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

Here's an excerpt from the new book Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease by Rafe Sagarin.

201204301135Despite 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.

Excerpt: Learning from the Octopus: Prologue: Unnatural Disasters

On the morning of December 26, 2004, animals across Asia and Africa were acting strangely. Elephants elicited horrific bellows, herds of oxen bolted for higher ground, and domestic dogs refused to go on their morning walks along the beach. In some cases, bewildered humans followed the lead of their charges to higher ground, but many did not. Less than an hour later, the ocean was sucked back far from shore and a huge tsunami thundered all across India, Africa, and southern Asia, killing 225,000 people -- one of the worst catastrophes in modern history.1

After the floodwaters retreated, international aid poured in, with particular attention paid to installing state-of-the-art tsunami warning systems across the region. Yet in comparison to the animal-based warning systems, these high-tech solutions are still fairly primitive. Just a few years after the tsunami, villagers in the Aceh province of Indonesia, one of the hardest hit areas, angrily stoned their tsunami alarm until it was destroyed. The villagers felt the annoyance of the system's false alarms outweighed its purported benefits in early warning.

Destroying alarm systems that are supposed to protect us isn't uncommon. In the United States, residents of over 21 million households have tampered with, destroyed, or disabled their own smoke detectors because of the nuisance of false alarms.3 In fairness to the makers of smoke and tsunami alarms, such technologies have only been around for a few decades -- a fleeting fraction of Earth's long and violent experience with tsunamis, floods, and fire. By contrast, the surprisingly accurate security systems demonstrated by the animals before the tsunami have been developed and fine-tuned over billions of years, and this illustrates a major point: there is no technological solution that can prepare us for the risks of a highly variable and unpredictable world as well as the ancient natural process of adaptation.

Indeed, just a few weeks before the 2004 tsunami, the most technically sophisticated military force in the world inadvertently and quite publicly demonstrated how poorly adapted it was to its latest challenge. It happened during a pretty standard piece of military propaganda set up for the evening news. The U.S. secretary of defense was to helicopter in to the edge of a war zone to bolster the troops' morale, listen sincerely to their concerns, and assure them that all of America was fighting right there alongside them. But it didn't turn out that way for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Kuwait on December 8, 2004. To the cheers of several thousand soldiers assembled, Specialist Thomas Wilson, a 31-year old Tennessee National Guardsman, pointedly asked the secretary why he and his fellow soldiers were being forced to rummage through garbage dumps to find armor to strap on to their vehicles, which provided inadequate protection in the combat zone. Rumsfeld was initially taken aback, then tartly retorted, "You go to war with the Army you have."4

It was a pivotal moment in how George W. Bush's war in Iraq was going to be interpreted. The left seized on it as yet another example of the "chicken hawks" in the Bush administration cruelly sacrificing their pawns in an elective game of geopolitical chess. The right amplified reports that Wilson was "fed" his question by a Chattanooga Free Press reporter5 -- more evidence that the liberal media was out to sabotage an essential front in the "War on Terror." Even fairly level-headed commentators couldn't help but contrast the scrappy U.S. soldiers rummaging around junk piles for "hillbilly armor" to weld to their vehicles against the disinterested, out-of-touch button-down government bureaucrat. But the most important contrast the exchange belied hasn't been well noted -- it was the difference in adaptability demonstrated between soldiers like Specialist Wilson and a large security organization like the Department of Defense (DoD). This is, in fact, the same difference in adaptability between animals sensing and responding to a tsunami and tsunami alarms sensing and responding to something that may or may not be a tsunami.

For armies fighting a war, for health practitioners trying to ward off a flu pandemic, for first responders containing the damage from a natural disaster, for IT managers trying to protect a computer network, for resource managers trying to plan for a world dramatically altered by climate change, for CEOs worried about the next stock market crash, and for any citizen worried about the effects of any of these potential threats, adaptability is essential. If we want to interact with the world at all (and in a world of 7 billion people, we don't have much choice), having the ability to change how we interact with it is the only way we can survive.

For the troops on the ground, the process of adapting began soon after the invasion of Bagdad. They "went to war with the Army they had" (to paraphrase Rumsfeld), and it worked brilliantly for a while. With massive firepower, better training, and air superiority, even the most feared of Saddam Hussein's forces virtually collapsed in front of the advancing coalition. But as the old regime collapsed, the ground became rich for any number of new threats to sprout up. The threat environment radically changed.

Suddenly, thousands of soldiers, independently as individuals and linked through the units they fought with, were observing that hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were becoming their biggest threat to security. Whereas the DoD had planned for a war against AK-47s, Scud missiles, and weapons of mass destruction, soldiers on the ground began to see their enemies as random trash piles, sudden fender benders in downtown traffic, and cell phones; hiding, distracting from, and detonating IEDs. By the time Wilson was so incensed as to dare breach military protocol to give a superior officer a dressing down, 266 of his colleagues had been killed due to IEDs.

