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

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Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A marine biologist applies his expertise to national security, delivering some ingenious ideas. He points out that 3.5 billion years of evolution have given plants and animals tactics that can serve us in dealing with terrorism, hurricanes, and epidemics. Sagarin, environment policy analyst at the University of Arizona, writes that, confronted with a threat, governments, inherently unadaptable, gather specialists to anticipate the next disaster and devise an often clunky plan. Organisms, on the other hand, never plan or anticipate; they adapt and also learn to live with a tolerable level of insecurity. Security in nature is never centralized; every herd animal keeps an eye out. Eradicating risk is impossible because the threat also adapts, e.g., insurgencies adapt faster than standing armies. Sagarin proposes that governments are too cumbersome to adapt, and that we should devise an “adaptable cascade” with decentralized multiple problem solvers. Occasionally, the theory misfires (a politician who advocates tolerating a modest level of terrorism will enjoy a short career), but few readers will deny that Sagarin is onto something. Agent: Esmond Harmsworth, Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Eric Liu, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
“This book is a provocation and a delight. Rafe Sagarin invites us to look at national security with the eyes not of a state but of nature itself: for recursive patterns, adaptations, and the simple keys to complexity. It’s thrilling to apply the lessons of octopuses, tidepools and other biological systems to defense, intelligence, and government generally. It’s even more thrilling to imagine what our policymakers could learn from this book.” 

John Arquilla, Professor of Defense Analysis, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School
“Simply brilliant. Rafe Sagarin is one of the world’s leading lateral thinkers. He can study tidepool life and find insights from it for fighting terrorism. He has harnessed our understanding of nature’s immutable forces—selection, learning and adaptation—and turned them to the task of guiding us to a fresh new security paradigm. Above all, Sagarin sees how networked nature is, and how building our own networks is the best way to defeat the perils our balky security institutions have done so little to overcome.”
 
Courtney E. Martin, author of Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors
 “Learning from the Octopus is not just a brilliant book about natural security, though it is that. It is also a transformative meditation on what attributes are necessary to live a content, modern life—starting with adaptability, imperfection, and interdependence. Rafe Sagarin is not only a rarity in regards to the intersection of his professional gifts—science and writing—but his power to see beyond fear and conformity to what really makes us safe in the world.”
 
Simon Levin, Moffett Professor of Biology, Princeton University
“In a brilliant and engaging style, Rafe Sagarin moves seamlessly between natural history and security analysis, convincingly making the case that we have much to learn in national security from how evolution has helped organisms meet environmental challenges. Learning from the Octopus is must reading for those charged with protecting our nation, and a delightful excursion for anyone interested in the wonders of the natural world.”
 
Publishers Weekly
“A marine biologist applies his expertise to national security, delivering some ingenious ideas. . . . [F]ew readers will deny that Sagarin is onto something.”
 

Library Journal
“Sagarin uses his ecological knowledge to shed light on national security as well as other hard-to-predict challenges. Highly recommended for ecologists, nature lovers, and those interested in business, organizational change, and security planning.”
 
Nature
“Drawing on life science and evidence from the military and emergency services, Sagarin defines adaptability as the “sweet spot” between reaction and prediction.”
 
New Scientist “Sagarin explains biology’s lessons for successful national security with a brisk, clear style, designed for the broadest possible audience. The book will be as informative to a field biologist as a field commander. The natural history examples are linked cleverly and effectively, making surprising and provocative points to prompt discussion of how the flexibility of natural defenses can be used for strategic benefit.”

Discover
“[An] open challenge to the status quo.”

The Scientist
Learning from the Octopus is a paean to biomimicry and a handbook on ‘natural security’ from an unlikely, but enlightening, source.”
 
Foreign Policy in Focus (online)
“Years of marine research provide [Sagarin] with a unique perspective on security issues. His new book’s conclusion: we can learn from nature about being more secure by being more adaptable. Nature, after 3.5 billion years of dealing with risk, is an experienced teacher.”

Natural History
“Sagarin identifies several characteristics of successful species—and you can almost visualize them as bullets on a motivational PowerPoint slide. . . . The parallels with modern-day security concerns are evident, and Sagarin is quick to cite cases of military efforts hampered by bureaucratic inertia, insurgency strategies that successfully build on cooperative relations with local populations, and the like. . . . In short, this book lays out some sensible policy suggestions based on biological knowledge.”
 
Globe and Mail (Canada) “Despite spending billions of dollars, says marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst Rafe Sagarin, we are no better prepared for a terrorist attack or a flood than we were in 2001. In Learning From the Octopus, Sagarin rethinks the problem of security by drawing inspiration from nature. Biological organisms that have been living on a risk-filled planet for billions of years, with out planning, predicting or trying to perfect responses to complex threats. They simply adapt to solve the challenges they face every day. Sagarin says we can learn to be more adaptable by observing how organisms learn, and create partnerships, how life continually diversifies.”

Kirkus Reviews
A marine ecologist looks at social problems from the perspective of natural science. Sagarin (Environmental Policy/Univ. of Arizona) identifies adaptability as the key to survival in an uncertain world. Improvised responses to threats--the "hillbilly armor" U.S. troops adopted to defend against roadside IEDs--are a clear example. A key point is that natural selection operates not just in the wild but in modern asymmetrical warfare, where lightly armed insurgents take on large professional armies. The high casualty rate among insurgents is a selective pressure; the stupid and incompetent are killed off, and those who survive are better equipped to fight on--as the Taliban has done in Afghanistan. The author argues that dedicated task forces are less effective at problem solving than independent groups seeking answers to a specific challenge. Redundant features, which efficiency experts hate, aid survival by preserving vital information, and cooperation and exchange of information among organisms in the same environment is a major tool for increased security. Sagarin cites cooperation among Middle East countries, bitter rivals in many ways, that helped slow the spread of H1N1 in 2009-10. Even the apparently irrational "sacred truths" of religious minorities can be turned to assets in the survival of larger groups, by such simple means as athletics. The author is sometimes too abstract in his approach. However, when gives real-life examples, either from nature or from human society, the points are usually convincing, and he provides plentiful documentation. Opens interesting doors--it would be good to see more along this line.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465021833
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 3/27/2012
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 523,759
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. Among his many accolades, Sagarin is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship to support his work on natural security, and he was a Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative Hilda Solis. Sagarin has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, and University of California, Los Angeles. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Foreign Policy, and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He lives with his family in Tucson.
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Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Prologue: Unnatural Disasters xvii

Chapter 1 The Origins of Natural Security 1

Chapter 2 Tide-Pool Security 21

Chapter 3 Learning as a Force of Nature 37

Chapter 4 Organized to Change 63

Chapter 5 Necessary Redundancy 89

Chapter 6 Beyond Mad Fiddler Crabs 109

Chapter 7 Calling Your Bluff and Bluffing Your Call 129

Chapter 8 The Sacred Values of Salmon and Suicide Bombers 149

Chapter 9 Hang Together or Hang Separately 171

Chapter 10 We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us! 195

Conclusion: The End and the Beginning 215

Acknowledgments 231

Notes 235

Index 265

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 30, 2012

    3- cheaper on Kindle...how come? I just bought a Nook and am no

    3- cheaper on Kindle...how come? I just bought a Nook and am now second-guessing my decision.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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