Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 9, 2010

Nature’s lessons for adapting to the terrorist threat

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Christopher Bellavita on January 9, 2010

Rafe Sagarin is one of a  handful of people who actually has a unique idea about homeland security.  And not just about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to destroy a plane, but about the way we look at homeland security.

He points out that “Natural organisms have been dealing with lethal threats for 3.5 billion years, and evolution has produced millions of examples of how to survive in a dangerous, changing and unpredictable environment.”

Dr. Sagarin says homeland security professionals have much to learn from those “millions of examples.”

Reprinted below is an article that outlines his argument.  The article appeared in the McClatchy Newspapers on Friday, January 8th (and available here).

If you are intrigued by what you read, you might be interested in a lecture he gave for Google.  The lecture is called “Natural Security (A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World),” and is available (here) on Youtube.

But first, Dr. Sagarin’s article.  His perspective is — in a good way — substantially out of the box.


TUCSON, Ariz. — As we breathe a collective sigh of relief that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s recent alleged attempt to blow up an airliner failed, we also must come to grips with the critical fact that our enemies have been adapting to our security measures faster than we’re able to change them.

After 9/11, we increased body screening of passengers, so Richard Reid tried to blow up an airliner with a shoe bomb. After Reid, we started checking passengers’ shoes, so al Qaida devised plans to destroy an airliner with a liquid explosive. After we discovered the liquid explosive plot, we began banning most liquids, so Abdulmutallab is accused of trying to blow up an airliner using a powdered explosive.

Now we’ve announced to the world that passengers no longer will be able to cover themselves with blankets or books in the last interminable hour of a flight, a measure to which terrorists will adapt again. Whether it’s terrorists or cyber-hackers or insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, we appear to lack the adaptability that our enemies possess, and while almost every after-action report on the latest disaster urges our security agencies to adapt more quickly, we appear to be at a loss about how to do that.

It would help to get out into nature more. Natural organisms have been dealing with lethal threats for 3.5 billion years, and evolution has produced millions of examples of how to survive in a dangerous, changing and unpredictable environment.

These survivors are still around because they’re adaptable, and they’re adaptable because almost all of them are organized with limited central control and a lot of autonomy to individual parts that sense and respond to threats.

For example, an octopus’ skin is covered with countless color cells that change instantaneously — without much centralized deliberation — to match its surroundings, an adaptation that helps the octopus avoid predators and be a better predator itself.

By contrast, we humans continue to rely on small, centralized groups of experts in Washington to determine the latest security protocols, which then become orders that the rest of the population must follow, no matter how irrelevant to the local threat they may be.

Organisms in nature also adapt by reducing uncertainty for themselves and increasing it for their adversaries. Birds flock to increase the uncertainty for predators looking for weaklings. Cicadas emerge en masse after hiding underground for 13 or 17 years because prime number periods are much less predictable than yearly seasonal cycles.

Predators stalk from hidden vantages to increase the uncertainty of unsuspecting prey. Yet we do the opposite of what nature does, reducing the uncertainty of our enemies by telling them exactly what we’re searching for, and increasing our own uncertainty by providing a shrill and constant level of nearly meaningless color-coded warnings. Does anyone, for example, know what we should do differently if the Department of Homeland Security raises the threat level from orange (where it’s sat since 2006) to red?

Finally, organisms are adaptable because they employ diverse symbiotic partnerships to extend their capabilities beyond what their own bodies provide. Indeed, the one clear success in our security systems, beginning on 9/11, has been the adaptability shown by individual humans who’ve recognized the need to work with and for their fellow passengers.

Passengers on United Flight 93 gave their lives to bring their hijacking to a premature end in a Pennsylvania field. Reid — and allegedly Abdulmutallab — failed because passengers had adapted from the “play possum” mode, which had worked well with hijackers who only wanted to make political statements, to a “honeybee” defense. Having learned that today’s hijackers are a lethal threat to the hive, these individuals risked their own lives to save others.

Likewise, soldiers in Iraq, who come to sense threats like the skin of an octopus does, quickly learned that improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were the biggest threat and demanded help from the Department of Defense, to the point of publicly embarrassing former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Although the Pentagon’s deployment of more heavily armored vehicles was fraught with problems (they arrived after the IED threat in Iraq was on the decline, and they’re too big and heavy to use in Afghanistan), Army Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy of forging partnerships with local citizens to infiltrate the networks of bomb makers helped curb the threat.

