Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)
Neil Gaiman, the legendary Neil Gaiman who, along with Alan Moore and Garth Ennis rebooted U.S. comics around the cusp of the ’80s–’90s, who scripted the English version of Princess Mononoke, who wrote the original graphic novel that formed the basis for the movie Stardust, and wrote one, and only one issue of Hellblazer.
Hellblazer is itself a minor legend. Centering around Londoner and working-class occult magician John Constantine, Hellblazer was the only book that kept its original issue numbering after DC’s “back to zero” reboot of last September. Some 300 issues later (the book has been published each month since November 1987), Hellblazer is now embroiled in a reworking of Gallic modernism with “Another Season in Hell,” in the very capable hands of writer Peter Milligan.
Gaiman, for his part, plumbed the “high concept” of Hellblazer and of John Constantine, in January 1990, when “Hold Me” was released. In “Hold Me,” John Constantine does not get the girl. But he does get to exorcise the ghost of a dead homeless man in a most unique way—by physically hugging him to give him that affection he lacked in the last days of his life.
It’s a strange, boring, deeply compelling story in which nothing happens, but I’m left raw by the end and for very long after. Like an episode of Homicide, or old Dziga Vertov films, or Haruki Murakami (Kafka on the Shore springs to mind). So why is it this issue of Hellblazer that springs to mind when I finally close my paperback copy of Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure?
Maybe it’s something to do with dependence, with the idea of relying on. There’s a sad and ugly history I have with the book. One that goes back to the week before the street riots in London last year, and me being in a hotel room I shouldn’t be in, the hotel room of an ex I’d planned to meet while there and be civil with about things, and spying the book out of the corner of my eye, half-secreted like a dare. I finally got my own copy of the book on 11/11 last year and began reading that very day.
When I finally closed the book, it felt like something had been stolen from me. Like I can’t go back to that place where Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth and Stuart Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred are still safe and whole and good. It’s like that clean, well-lighted place that stored those books for me has been irrevocably compromised by the old man’s inevitable suicide.
Adapt treads the same ground as Origin and Reinventing. It’s an honest and frank discussion of complexity, and the mathematical and biological study of complexity. For my own part, I first encountered complexity in the pages of Kauffman’s Reinventing. The idea was seductive. Within science, Kauffman elucidates, there is a binary that no one has yet noticed. Not all sciences are alike. While physics trends ever downwards, seeking out the smaller to explain the whole, biology goes the other way. Biology is the study of abundance, of more and yet more.
Physics, Kauffman reminds us, is reductionist. Biology is explosive, the study of complexity. This leads to the strange cultural turn between the two. In physics we can, and do seek to, know everything in absolute detail, not only about individual particles, but about their transmutations from one state to another. Physicists like ourselves (for those of us who are physicists) endeavor to understand not only particle, but process. Biologists are different. Natural selection means we can’t guess the outcome of an experiment. What will happen, will happen, and we can’t know in advance. Flying rhinos are not only an option, but, given the proper environmental stresses, are an absolute necessity. The natural world as we know it is really only here because of the roll of the die. For physicists, however, unless the standard model applies, none of this would exist.
It’s during this discussion of the idea of variance that Adapt enters. In evolution, the kind we’re familiar with that involves bugs (homeostatic control of the ecosystem), tigers (top-tier predation), and eyeballs (convergent evolution), the failures by far outnumber the successes. For every one tiger that works as elegantly as it does in the forests of Southeast Asia, for every one eyeball that nature seems to select time and again without needing to retrace its steps through earlier failures, the fossil record responds with literally hundreds of examples of failed attempts. And it’s this failure that we should harness, Harford argues.
In 2007, in Origin, Beinhocker approaches the same field to attempt to answer the question of why there is suddenly wealth; where does it come from? But immediately he’s hemmed in by how strange it should be to ask this question, at this point in history. Surely the nearly 250-year history of economic theory should produce some thoughts on this question. But, Beinhocker finds, in that slow, plodding, academic style that proves ultimately engrossing and then endearing, the formal study of economics, going back as far as Adam Smith, is broken in fundamental ways. The Origin of Wealth is as much a treatise on the compromises economics has had to make as it is on the explication of complexity theory. While Origin lacks that pop-immediacy of a book like Freakonomics (or its even more picaresque successor Superfreakonomics), it is voluminous, labyrinthine, and encyclopedic in a steady and reassuring way.
Adapt attempts both the style of Origin and of Superfreakonomics. And fails to convincingly master either.
Like Superfreakonomics, we’re inducted into examples from history. But there’s a terrible, almost imperial sense in which these anecdotes are simply set-dressing for the principle at work. There’s no animation to these tales, not emotive power. Years later now, and I can readily recall how Superfreakonomics connects Kitty Genovese’s murder to apathy and to kidney donors in Iran, Semmelweis’s insight into pre-op scrubbing and car seat-belts, and why we should allow Nathan Myhrvold to build a giant cannon that will mimic the effects of a supervolcano.
I’m enthralled by these stories, and deeply involved in them (in that same way that T.S. Eliot was involved with that woman’s laughter in “Hysteria”). Just a cursory glance, and already I can begin to sense what Stephen Dubner, journalist and co-author (with economist Steven Levitt), brings to both Freak books. While it’s clearly Levitt who can articulate the strange connections that make the Freaks so engrossing, it’s Dubner who can write.
Then there are the incidents themselves. They seem lackluster, in a way that seems to make unreasonable demands on me. There’s the story of Palchinsky, for example, who does research into dysfunctional economic regions like Siberia. We’re treated to a forced connection between the idea of Palchinsky’s struggles and Phineas Gage’s story (he had a major personality shift after shrapnel lodged in his prefrontal lobe).
But the end is the worst of it. And that’s when the link with “Hold Me” becomes all too clear. In “Hold Me,” John Constantine doesn’t get the girl. Not that the girl would really want him anyway. She’s in a committed lesbian relationship, they’re trying for a baby, but Thatcher’s Britain means they’re without options for either insemination or adoption. For the first time someone’s running a con on Constantine, and by the middle of the issue, he’s sniffed it out.
There’s something about this con, about being in a bad situation and realizing you’d need to up-skill yourself to work yourself free of that ending summoned up by the finale of Adapt. It’s a tone that I don’t see until about a decade after “Hold Me” in books like those written by the plain-talking Dr. Phil, by wizard financial guru Suze Orman, or in books like The Surrendered Wife or Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars.
It’s the idea that there’s a quick fix, and the fix is to develop expertise by deploying a new metaphor, and some judicious tactical thinking. That final chapter, “How to Fail” (actually it’s called “Adapting and You”), feels exactly like this re-enablement discourse that entered the popular imagination with the rise of Dr. Phil (at least for this generation).
If this were truly the aim of the book, or even a necessary compromise Hartford had to strike with his publisher, why not centralize it? Dig a little deeper and you’ll find Samurai Chess, not at all a good chess manual, but a reasonably competent popularizing of Budo and Samurai culture, and a remarkably engaging cartography of the strange and unwelcome interstices between Budo and chess.
I want to find my copy of Samurai Chess again, it must be somewhere. Adapt, at least for me, is better left in a hotel room in Paddington, just before London erupts.