Most naturalists agree that 99.99% of all species that have ever existed on earth are extinct. In the words of David Raup, “To a first approximation, all species are extinct”. The tremendous diversity of life in the planet, spanning the thickest forests of the Amazon, the deepest trenches of the ocean and the wide expanses of the Sahara desert, that leaves us spellbound in David Attenborough’s documentaries is within that 0.01%. Our understanding of the natural world is merely our attempt to make sense of the rounding error that has survived or evolved.
While species have a long lifespan (approximately a million years for mammals), we have several other things that constantly evolve with much smaller lifespans – the best ideas, the largest companies, the most popular cultures, market trends, successful languages, lists of billionaires, hit songs and so on. In all these instances, we are surrounded by the prominent and the fortunate 0.01% (it often takes more than merit to be able to make it this far). And yet, our understanding of the world is shaped by whatever has survived and continues to survive. Economic theory, manuals on public policy and books on how to build world-class companies are all skewed by this trifling sample of outliers.
High school science tells us that when we wish to study a trend, we ought to discard the outliers. And yet, we live in a world where it isn’t strange to look at the top percentile of people in any field and ape their morning routines hoping that some of this success rubs off on us.
Isn’t that absurd?
Inspiration: A Short History of Nearly Everything – Bill Bryson