Petraeus’ strategy demonstrates that by providing resources and basic rules of engagement, even large centralized bureaucracies can help largely autonomous and adaptable security systems flourish. To do so, however, the leaders of the agencies responsible for security need to lose their bunker mentality, venture out into nature and stare into the eye of an octopus.


Dr. Rafe Sagarin is a research scientist at the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, in Tucson (www.environment.arizona.edu). He’s the editor, with Dr. Terence Taylor, of “Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World” (University of California Press, 2008) and the facilitator of an interdisciplinary working group that’s studying the lessons that nature and evolution hold for security in society.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

January 9, 2010 @ 10:28 am

Not really out of the box just imbedded in a different discipline and science. Of course those are often treated as the “other” by bureacrats, politicians, military, and others including the MSM which has no concept and no understanding of science or the different cultures of the different disciplines.

Oh! And of course we (US) have almost none, nil, nada, knowledge about the “others” of our world. Failure of K-12 and academia generally while we continue to put out poorly trained ED majors and Communications majors pretending that their degrees will lead the US to the uplands and sunlight. Hey learning is just plain hard work. So let’s get it right.

Comment by christopher tingus

January 9, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

Well, the esteemed and enlightened William Cumming again correctly points to education and the lack of….much to our very own demise.

The fact is that not only is penmanship not taught in school and kids just cannot write, but kids cannot even point to the a map of these Blessed United States, this glorious Republic and name the states and maybe even know the capital and so on….though we see $160-$200k annual salaries for super and princials, bureaucracies top heavy w no paper available to kids in school, outdated books….imagine, the 21st century, 2010!

Senior Chinese government and business gents posed a question to me years back…Chris, our government officials are scientists, engineers, IT/software development types yours are attorneys and political science types…who do you really believe over the long term will produce a more productive culture….China and India, or the US? As an example, truly take a look at the global Jewish population versus the nearly seven (7) billion fellow neighbors around us and despite only a small percentage of all of here living together, the prominence of the hebrew is not in number, it is in education and ambition to learn, to be productive, to compete, to know their own and other cultures, histories….

So many cultures are so behind in educating thier populace and yes, while many prefer not, again, the lack of transparency in local school politics, the bureacratic salaries and out of control costs, the local politicizing has led to an uneducated and non-competitive US student and while, despite the US Constitution and local State Constitutions, here we are debating and in most cases offerfing – illegal – people in this country “in-state tuition” etc., instead of taking these heaps of “fiat” dollars and offering them to our kids so that they can go to school and get an education versus having to wait and bus tables at 18-25 years of age, a time when they should be gaining knowledge, yet cannot because “they cannot afford to go to school” – big business and the Congress kicks out manufacturing and outsources jobs and now with all their profits and even personal gains ovr these many years of establishing business outside the good ‘ol USA and its diligent and creative populace, young and elderly, we even ask “What has happened in America” or “Why we seem to make so many blunders” —

Wake up for again, on Main Street USA, it is not those seeking to plunder Beirut, Cairo and so on and so forth that we are so perplexed by for we see the Middle East for what it is…a region dominated by corruption, drugs and power, folks in decision-making and powerful positions who hide behind religion and use religion as an excuse to kill innocents…all children created by the Lord with no other human having the right to take the precious Life of another so often done before the eyes of the Lord….

We here on Main Street USA talk about the baby boomers – those of us in our fifties, losing jobs, having to work three part-time jobs, giving up as you Mr. Presdent and so many of our “elected” and – entrusted – PUBLIC SERVANTS -prefer strolls along the waterfront in Argentina informing no one of such negligent action, PUBLIC SERVANTS who do so wrong and use their position to abuse the local, state and national as well as the individual citizen….I was appalled to learn here in Massachusetts how the Department of Revenue dictates to the Registry of Motor Vehicles the taking of one’s Right to drive a motor vehicle for an income tax issue even in proper appeal…the willingness to place lien on home, levy bank accounts and strip one from being able to go to the pahramacy to pick up doctor administered meds, be able to use motor vehicle to buy Life sustaining groceries, etc. to use their license not as a luxury as the State Senate members refer to a Massachusetts Driver’s license, but a “necessity to live” in most all States and regarded as so by the Federal Court….Imagine if one really is determined by proper court hearing “to owe monies to the Commonwealth” with the court able to garnish wages if the case heard properly before the Court and peers…the DOR as an agency can have such blantant and indifferent power to strip even the experinced driver of many years with good clean RMV record and place one in jeopardy of losing one’s job, a paycheck to even make restitution if a proper public Court hearing so determined, placing hugh strains on the family as most homes have two cars and spouse and children need transportation, etc. How far has government gone to impose itself and harshly punish the ordinary citizen without in this case, the Court has not heard the case, only the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Revenue usurping per legislative power to circumvent appropriate judicial practice on behalf of citizen and his/her Rights before the law though we do our utmost to protect those who choose not to adhere to our immigration law or do our utmost to protect those that choose to cut our infidel head off by sword…the innocent…

