News: News Archives
Natural Security: Ecologist Says Evolution Offers Important Lessons for Security Policy
Policymakers should look at Earth's 3.5 billion-year history of biological evolution for strategies to combat modern security threats, ecologist Raphael Sagarin urged at a AAAS briefing.
By modeling submarine hulls on hydrodynamic fish bodies or federal agencies on the highly-adaptive human immune system, Sagarin said that studying the adaptation of "20 million success stories" of species on Earth could yield responses to tough threats including global terrorism, natural disasters, and infectious disease.
"Just as organisms were forced to adapt to a dangerous environment with predators and limited resources, the United States could explore a similar approach to its security allowing it to adapt to a constantly changing environment," Sagarin said at the 11 April event organized by AAAS Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy (CSTSP).
Sagarin and colleague Terence Taylor, president and director of the International Council for the Life Sciences in Washington, DC, recently edited a collaborative book on using nature as a guide for security policy entitled Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World.
A simple example of using evolution as inspiration for national security, Sagarin said, is the United States Navy's mimicry of a skipjack tuna body for a post-WWII class of submarines. Just as the skipjack tuna's streamlined, hydrodynamic body allows it to hunt prey, the 3,075-ton skipjack class submarines, now decommissioned, could travel at speeds above 35 miles per hour.
Beyond mimicry, Sagarin said that the U.S. Department of Defense has incorporated aspects of the evolutionary process into its mission to develop a driverless vehicle for the military.
In 2004, the Department of Defense held its first Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge, a public competition for private or academic institutions to design a driverless automobile that could navigate an off-road, closed course. It the first year of the competition, no vehicle was able to complete the 150-mile course in the Mojave Desert. Soon after, teams went back to the drawing board to improve upon the weaknesses of the first year's designs.
The next year, in 2005, five out of 23 teams were able to complete the same course, with all but one vehicle traveling further than the best entrant a year earlier.
In 2007, the Department of Defense increased the competition's difficulty by requiring that the automobiles observe California state driving laws along with other new rules. That year, Carnegie Mellon University was awarded $2 million dollars for its vehicle names Boss, which traversed the 55-mile urban area on George Air Force Base in Victorville, California, in 4 hours and 10 minutes.
While development projects regularly incorporate trial and error, the DARPA project was very successful, Sagarin said, because the teams learned from their colleagues' mistakes and produced vehicles with different specifications allowing them to pinpoint the most effective solution.
"While the first competition was a total disaster, teams in subsequent competitions were able to learn where previous teams got tripped up and were able create more effective vehicles," he said.
Introducing and framing the session, Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a global security think tank, stressed the importance of collaboration inside and outside the formal national security community to respond to increasingly complex threats.
Laipson said that the events in September 2001, led many policy experts to recognize that the old paradigm of a small number of organizations participating in the national security community—Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, and the Departments of Defense and State—is "rusty and outdated."
Laipson said that the analysts of emerging security threats are slowly welcoming other organizations and forming new collaborations with the Department of the Treasury, Health and Human Services, and the Department of Agriculture, along with state and local governments.
In addition to the increasing influence of Asia in geopolitics, Laipson added three science-related concerns—climate change, nuclear proliferation, and energy security—as significant issues that will affect international security over the next century.
Kavita Berger, a molecular biologist and a project director at the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy, said the briefing held at AAAS headquarters is part of the association's on-going mission to bring scientists, media, and the public together for discussions on national security and defense.
"Now, more than ever, we need novel, out-of-the-box thinking to help characterize the security problems and identify possible solutions for overcoming them," said Berger. "This can only be done by bringing together scientists and experts from other fields into national security discussions."
While Sagarin applauded the DARPA competition for its organization allowing teams to identify and build upon previous difficulties, he was highly critical of the federal government's decision in 2002 to "bury" the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) within the newly created Department of Homeland Security.
Referring to FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina as "the first major post-9/11 test of [the Department of] Homeland Security" and "a failure," Sagarin said that FEMA's relocation into another department might have affected its response because it lost its ability to make rapid, on-the-ground decisions.
Sagarin said that an organization like FEMA that operates in complex and situation-diverse environments clearly benefits from having autonomy to perform its services with less central authority or management from above. A biological example of this system, he continued, is the human immune system.
While the different mechanisms within the immune system—white blood cells, immunomodulators, mucus membranes, for example—all work toward the overall goal of repelling harmful agents, each can act independently of each other.
In addition, Sagarin said that the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) policy of publicly identifying carry-on baggage restrictions is misguided because helps people "find ways around the security regulations."
If passengers cannot board a plane carrying bottles containing more than 3 ounces of liquid, he asked, "what prevents someone from dividing the liquids into two smaller containers?"
Sagarin said that while organisms tend to improve their security by increasing uncertainty for its enemies, the TSA's regulations do the exact opposite by providing terrorists with a "security playbook."
A more effective policy for the TSA, he said, would be to increase investment in behavioral analysis at airports. Through these programs, he said, experts can identify passengers who appear to display extreme nervousness or have peculiar responses to simple questioning.
While behavioral analysis might result in flagging people who are not terrorists but rather just nervous about flying, for example, Sagarin said it might be possible to improve the process to lessen the false positives.
Sagarin added that the nation should stop "declaring war on risk" and learn to adapt to living in a society with danger. Organisms have lived with risk for billions of years, he said, and those who "are around today learned to adapt to it."
22 April 2008