The Real Story of Risk

Adventures in a Hazardous World

Risky Beginnings

People are funny creatures.  Being one myself, I often wonder about why we do the many crazy things we do, including why we seem to have such a hard time judging risks.  Driving is one of the riskiest things we do each day, killing almost 40,000 Americans a year, but it is so commonplace that we feel totally at home in the car, texting, putting on makeup, or whatever else comes to mind.  We seem to readily ignore massive world changing risks like climate change, earthquakes, or financial calamities, while rare risks like snakes and sharks strike fear in the hearts of millions.  Why does public speaking routinely show up as the number one fear in surveys?  What are we afraid of, really, and why?  All too often our distorted view of risk sends us down a path that seems hard to understand, without looking more deeply to understand who we are and how we got here. 


Some of the answers lie in our evolution over the last few million years in Eastern Africa, in a world in which we faced very different risks from those around us today. The big risks ancient humanity faced over the course of evolution were predators, starvation and disease, not computer viruses. Those who survived those ancient risks are our ancestors, passing their risk-dodging genes and biology on to us, embedded in our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Those who failed to dodge those risks left nothing more than fossils.


There were moments over the course of human evolution when the fate of humanity was by no means a sure thing.  Our ancestors were small, thin-skinned, and had few defenses against the threats they faced.  At one point, our genes reveal, the human population dwindled down to about 5000 individuals.  But our ancestors managed to survive by their wits, working together, and over time did remarkably well.  Our ancestors succeeded so spectacularly in fact that the tools we evolved with to survive in the ancient world allowed us to develop complex technological societies and a global population of 7 billion, reshaping our planet.


As a result of the massive changes in the world, we’re a bit like fishes out of water.  While humans were ideally suited to manage the risks of the ancient world, we have changed our world so much that those risks have largely disappeared.  The risks we faced throughout human evolution, the risks that shaped our evolution, are no longer there, for the most part. Rather than facing predators, we now deal with risks like fast food, white collar crime, and mortgage-backed securities. The tools that helped our ancestors to survive in the ancient world are poorly suited to the risks of the modern world, often failing us, and sometimes failing spectacularly.


I wrote The Real Story of Risk to explore our quirky, frustrating, bewildering, and wondrous responses to risks we face in the world we live in today. The story moves from Homo erectus facing hyenas on the plains of Africa millions of years ago to Homo sapiens in Manhattan, dodging cabs and financial derivatives. It’s a story of humanity, evolved to be highly adaptable in a changing world, and creating a new era of climate change we are scarcely suited to handle. It’s the story of Jill the cave diver, Krishna the shark attack survivor, Dan the control freak, and Roberta the naked skydiver. It’s a story of love, death, snakes, conspiracy theories, con men, rising seas, hurricanes, earthquakes, and crossing the street. It’s the story of us.


I hope it’s not giving away the ending to say that at the end of the day the solution to our warped sense of risk is not to avoid all risks. This is not possible, or even advisable. But by better understanding how we fail and succeed at dealing with the risks we face, we can do a better job at dealing with risks in the future as individuals and as a species. 

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