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Ecologist Rafe Sagarin: Applying Nature’s Lessons to Modern Security Challenges

When it comes to security challenges, the natural world demonstrates the values of decentralizing, learning from success, and forming symbiotic relationships, ecologist and author Rafe Sagarin told an audience at AAAS.

Such insights are particularly compelling in the post-9/11 environment as the federal government invests billions of dollars in technology and training to increase national security.

Rafe Sagarin

“Nature faces the same problem that we do in society, which is that risk is ubiquitous and almost entirely unpredictable. But nature has been surviving and thriving for three and a half billion years,” said Sagarin, the author of “Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease.”

“Natural organisms don’t plan, they don’t predict, and they don’t try to perfect themselves. They adapt to solve problems in the environment.”

The octopus, the titular inspiration of Sagarin’s book, is not only an example of the adaptability of nature, but it also demonstrates the value of decentralized systems. “The octopus, when going over a coral reef and wanting to change color to match it. doesn’t say, ‘Arm one, turn red, arm two, turn blue, and arm three, kind of reddish-purple’ from its central brain,” Sagarin said. Rather, the octopus’s individual skin cells individually respond to changes in the environment, collectively giving the octopus a camouflaged appearance.

Alex Dehgan

Sagarin spoke at a 5 April event sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy. After Sagarin’s talk, he was joined by Terence Taylor, president of the International Council for the Life Sciences for a panel discussion moderated by Alex Dehgan, science and technology adviser to the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

While working on Capitol Hill as a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow after 9/11, Sagarin was disturbed by how quickly security measures were implemented. Concrete barriers and metal detectors sprang up around monuments while police with guns patrolled the area.

Sagarin found it troubling that, unlike the tide pools of Monterey Bay where he had worked as a marine ecologist, the new security measures sprang up and didn’t change, making it easy to adapt to the new measures.

“For example, staffers on the Hill learned very quickly that if you put your hand in your pocket over your keys, you didn’t have to take them out to put them on the X-ray belt,” he explained. “If we could adapt that quickly just to save 30 seconds every day, I was imagining what would a terrorist do that would really have a much greater impetus to get through that security.”

His experiences in Washington, D.C. inspired Sagarin to think critically about adaptable systems and nature. He organized a meeting of a diverse group of anthropologists, psychologists, paleobiologists, evolutionary biologists, ecologists, behavioral ecologists, and security experts to discuss these issues at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Monica, California, in 2005.

Despite nature’s example, we’re inclined towards centralization, Sagarin explained, leading to the development of “top-down organizations where communication is difficult because it has to go all the way up and down this chain.”

For example, the Department of Homeland Security faced serious challenges in the wake of Hurricane Katrina because it wasn’t nimble enough to respond quickly. After Katrina, there was considerable interest in identifying the disaster-response failures.

As a result, policymakers largely ignored a remarkable success story related to the hurricane—the Coast Guard’s containment of a 9 million gallon oil spill. The failure to capture the information related to the oil spill meant that the information was not available years later after the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Conversely, in nature, organisms strive to learn from and replicate their successes. “From a biological standpoint, it’s a dead-end to learn from failure. It means you died. It means you don’t reproduce,” Sagarin said. “Every organism on Earth is an example of the success of its ancestors and we focus far too little on what successes we can learn, even from large-scale disasters like Hurricane Katrina.”

Terence Taylor

Yet all organisms “run into limits of their adaptation. And when they need to extend their ability to adapt from that point, they need to create symbiotic partnerships with other organisms to extend what they can do, where they can live, what they can eat, how they can survive,” Sagarin said. “Symbiotic partnerships have often developed out of relationships that used to be aggressive relationships, so conflict gets turned into cooperation.”

The Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance, developed by Taylor, was born in 2003 at the height of the second intifada and brings together Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian health ministers and practitioners to address the region’s public health challenges. Though the consortium was founded to address water-borne diseases, it has since grown and consortium experts are advising officials in Saudi Arabia on how to prevent public health issues during the Hajj.

“These practitioners are not trying to solve the peace problem in the Middle East,” Sagarin said. “They are not trying to make the perfect solution. They are trying to solve an immediate challenge and it’s a challenge that’s more biological than political.”

People are more likely to work together to solve challenges than to respond to orders, Sagarin said. “Issuing challenges is when leaders in an organization say, ‘Here’s a problem we’re all facing. Can any of you help us solve this challenge?’ And what we’re seeing, time and time again, is that this sets off a cascade of adaptability.”

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.