Why do we get it wrong again and again?

The Greeks believed that Hubris was always followed by Nemesis. There is something about triumphalism that seems to tempt fate. At the individual level, there are enough stories. Flushed with Asiatic success, Alexander pronounced himself a God king. That pretty much marked the start of his decline. Although he continued to win battles, he also started losing his friends. In a drunken rage, he murdered his companion Cleitus who had saved his life in the field of battle. He had his oldest general Parmenion assassinated in fear of a possible rebellion. On his return from India, he is said to have chosen to go through a desert precisely because it was said to be impassable. The resulting casualties in his army were higher than in any of his battles. Finally, in Babylon, as he thought of turning his attention westwards to Italy, he fell ill and died. With his death, his empire shattered into pieces to be bickered over by his generals.
Curiously, the same phenomenon is seen at a macro level as well. In the late 1980s, a number of books appeared with titles like “Japan as No. 1” and “The Japan That Can Say No: Why Japan Will Be First Among Equals” which argued for Japanese world domination. This was followed by the bursting of a property bubble and the “lost decade” of the 1990s and an economic stagnation the country is still struggling to overcome. In 2000, Bob Woodward wrote “Maestro: Greenspan’s Fed and the American Boom”. 2008 was still some time in coming, but one could argue the delay only made the effect worse. Today banks like RBS and Deutsche which had expanded aggressively to undreamed of heights are struggling to remain profitable and shedding size almost as quickly as they had gained it. Few would agree today with Francis Fukuyama’s 1990s thesis written in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse about how history had ended with the clear victory for capitalist, liberal, free market systems.
Every time, we think we have learnt from the past and this time, it would be different (read any book written after WW1), we end up falling prey to even bigger mistakes. Why is this? The answer I feel lies in biology. Nature is a harsh and unforgiving mistress. Take just one example, in Africa the great Serengeti migration. In January and February, the rains come and female wildebeest give birth. Baby wildebeest are born able to stand up and have to start migrating by March-April in search of pastures when the grass dries up. They move to Lake Victoria, from there to the Maasai Mara and finally back to the Serengeti. Every stage of this journey is fraught with danger. At every river crossing, crocodiles wait to ambush the unwary. The migration moves through the territories of several lion prides who depend on the wildebeest herds for meat. The entire journey taken annually is incredibly hard and stressful. In fact the life of an animal in the wild is generally risky and dangerous to an extent unimaginable to most people. Violent death threatens them at every moment.
Do they then live a life of constant anxiety and fear. No, forest species are often alert but rarely stressed in the sense we would understand it. Stressed animals generally do not procreate well, an essential requirement for the growth of the species. The ability to ignore persistent dangers seems to be a necessary survival strategy.


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