It is not only our ignorance of other cultures William Cumming, it is our own arrogance and corruption by special interest groups and the void in leadership which allows we here on Main Street USA not only to buy in record numbers, small guns, rifles and ammunition in fear of our own failing system as Pelosi, Frank et al choose to dismiss the astuteness of our forefathers’ wisdom and caution to us that lawmakers like in Taxachusetts will dismiss the judicial individual citizen rights to appearance as offered to each of us…quite the contrary and to you Mr. President, a scholar in Constitutional law, here at the a.m. coffee shop, it is not AQ or the Taliban we worry so, it is the decline in our manufacturing, the billions in “fiat dollars” lost without transparency, tax dollars and no one held accountable…

As far as recent attempts at terrorism here, many should be applauded at NSA and other numerous agencies of the federal government as well as local law enforcement officials who have thwarted numerous attempts…

We already know that miscommunication or lack of may mean the death of innocents at the hands of these scum who kill without conscience. There is no room for inaction, but a cohesive effort, a global effort of a collaboration of military, political and even citizen participation in keeping not one shoe bomb ahead, but using the assets of technology to assure that those who prefer to engage in conducting dastardly deeds against another, even in their own country, should not be allowed to bring harm to the preciousness of God’s wonderful creation, mankind and the Love and compassion so evident in so many souls.

We must learn from our mistakes and become even more effective at a time when the civilized world, yes in so many ways corrupt and needs a renewed vow to ethical behavior and those in public service to understand that those “entrusted” to represent are not expected to place self-serving agenda before other – in fact, I do believe that the Senate of the United States should place a ballot referendum before all citizens of this great nation and ask for a national vote on the issue of healthcare reform for most Americans do not care for the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the respective State legislatures or the US House and Senate to implement dictates and even laws which are not within the US Constitution and certainly NOT in the best interests of the most charitable and compassionate who are growing older by the day in hugh numbers and outwardly fear big government imposing itself into the lives of Americans from coast to coast, border to border….

God Bless our Pentagon and every soldier in uniform as well as government workers who employ their skills and devotion here and yonder night and day to assure us that those we are at war with will continue to fail to understand – for those with their hoods on and face covered professing to act per religious dictate, to outwardly kill, to murder in God’s name as God himself weeps as he looks on and has writtent the rath which will encompass any and all who choose such action, those we are at war with will fail to understand our – mighty resolve – to Live, to be free, to question our government, to fight for humankind no matter where as depicted by our rows and rows of white tomb stones honoring those who have allowed us – a Life of dignity – to demand smaller government and responsible governing, not the Pelosi-Frank et al superiority and the growing dissatisfaction with Democtratic institution with my shoveling out from a two foot (2′) snowfall recently here on Cape Cod huffing and puffing, however with smile on my face thinking of Al Gore and his Nobel Prize for his assertions of global warming still being debated by the esteemed scientfic community at large. Is it true that Al Gore and others are making money from the energy sector which he so dearly reflects on…

In signing off, the temperature here tonight is expected to plummet to six degree and my dear friends in Nebraska will have temperatures which denote the ice age cometh! What folks will do for a declining “fiat” dollar, no longer backed up by gold or silver, just what it truly is – a Federal Reserve Note….

In closing Mr. President, as small nations puruse WMDs, do not place much faith in the “KGB Putinites” or the “Brutes of Tehran” for one talks with empty words of dismantling WMDs and the other openly makes its intentions known, though both do not understand that their dirty deeds of intent will be swept away decisively and a shock and awe to their utmost dismay. To all of us, each of us, no matter whom, our Creator and his words have already been written as he has seen the evil ways of one trained to kill 300 innocent souls on an aircraft….what dastardly deeds.

Christopher Tingus
Harwich (Cape Cod), MA 02645

Comment by Pat Longstaff

January 11, 2010 @ 7:47 am

Actually, these ideas have been around for a few years. I know it’s hard to get people to see new approaches in other other places because it feels like you will have to learn a whole new disipline – and who has time for that? But that is what academics and Think Tanks are for. See,

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