Five security lessons from the natural world

When preparing for a terrorist attack or natural disaster, a common question is how can we protect ourselves from a wide range of grave and unpredictable threats.

For Raphael Sagarin, one place to look for the answer is the natural world. An assistant research professional at Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University, Sagarin is the co-editor of “Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World” (2008, University of California Press).

Life in the natural world revolves around predator and prey and constant vigilance. Here are five lessons the professor says the natural world can teach about security.

1. Be adaptable.

The most consistent survival lesson from nature is that it is essential to be adaptable to deal with the uncertainty and variability of threats in nature. Focus on how organisms in nature obtain and maintain adaptability and what the consequences of adaptability are for human society.

2. Decentralize.

Across the entire range of life on Earth, the most adaptable organisms share a common organizational plan: They have multiple autonomous parts that sense and respond to the environment with little central control.

These sensors may be specialized clones such as the hyper-sensitive skin cells that allow an octopus to instantly camouflage to its surroundings or the constant sentinels of our own immune system.

These autonomous units allow for a broad and localized assessment of the security environment that is not encumbered by deference to a single central authority.

3. Accept that life is full of risk.

Trying to get rid of it is a waste of resources. Fish don’t try to turn sharks into vegetarians, but rather focus on ways to mitigate that risk and thrive — becoming faster, swimming in schools, developing camouflage. Like biological organisms, we need to learn how to live with risk — not declare war on general risks like “terror” or “drugs."

But this does not mean we have to take a passive stance. Adaptability to risk is an active and dynamic process that incorporates a number of strategies.

4. Create doubt in your enemies.

A behavioral strategy that has worked for billions of years is that organisms try to create uncertainty for their enemies and reduce it for themselves.

One way is to ruin the element of surprise by signaling to predators. But the signal must be clear.

Squirrels have different signals for different predators. They make noise when facing a predatory bird or mammal, which both have good hearing. But they wave their tails menacingly at snakes, which can’t hear but can see well. Just for rattlesnakes, they heat their tails as well, because rattlesnakes see in infrared.

Contrast that to our Security Threat Level, which appears permanently, and uselessly, stuck at “Orange”.

5. Factor in evolution.

Humans spent over 99 percent of their time on Earth in small groups in conditions that were nothing like our societies today. Trying to understand human behavior such as suicide bombing by looking only at the current world or even recorded history, is like trying to understand “War and Peace” by reading only the last word.

An evolutionary perspective reveals that group identity is a survival mechanism as old as life on Earth. Its human form — most clearly revealed in radical religious belief — was essential for the survival of an intelligent but pitifully weak and nearly naked ape.

Changing people’s beliefs is akin to trying to change a flamingo into a fern, but if we study humans with this in mind, we can develop ways to channel belief systems into benign activities.

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