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Learning From The Octopus

How Secrets From Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disaster and Disease

Rafe Sagarin

After the Boxing Day tsunami alarm systems installed all round region. But most got vandalized (stoned to death) by locals because false alarms. Similarly, estimated that 20m homes in US have smoke alarms that have been disabled for same reason.

When US Army went to war against Saddam Hussein, textbook tactics worked very well. But defeating the Iraqi conventional forces simply cleared a space for unconventional fighters using IEDs etc. US forces on the ground had to change/adapt quickly without instructions from above.

Evolution in nature works by solving survival problems as they arise, using materials at hand. Many systems in society, in contrast, are typical intelligent designs - such as the Maginot Line - that are completely unable to solve emerging threats from the environment.

Should stop trying to plan, to try to predict, or try to be perfect. Humans have survived without these for millions of years because they are adaptable. Adaptability is the ability to respond to a wide range of challenges, not just the ones which are known or can be anticipated.

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We are still under pressure from natural selection. Billions still starving, and always threat of pandemic disease. Moreover, the way we have evolved has changed the environment enough to force us to evolve further, and in some ways it has changed faster than we can evolve. Some of our adaptations, which first arose in a world completely unlike today's societies, can get us into trouble now.

Author suggesting a new approach to risk problems. One that didn't try to solve security threats piecemeal or only after disaster. One that didn't waste resources on fixed responses that are useless against changing threats. One that didn't over-prioritize one part of the problem and ignore the rest. One that rejects idea that only an 'expert' is qualified to analyze a problem and decide on the response.

Octopuses are smart. Even in isolated tanks in marine biology labs, they have been filmed climbing out, braving the dry air to scamper across a lab bench to find a snack in a neighboring pool before returning to their own. You already know that they can change color to match background, and so become inconspicuous. But to attract a mate they have to do the opposite. Some are able to resolve this by getting the side facing a female to pulse with psychedelic color displays, while the side facing the outside world stays drab.

Some systems really dumb. US Postal Service now has a rule that any package over a pound in weight will be returned to sender if it is put in a street mailbox. So all a terrorist has to do is put the target's name as the sender and the post office will happily deliver it. Boom.

Darwin's summary of how natural selection works. Variation - two birds are hatched from same parents. One is solid yellow and other is mottled yellow and brown. Selective force which favors one variation over the other - a predatory hawk easily spots the yellow chick but not the mottled one. And the selection force punishes the inferior variant - the yellow one dies - and/or rewards the superior one - the mottled bird grows up and reproduces.

This process explains why the theoretically weaker forces have tended to win most of the conflicts of C20th. Variation - the insurgents have a wider range of tactics - not constrained by conventional rules, and come from more diverse backgrounds. Selective force - far more insurgents get killed by US forces than v.v. But this basically weeds out the incompetent and unlucky, educating the survivors on which tactics and hiding places to avoid.

Geerat Vermeij wrote Evolution and Escalation, one of first books to look at arms races in nature, specifically the million year battle between snails developing stronger shells and crabs developing more powerful claws.

How should we respond to security threats. The lesson we shd learn from US military in Iraq and Afghanistan is to move away from giving orders and toward providing challenges. Orders assume there is one solution to the problem and it will fix all aspects of it as long as people obey orders. Challenges based on idea that there are many potential solutions and the best way to find them is to give people the power to try them.

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