In nature, the threat level is always at least orange: Predators and plagues are an unrelenting menace to the well-being (and successful reproduction) of every living thing. So does your body make every gulp of air take off its shoes before entering your lungs to ensure that it's not smuggling pathogens?
Of course not, says Rafe Sagarin, an assistant research professor of marine science and conservation in the Nicholas School of the Environment, and it would be ridiculous to try. If you didn't suffocate first, the microbes would simply find another way to get in. That's what natural threats do.
Sagarin, an ecologist who's normally more concerned with the urchins and starfish in tide pools, got to thinking about these things as a Congressional science fellow less than a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He saw Washington building an expensive new shell, erecting large barriers around buildings and posting guards and cameras in every doorway. "Everything was about more guards, more guns, and more gates," he said. "I was thinking, 'If I'm an adaptive organism, how would I cope with this?' "
Pretty simply, as it turns out. "If they're checking every trunk, I'll put the bomb in the back seat."
Sagarin thinks this way because he's a biologist, not a cop. And, he says, it's a mode of thinking—informed by Charles Darwin's insights into life's struggle for survival and fecundity—that more security analysts would be wise to adopt.
Sagarin, who is the editor of Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (University of California Press, 2008), has convened a national committee of experts from related fields of 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 and less like Wild Bill Hickok.
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's brand of "natural security" may take some getting used to. "Organisms do not try to get rid of risk in their environment," he says. "They learn to live with it."
The total elimination of risk is far more costly than the organism could bear, and probably futile, since the threats adapt. But by being responsive and adaptable and not putting every last bit of its budget into defense, an organism stands a far better chance of being able to handle an unforeseen risk in an escalating arms race, he says.
"Almost everything organisms do is, in some way, about security."
National Security: Surviving by Adapting
April 1, 2009