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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

The best security might be natural

I’ve always admired people who can make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas or concepts.

A case in point is the subject of a link my wife recently sent me about Duke University professor Rafe Sagarin, an assistant research professor of marine science and conservation Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Sagarin and others are pushing the idea that the natural world has lessons to teach about us about how we protect ourselves.

If you look at nature, predators constantly adapt. No matter how tough your defenses, they find their way in.

The Duke Research article describes it this way:

“In nature, a threat is dealt with in several ways. There’s collectivism, where one meerkat sounds the alarm about an approaching hawk, or camouflage, where the ptarmigan hides in plain sight. There’s redundancy, like our wisdom teeth, or unpredictable behavior, like the puffer fish’s sudden, spiky pop.

“Under the unyielding pressure of 3.5 billion years of evolution, the variety of defenses is beyond counting. But they all have a few features in common. A top-down, build-a-wall, broadcast-your-status approach 'is exactly the opposite of what organisms do,' Sagarin says.

“An immune system, for example, is not run by a central authority. It relies on a distributed network of autonomous agents that sense trouble on the local level and respond, adapting to the threat and signaling for backup without awaiting orders from HQ.”

Sagarin began thinking about when he was a Congressional fellow a year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He watched as Washington put up more physical walls and barriers.

Sagarin is the editor of “Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World” (University of California Press, 2008), that pulls together experts from fields such as biology, anthropology and virology, as well as security, psychology and math to think about ways that Homeland Security could act more like an immune system.

I haven’t read the book, but it is an intriguing concept.

I don’t envision that we ever get rid of walls and fences and security lines. But perhaps there are different approaches to how we communicate and share information and intelligence on threats.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Feb 25, 2009 at 9:53 AM

Reader Comments

Wed, Mar 4, 2009 Nick

The correct web site for Natural Security is www.DarwinianSecurity.org.

Tue, Mar 3, 2009 Diana Carlson-Sherbo

There is much to be gained by looking at national security from a biological systems standpoint. In the long run, though, we don't want a self-regulating, continuously adapting system where preditor and prey are in balance... because when we see ourselves as the prey, we would prefer to defeat the predators' intentions completely... or to at least stay well ahead of them! And when we see ourselves as the predator (searching out and disabling those who would harm us), we would again prefer victory to a self-regulating balance. Of course, you may have addressed just this issue in your work... I plan to read your book soon... The benefit of designing our security efforts with the natural world as a guide is that in doing so, we aknowledge and attempt to make use of the demonstrated wisdom of millions of years of adaptations. But we should not abandon the possibility of "turning an enemy into a friend"... an approach that seems distinctly human.

Thu, Feb 26, 2009 Raphael Sagarin Duke University

Nick, Thank you for your coverage of our work on "Natural Security". If your readers want to learn more about our project, please check our website www.DarwinianSecurity.com. We always like to hear new responses to our approach to security. Rafe Sagarin

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