Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease

Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease

Rafe Sagarin

Language: English

Pages: 246

ISBN: 2:00212769

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

eISBN-13: 978-0-465-02981-5

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.


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Vermeij. He can identify nearly any fossilized or living marine organism, and by carefully observing the shell or carapaces of any individual, he can tell you how it lived, how it died, and how it changed relative to its ancestors. Even the most seasoned naturalists are amazed by Geerat’s skills in the field. His abilities as a naturalist are even more impressive when you take into account that he has been blind since the age of three. But just as his lack of eyesight hasn’t hampered his ability

environment. Signals are certainly shared between animals of the same species. They might be warnings about a nearby predator or boasts about one’s sexual fitness or subtle clues about one’s perceived spot in a dominance hierarchy. But there is also a lot of signaling between species. Often, interspecies signaling takes the form of prey species giving warning signals to their predators. Why would a prey species make itself known to a predator by signaling its whereabouts? Mostly to ruin the

with multiple males, the seminal fluid around the males’ sperm has evolved to protect its own sperm and destroy the sperm of a rival male.8 As organisms get more complex in their behaviors, they need ways to identify potential mates and potential enemies. They need ways to assess a competitor’s intentions. They need ways to make friends and influence others. Villarreal argues that the same basic addiction system—a system that confers simultaneously both protective and destructive powers—fulfills

have—such as advanced cognition and language—that both set us apart from most other species and create a lot of the complex security threats we face, but we are in the end just another species that evolved through time to deal with security challenges in our environment. With over a billion people facing chronic nutrition shortages2 and a host of old and emerging diseases that threaten to turn into human pandemics, we are certainly still under pressures of natural selection. Moreover, the way we

agency who have little power to make decisions come to check off a box. Real symbiosis arises automatically when different entities find out that they can solve imminent problems better together than they could on their own. As in nature, these symbioses can grow out of competition. For example, University of Washington professor David Baker created an online game to help solve a longstanding challenge to understand the structure of a protein related to HIV. After the winning team solved this

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