What the Octopus Can Teach Us About Security


Since 9/11, the concept of national security has changed. The United States has not been attacked by terrorists since that day, so something must be working, but the general approach has been fundamentally flawed, according University of Arizona marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin in his new book Learning from the Octopus.

To Sagarin, the general mentality to fight a “war on terrorism” — a war with a broad, reactionary strategy that can never be won—is misguided. “Fish don’t try to turn sharks into vegetarians,” writes Sagarin. “Living immersed in a world of constant risk forces the fish to develop multiple ways to live with risk, rather than try to eliminate it.”

You cannot win a war on terrorism, and you certainly cannot make yourself that much safer if your strategy is to make air travelers take off their shoes after one criminal tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb and then ban liquids simply because another tried that method. Implementing such across-the-board, reactionary methods of improving security will never safeguard against all the possible, as-yet-unconsidered threats you will face in the future.

Instead, Sagarin argues that society should embrace adaptability, an approach that better resembles the evolutionary process that allowed all the species currently in existence to stay secure for billions of years. That doesn’t mean coming up with one, universally employed method. It means implementing many different solutions to the problem and using them in different ways. Because what works in one situation, in one location or against one threat will not always work against other security risks.

Sagarin believes that this phenomenon, called convergent evolution, is a much better route to improving security and that its adaptability principles are what public and private officials should embrace.

“Adaptability is fundamentally different from merely reacting to crisis (which happens too late) or attempting to predict the next crisis,” he writes. “Adaptability controls that sweet spot between reaction and prediction.”

Jared Wade

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About the Author

Jared Wade is a freelance writer and the former senior editor of Risk Management.


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