The world’s complexity means we must resort to trial and error for our ventures to survive.

The world is a complex place. Our modern economy, for example, depends on an intricate network of global supply chains, to the extent that, say, a Brazilian logger doesn’t know whether the trees he fells will be used to make a table or a guitar.

Even apparently small issues – economic and otherwise – are far more complex than you might first think.

One postgraduate student found this out for himself when he attempted to build a toaster from scratch. As he embarked on the project, he realized that sourcing the necessary materials was no simple task. He had to collect iron ore from an old mine in Wales; employ electrolysis to get copper from polluted water; scavenge plastic from a rubbish tip; and melt down commemorative coins for nickel. In the end, after all that work, not only did the device merely warm bread, but it was also a health hazard.

Such complexity entails progress via a series of failures. Only people who adapt succeed.

Take the engineer Peter Palchinsky. In the 1920s, Palchinsky was hired to advise on grandiose Soviet projects like the Lenin Dam, which was intended to be the world’s largest hydroelectric structure.

From the outset, Palchinsky had several criticisms, all of them related to the lack of potential for adaptation. First, there was not enough variation in the plans to take into account other means of energy production. Second, these experiments were not tested first on a scale small enough to be survivable should things go wrong. And third, the leadership ignored feedback that would have helped them to select solutions from mistakes.

Despite Palchinsky’s criticisms, Stalin wanted to build as quickly as possible, so he overlooked the problems. Ultimately, the dam was a failure both as a feat of engineering and economically. Ten thousand farmers were resettled to accommodate it, and its laborers suffered appallingly.

This highlights a common mistake that many of us make. We often have a false sense of control or knowledge when in reality the situation is complex. Fortunately, we can help to manage such problems by using a trial-and-error, adaptive method.

In the following blinks, we’ll look at the way in which the evolutionary principles of variation, survivability and selection underpin success in the modern world.