Black Swans, Male Strippers and Uncertainty

"This too, shall pass." Folk tales say this was engraved on a ring given to King Solomon, who had demanded a gift that would make him sad when he was happy, and happy when he was sad. I recall it whenever I'm confronted with the claim that history has a positive direction--that, by and large, we're progressing toward a more peaceful, just and prosperous future. And conversely, too, when I hear someone say we're on an inevitable path of decline and doom.


We tend to think the future's an extension of the present, and so seek out the patterns and correspondences today that will allow us to predict tomorrow. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written in The Black Swan, people can't bear to think that no such patterns exist. We are habitually overconfident, then, about our knowledge--both its accuracy and its power to dispel uncertainty. It's often said, for example, that democracy promotes peace, because no democracy has ever fought a war with another democracy. As Matthew White points out, this is simply untrue--or, if you prefer, true only when so many caveats and qualifiers are attached that the statement is meaningless.

History moves in both directions, toward bloodshed and away from it, toward openness and toward repression. Taleb's native Lebanon, as he says, is a case in point. When I was born, Lebanon was considered the sophisticated Switzerland of the Arab world. It was inconceivable that this multi-religious, business-oriented and secular-feeling place could become a war zone for religious fanatics. Then in 1975, Taleb writes, "the Lebanese 'paradise' suddenly evaporated, after a few bullets and mortar shells." (His experiences as a teen-ager are one source of Taleb's fierce exasperation with those who think science can measure uncertainty.)

Yet Lebanese history also disproves the notion that longstanding wars can't be ended. Today the country is back to a tense state of peace, and its people enjoy freedoms that would have been unimaginable there in 1979. "Lebanon is not like it was 15 years ago," Jamil Daher said in an interview last month. And he should know: He's Lebanon's first male stripper.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less