerable margin of safety (as in the design of flight protection envelopes for pilots and aircraft). Noakes calls it a “central governor“.



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