Evolution Offers National Security Lessons, Scientists Say

(Mar. 23) -Duke University marine ecologist Raphael Sagarin, who formed a working group of scientists and security experts to consider evolutionary survival strategies that might be applied to national security (Duke University photo).
(Mar. 23) -Duke University marine ecologist Raphael Sagarin, who formed a working group of scientists and security experts to consider evolutionary survival strategies that might be applied to national security (Duke University photo).

WASHINGTON -- Those charged with protecting the United States from terrorism could take lessons from the evolutionary strategies that nonhuman life-forms have used to survive in a world filled with predators, according to a mixed group of scientists and security experts (see GSN, Jan. 13).

Animals do not expend energy seeking to defeat a threat in their environment that is likely to prove permanent, unlike human efforts to eliminate narcotics or extremism, said Duke University marine ecologist Raphael Sagarin. Instead, they learn to manage the danger.

“Fish don’t try to turn sharks into vegetarians. They learn to live with sharks, one way or the other, through various adaptations,” said Sagarin, who formed the 4-year-old working group. “How they do that is the question.”

Several years of consideration of this idea have produced a book, Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World. Proponents now hope to make their case on Capitol Hill and to the Homeland Security Department and other federal agencies.

“Three-and-a-half billion years of life should not be ignored,” said Daniel Blumstein, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

One homeland security expert, though, said that might be just what happens.

“Some of them [new security ideas] don’t dent the door and some of them burn through Washington like a wildfire. They kind of go the way of the South Beach Diet and the flat-abs-in-30-days kind of stuff,” said James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

Darwinian Security

Sagarin said the idea for the group developed from his experience as a science staffer for then-California Representative Hilda Solis in 2002-2003. In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, there had been a flood of barriers, gates and security guards in Washington, D.C., he told Global Security Newswire.

What was not in evidence was variation in the security activities, according to Sagarin. He began to think how an adaptable organization such as al-Qaeda might overcome “beefed up” versions of the same security measures found prior to the aircraft strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

That led him to consider the many fashions in which animals and other biological organisms manage threats to their security and whether there might be intersections with homeland defense.

As he wrote in the first chapter of the book, “Why were many chemical plants found to be alarmingly vulnerable to attack even years after 9/11? Because they developed in a relatively predator-free environment and thus devoted most of their resources into competition, rather than defense.”

The idea produced a short essay but was ultimately too big to tackle alone, so Sagarin recruited scientists, specializing in fields ranging from paleobiology to psychology, along with intelligence experts and other analysts to consider new security strategies for the post-Sept. 11 world.

Groups of 12 to 15 participants met three times beginning in January 2005 for multiday discussion sessions that produced the themes considered in the book.

Contributors approached the question of security from multiple evolutionary and ecological angles. Among the questions: Can terrorism be fought and prevented in the same way as a disease epidemic; under what conditions will terrorist populations grow or be driven to extinction; and what is the most efficient behavioral response to chronic threats?

“The overarching theme is how can you be adaptable in the face of uncertain threats,” Sagarin said. “Within that there’s an implicit acknowledgment that there will be risks in the environment, which is the first lesson that we tend to ignore in society because we tend to think we can eliminate risk.”

Blumstein, in one chapter, offered “14 Security Lessons From Antipredator Behavior” derived from his research on the behavior of marmots and other animals.

History and animal life have shown that generalized defenses might work better than highly specific systems that are focused on one particular threat, Blumstein argued: “Being able to survive one predator but not another does not make much sense.”

So a public health system that incorporates strong communication and biodetection capabilities is likely to be a greater boon than establishing an agency that focuses solely on biological threats, Blumstein said. Such an operation would also benefit the public even in the absence of bioterrorism.

The same lesson would apply to deploying radiological or chemical sensors to emergency responders rather than creating an agency to direct monitoring activities for the low-probability, high-consequence threat.

It comes down to a question of resources, Blumstein said. An entity -- whether it is an animal or a nation -- must consider matters such as growth and reproduction alongside defense when determining how to use limited amounts of energy, money or material.

“Specialized defenses are very specialized and only work for one thing,” Blumstein said. “If there’s variation in that risk, if that risk isn’t there all the time, if the risk isn’t even that big a risk, allocating energy to that means you’re not allocating energy to something else.”

The Homeland Security Department, an amalgamation of various federal entities, is an example of a “top-down hierarchy” not found in nature, Sagarin said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s much-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina -- in which an extended chain of command made it difficult to react quickly to the disaster -- serve as a reminder of the benefits that biological organisms have found in adaptation and autonomy, he added.

Carafano argued that the messages of Darwinian security have been seen before and have already been “hard-wired” into the human brain through evolution.

“It’s kind of like rediscovering gravity. Sun Tzu wrote about this thousands of years ago in the ‘Art of War.’ There are competitions,” he said.

“I don’t want to say there’s nothing new here, but there’s totally, absolutely nothing new here. There are lots of these books which postulate great insights,” Carafano added. “They’re kind of a flash in the pan thing.”

Sagarin said, though, that he believes the inception of a new presidential administration and the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin make this the perfect time for the message to gain traction in Washington.

Group members have already had informal discussions with Homeland Security officials and with influential current and former lawmakers including Sam Nunn and Gary Hart. They hope to progress to formal discussions in congressional offices and at Homeland Security and the Pentagon.

The agencies did not respond to requests from GSN for comment.

“You have to start with inculcating the idea within different agencies,” Sagarin said. “You’re clearly not talking about wholesale reorganization of government or that sort of thing. But what you can do is develop these ideas in small areas … and then see if these kinds of ideas work well.”

March 23, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- Those charged with protecting the United States from terrorism could take lessons from the evolutionary strategies that nonhuman life-forms have used to survive in a world filled with predators, according to a mixed group of scientists and security experts (see GSN, Jan. 13).