Learning from the Octopus

How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease

By Rafe Sagarin
Basic Books (AZ), Hardcover, 9780465021833, 284pp.

Publication Date: March 2012

List Price: $26.99*
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Description
Despite the billions of dollars we ve poured into foreign wars, homeland security, and disaster response, we are fundamentally no better prepared for the next terrorist attack or unprecedented flood than we were in 2001. Our response to catastrophe remains unchanged: add another step to airport security, another meter to the levee wall. This approach has proved totally ineffective: reacting to past threats and trying to predict future risks will only waste resources in our increasingly unpredictable world.In "Learning from the Octopus," ecologist and security expert Rafe Sagarin rethinks the seemingly intractable problem of security by drawing inspiration from a surprising source: nature. Biological organisms have been living and thriving on a risk-filled planet for billions of years. Remarkably, they have done it without planning, predicting, or trying to perfect their responses to complex threats. Rather, they simply adapt to solve the challenges they continually face.Military leaders, public health officials, and business professionals would all like to be more adaptable, but few have figured out how. Sagarinargues that we can learn from observing how nature is organized, how organisms learn, how they create partnerships, and how life continually diversifies on this unpredictable planet.As soon as we dip our toes into a cold Pacific tidepool and watch what we thought was a rock turn into an octopus, jetting away in a cloud of ink, we can begin to see the how human adaptability can mimic natural adaptation. The same mechanisms that enabled the octopus's escape also allow our immune system to ward off new infectious diseases, helped soldiers in Iraq to recognize the threat of IEDs, and aided Google in developing faster ways to detect flu outbreaks. While we will never be able to predict the next earthquake, terrorist attack, or market fluctuation, nature can guide us in developing security systems that are not purely reactive but proactive, holistic, and adaptable. From the tidepools of Monterey to the mountains of Kazakhstan, Sagarin takes us on an eye-opening tour of the security challenges we face, and shows us how we might learn to respond more effectively to the unknown threats lurking in our future.



Praise For Learning from the Octopus

Eric Liu, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
“This book is a provocation and a delight. Rafe Sagarin invites us to look at national security with the eyes not of a state but of nature itself: for recursive patterns, adaptations, and the simple keys to complexity. It’s thrilling to apply the lessons of octopuses, tidepools and other biological systems to defense, intelligence, and government generally. It’s even more thrilling to imagine what our policymakers could learn from this book.” 

John Arquilla, Professor of Defense Analysis, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School“Simply brilliant. Rafe Sagarin is one of the world’s leading lateral thinkers. He can study tidepool life and find insights from it for fighting terrorism. He has harnessed our understanding of nature’s immutable forces—selection, learning and adaptation—and turned them to the task of guiding us to a fresh new security paradigm. Above all, Sagarin sees how networked nature is, and how building our own networks is the best way to defeat the perils our balky security institutions have done so little to overcome.” Courtney E. Martin, author of Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors “Learning from the Octopus is not just a brilliant book about natural security, though it is that. It is also a transformative meditation on what attributes are necessary to live a content, modern life—starting with adaptability, imperfection, and interdependence. Rafe Sagarin is not only a rarity in regards to the intersection of his professional gifts—science and writing—but his power to see beyond fear and conformity to what really makes us safe in the world.” Simon Levin, Moffett Professor of Biology, Princeton University
“In a brilliant and engaging style, Rafe Sagarin moves seamlessly between natural history and security analysis, convincingly making the case that we have much to learn in national security from how evolution has helped organisms meet environmental challenges. Learning from the Octopus is must reading for those charged with protecting our nation, and a delightful excursion for anyone interested in the wonders of the natural world.” Publishers Weekly
“A marine biologist applies his expertise to national security, delivering some ingenious ideas. . . . [F]ew readers will deny that Sagarin is onto something.” Library Journal
“Sagarin uses his ecological knowledge to shed light on national security as well as other hard-to-predict challenges. Highly recommended for ecologists, nature lovers, and those interested in business, organizational change, and security planning.”
 Nature
“Drawing on life science and evidence from the military and emergency services, Sagarin defines adaptability as the “sweet spot” between reaction and prediction.” New Scientist “Sagarin explains biology’s lessons for successful national security with a brisk, clear style, designed for the broadest possible audience. The book will be as informative to a field biologist as a field commander. The natural history examples are linked cleverly and effectively, making surprising and provocative points to prompt discussion of how the flexibility of natural defenses can be used for strategic benefit.”

Discover
“[An] open challenge to the status quo.”

 

The ScientistLearning from the Octopus is a paean to biomimicry and a handbook on ‘natural security’ from an unlikely, but enlightening, source.” Foreign Policy in Focus (online)
“Years of marine research provide [Sagarin] with a unique perspective on security issues. His new book’s conclusion: we can learn from nature about being more secure by being more adaptable. Nature, after 3.5 billion years of dealing with risk, is an experienced teacher.”

Natural History“Sagarin identifies several characteristics of successful species—and you can almost visualize them as bullets on a motivational PowerPoint slide. . . . The parallels with modern-day security concerns are evident, and Sagarin is quick to cite cases of military efforts hampered by bureaucratic inertia, insurgency strategies that successfully build on cooperative relations with local populations, and the like. . . . In short, this book lays out some sensible policy suggestions based on biological knowledge.” Globe and Mail (Canada) “Despite spending billions of dollars, says marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst Rafe Sagarin, we are no better prepared for a terrorist attack or a flood than we were in 2001. In Learning From the Octopus, Sagarin rethinks the problem of security by drawing inspiration from nature. Biological organisms that have been living on a risk-filled planet for billions of years, with out planning, predicting or trying to perfect responses to complex threats. They simply adapt to solve the challenges they face every day. Sagarin says we can learn to be more adaptable by observing how organisms learn, and create partnerships, how life continually diversifies.”

 

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