Black Swan Events

For centuries, swans were white. The idea that swans could possibly come in another color has a long history and, I think, an appealing relevance to daily life.

For the Romans, a “black swan” was a synonym for an impossibility. In philosophy, it stood for the remote possibility that an assumption might be wrong. Then in 1697, an expedition led by Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh found black swans swimming in Australia. Swans were no longer defined as white birds.

Recently Nassim Nicholas Taleb revived interest in the phrase in two books written in 2001 and 2007. Taleb extended the term “black swan” to unpredictable or unlikely events that can impact financial markets, history, or the progress of science. Such turning points, he argued, result not from the normal course of affairs but from occurrences that seem unpredictable at one time and that in retrospect experts could have seen coming. Examples include the start of World War I, the discovery of the Internet, and September 11th from the point of view of Americans (Wikipedia).



But I’m interested in black swan events of a more personal nature and defined a little differently. I think of a black swan as something or someone that has been in existence for a while but has been unknown to us until it, he, or she intersects with our lives and creates a significant change of some kind.

Usually, we think of the events that impact us as emerging from current circumstances, as having just happened—the boss fires us because the business is failing, a car crashes into ours, our short story wins a prize. But other life-changing events have roots in what has been on-going near us all along but out of our sight. We discover, for example, that a person we know well has an unexpected dark side or a shining one. An unknown ancestor or relative may show up in an analysis of our DNA, or at our front door. The love of your life may have been living one street over for years or decades until you bump into him or her at the corner. And even within oneself, the black swan of a dormant disease or a hidden talent may suddenly spread its wings. I’ve known people who have experienced variations of all such black swans. They have an eerie always-been-around-but-just-out-of-reach quality.

Black swan events in general remind us how limited our knowledge is. Although black swan surprises can be pleasant, positive ones, people usually like to feel confident about their understanding of things. A black swan event seems aptly named not because the event can be negative but because the massiveness of the unknown that could step into our lives at any moment, for better or worse, feels ominous.




Lucky Life

Is luck for real? Is it meaningful under normal circumstances to say that “I’m lucky to be alive” (that is, apart from survival of a near-fatal accident or illness)? Why do we often say “I’m lucky to be alive” instead of the nearly synonymous “I’m glad to be alive”?

columbus statue (

Columbus memorial (

Events both small and large, from a day at the beach to the existence of life itself, have been labeled as lucky.  But I think that exclamations about luck have less to do with the likelihood of events themselves than with our surprise and gratitude, with unexpected joy.

First, a poet’s view. “Lucky Life” recounts Gerald Stern’s joy at finding relief from life’s stresses on a summer day at the beach. (Excerpted chunks of a poem, like the following, do not do it justice.)

Lucky life isn’t one long string of horrors
and there are moments of peace, and pleasure, as I lie in between the blows….

My dream is I’m walking through Phillipsburg, New Jersey,
and I’m lost on South Main Street. I am trying to tell,
by memory, which statue of Christopher Columbus
I have to look for, the one with him slumped over
and lost in weariness or the one with him
vaguely guiding the way with a cross and globe in
one hand and a compass in the other….

Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?…

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky the waves are cold enough to wash out the meanness.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.

Life is “lucky” for Stern not because it is without pain but because it is not entirely pain. The primal cleansing and baptism of a return to salt water always works, unlikely as that seems beforehand. Stern cannot will the waves to cleanse him yet again. There is uncertainty and anticipation. When they do rejuvenate him once more, he feels lucky—profoundly glad and surprised.

On a much vaster scale, the existence itself of living things is—for some scientists—lucky. About 540 million years ago, a burst of new life forms appeared during what is known as the Cambrian explosion. The fossils left behind represented a wide variety of new species. Almost all of these species quickly disappeared except for the ancestors of the vertebrates from which most animals today, including humans, are descended. A stroke of luck? Or a near-certainty?


Cambrian seascape (Wikimedia Commons)

In The Story of Life in 25 Fossils, Donald Prothero recaps the argument of paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould that these Cambrian specimens “underscored the importance of contingency, lucky accidents of life that determine how all the events that follow will pay out….Each time you replay the tape of life’s history, it comes out differently.” Asteroids, volcanic eruptions, other sources of extinction all had a role in the survival of some species and the disappearance of others. Survival of the fittest was not the only player. “The modern world is an improbable, lucky accident, one of millions of possible ways in which the scenario of life could have progressed.”

Others including Richard Dawkins counter that the outcomes of evolution are not such a toss-up, that a replay of life’s history would end with the same general picture of life, and it may not matter anyway. That is, whether our current organic world is the result of accident or inevitability, we like to think of it as “lucky” essentially because it has produced us. Or, as Dawkins puts it in The Ancestor’s Tale: the Dawn of Evolution, “there is no reason other than [our] vanity…to designate [the present result of evolution] as more privileged or climactic than any other.”

Luck has little to do with causality or randomness. It has everything to do with our surprise, of the kind that Stern and Gould express, that the stern necessities of the universe sometimes fall in our favor.