The soldiers adapted the best that they could -- welding metal plates to their vehicles, blocking up culverts to eliminate the most obvious niches for bombers to use, and learning to identify the signs of hidden bombs in otherwise unremarkable debris. But their ability to adapt was limited by forces beyond their control -- by the equipment they were given, by the available scrap metal, by the rules of engagement that they were ethically and legally bound by -- and the casualties mounted.

By contrast, the Department of Defense had virtually unlimited resources, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when no politically minded senator or representative would ever turn down a military appropriation request. What the DoD lacked was adaptability. Even as Specialist Wilson and his comrades were frantically tracking the rapidly changing tactics of insurgents, the DoD was slowly churning away on weapons systems and fighting procedures that had been dreamed up long ago in places far, far away from the streets of Baghdad and Fallujah. Rumsfeld's retort to Wilson belied a centralized view whereby small numbers of intellectuals design a battle plan and the accompanying technology years in advance, and that's what you go to war with. Moreover, even to bring the idealized technological solutions to deal with the threats theorized by DoD experts, the department was bound by a ponderous top-down procurement system in which a small number of large contractors submitted bids for development of weapons systems that inevitably ran over-budget and beyond the estimated timeline.

As a result, until Specialist Wilson's outburst, the upper reaches of the DoD were neither sensing changes in the threat environment nor responding quickly when new threats were correctly identified. And even after congressional outrage from the exchange between Wilson and Rumsfeld fueled calls to speed up production and deployment of mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), they did not arrive in Iraq in until November 2007, nearly three years later. By that time, an additional 1,589 of Wilson's colleagues had been killed due to IED attacks. The DoD solution certainly arrived too late to save their lives, but also too late to even deal with the original threat. A rapid downward trend in IED attacks and deaths was already well on its way by the time the MRAPs arrived in Iraq.

1. Mott, Maryann. "Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming?" National Geographic News. January 4, 2005. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/01/0104_050104_tsunami_animals.html; and "Pre-tsunami Animal Behavior." http://www.freewebs.com/asiadisaster/unusualanimalbehaviour.htm. Both accessed March 29, 2011.

2. MacKinnon, Ian. "Aceh Residents Disable Tsunami Warning System After False Alarm." Guardian, June 7, 2007. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/jun/07/indonesia.ianmackinnon. Nizza, Mike. "To Break a Tsunami Alarm." New York Times, June 8, 2007. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/08/warning-systems-unplugged/. Both accessed March 29, 2011.

3. Public/Private Fire Safety Council. "Home Smoke Alarms and Other Fire Detection and Alarm Equipment." White Paper. 2006.

4. "Troops Grill Rumsfeld over Iraq." http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4079201.stm. "Rumsfeld Gets Earful from Troops." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A46508-2004Dec8.html. "Soldiers Must Rely on 'Hillbilly Armor' for Protection," http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/story?id=312959&page=2. All accessed April 13, 2010.

Excerpted with permission from from Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease, by Rafe Sagarin. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright (c) 2012.


  1. The late shamanologist Terence McKenna used to talk quite a bit about the octopus and its ability to transmit and “see” language in the water through body movement and myriad color patternings and shading. McKenna asserted that a perfect language would be seen and not necessarily heard or read. The octopus is quite a well-developed and wonderful creature!

  2. The ability to radically change complex systems requires a level of ruthlessness that people will not be willing to accept.

    A population of bacteria is fine losing 99% of it’s population to adapt to a new antibiotic. Humans were fine with in the middle ages when they were developing resistances to the same bacteria of the day when packing into cities. Today though, natural selection of that sort is pretty much stopped (well except that you can say that we select against intelligence as higher educated people have less kids).

    Applied to the problems we face today, if we can’t convince a union to rollback wages in harsh fiscal times, do we really expect the system to change that drastically?

    I guess my point is that we can look at some of the strategies found in nature and bolt them onto our larger systems, but it’s silly to think that we should change our complex systems to adapt as nature does.  The time scales involved and competitive forces at work are completely different, and make it really all apples and oranges.

    1. Today though, natural selection of that sort is pretty much stopped (well except that you can say that we select against intelligence as higher educated people have less kids).

      This is simply wrong. Anyone who’s studied frequencies of alleles knows that natural selection continues apace, and the effects you’d expect for selecting against intelligence aren’t there at all.

  3. At first I thought this was all about Tarvu and Tarvuism (see http://www.tarvu.com – it’s been featured on BoingBoing! before anybody asks).  And I was right!  Octopuses ARE holy creatures! They can thwart *anything*.  Praise be Tarvu, etc. etc. etc.

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