Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease
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Despite the billions of dollars we’ve poured into foreign wars, homeland security, and disaster response, we are fundamentally no better prepared for the next terrorist attack or unprecedented flood than we were in 2001. Our response to catastrophe remains unchanged: add another step to airport security, another meter to the levee wall. This approach has proved totally ineffective: reacting to past threats and trying to predict future risks will only waste resources in our increasingly unpredictable world.
In Learning from the Octopus, ecologist and security expert Rafe Sagarin rethinks the seemingly intractable problem of security by drawing inspiration from a surprising source: nature. Biological organisms have been living—and thriving—on a risk-filled planet for billions of years. Remarkably, they have done it without planning, predicting, or trying to perfect their responses to complex threats. Rather, they simply adapt to solve the challenges they continually face.
Military leaders, public health officials, and business professionals would all like to be more adaptable, but few have figured out how. Sagarinargues that we can learn from observing how nature is organized, how organisms learn, how they create partnerships, and how life continually diversifies on this unpredictable planet.
As soon as we dip our toes into a cold Pacific tidepool and watch what we thought was a rock turn into an octopus, jetting away in a cloud of ink, we can begin to see the how human adaptability can mimic natural adaptation. The same mechanisms that enabled the octopus’s escape also allow our immune system to ward off new infectious diseases, helped soldiers in Iraq to recognize the threat of IEDs, and aided Google in developing faster ways to detect flu outbreaks.
While we will never be able to predict the next earthquake, terrorist attack, or market fluctuation, nature can guide us in developing security systems that are not purely reactive but proactive, holistic, and adaptable. From the tidepools of Monterey to the mountains of Kazakhstan, Sagarin takes us on an eye-opening tour of the security challenges we face, and shows us how we might learn to respond more effectively to the unknown threats lurking in our future.
humans alone, but then chimpanzees were discovered making specialized tools to fish out termites from rotting logs. Then those who would separate humans from other animals moved the goal line and suggested that deliberately making tools for future use (rather than just to extract a tasty treat or deal with a threat near at hand) was the barrier. But a chimp named Santino in Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo methodically breaks apart the cement in his enclosure, calmly stacks the pieces in a special place, and
to continually adapt to whatever is thrown his way on the battlefield—recently briefed a group of academic scientists and military analysts on what he and his marines did to adapt to a combat environment in Ramadi, Iraq, that was far different than what any marine had seen before. Cullins and his marines didn’t adapt immediately, but over the course of several tours that saw every kind of fighting and vacillated from infuriatingly quiet to shockingly violent, they realized that they were
continually vary how they act, they may be susceptible to new analysis methods that link crimes by the same person via the signals they send while committing each crime.10 Focusing on information sharing may be the most effective way to neutralize a threat. For example, scientists have recently discovered a radically different picture of the bacteria that cause diseases like cystic fibrosis. Once thought of as lone operators who cause damage when combined with many other renegades, these
Homeland Security Threat Level Advisory System—that five-color warning scheme prominently displayed in airports and other public facilities—it rarely changed the warning level. In airports, the threat level stayed constantly at orange from August 200613 until the program’s demise five years later. This was not a convincing show to our enemies that we actually did know what they were up to, and it also didn’t give clear information to the population it was supposed to protect. On a typical “orange
that impart our security systems with the adaptability necessary to deal with a wide range of threats. Fourth, good ideas in evolution are often identified because they appear nearly exactly the same across many different organisms. Although the DNA codes for millions of different organisms, the basic structure of the molecule and the process by which it replicates itself is the same across much of the living world. Heat shock proteins, which go around the body repairing damaged proteins, are