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What Can an Octopus Teach Us about National Security? A Q&A with Ecologist Rafe Sagarin

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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learning from the octopus rafe sagarin

Courtesy of Basic Books

Octopuses possess camouflage abilities that put some of our military’s best high-tech efforts to shame. And their flexible, intelligent arms are the envy of roboticists and artificial intelligence engineers worldwide.

But these animals, which have evolved over hundreds of millions of years, can teach us even more about security in the 21st century than camo and communications, Rafe Sagarin argues in his new book Learning from the Octopus: How secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease (Basic Books, April 2012).

Sagarin suggests we take cues from octopuses and other organisms in the natural world to make our responses to all kinds of threats—from sophisticated terrorist cells to emerging infections—more robust and adaptable.

Sagarin is a research scientist at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. Trained as a marine ecologist, he has spent a lot of time gazing into the ocean, thinking about the marvels of animal adaptability in the face of danger, which is what got him thinking about these impressive cephalopods.

Octopuses lack a protective shell—as well as any internal skeleton. So they have developed a myriad of strategies for staying safe (which leads us to the first three lessons for improved security: redundancy, redundancy, redundancy).

When an octopus is out and about, “millions of cells on the surface of its skin are all sensing and responding to the world around, instantly changing shape and color to perfectly match their immediate surroundings,” he writes in his book.

Once, after staring at a tide pool in Baja California for a long time, I thought I spied an octopus, but the small waves cresting the tide pool walls riffled the surface too much to be sure. My eyes failing me, I reached my hand in to engage my tactile senses, and instantly a dark cloud of smoky ink filled the pool. By the time it cleared, I had confirmed my identification, but the beast was long gone.

It’s hard to imagine humans ever being quite this stealthy (read more about this research in Sagarin’s book). But what I really wanted to know was how he made this cool conceptual leap from thinking about slippery invertebrates to beefed up national security, anyway. I called him up just before he left for his book tour to find out.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What first got you thinking about the octopus as a good animal for thinking about security issues?
I first was thinking about nature in general as a good model because of the way all natural organisms have to deal with uncertainty and how they have to adapt to an uncertain world. I started to think about organisms as metaphors and octopuses kept coming to the top. They express their adaptability in so many different ways.

You already hinted at an answer to my next question—do you think of the octopus as an example to follow or more as a metaphor?
It’s both, really. In some cases, it’s just a metaphor because there are translational issues—because we have certain ethical norms and different political and economic realities where we can’t do exactly what nature does.

In some cases it does work well to decentralize observing [as the octopus does via its skin cells]. And those are some of the things it works to adopt almost verbatim from nature.

Why not squid or cuttlefish?
I’ve always had a fondness for octopuses. Even though squid and cuttlefish have some really remarkable abilities, octopuses really have it all. They’re probably more intelligent than squid or cuttlefish; they have the camouflage ability; they also think about things and plan out what they are going to do.

Another thing they do is they show is that a lot of the boundaries we’ve put up in the past between humans and other organisms in the living world have already been crossed. Octopuses already do things we were often told that non-humans just don’t do [such as use tools]. They’re a really good exemplar of this general point that humans and the rest of the animal world are different—but not that different.

You also mention in your book the ability of octopuses to use tools and plan for the future, which I think we consider ourselves pretty good at, as a species—is there still something more we can learn from that?
I think it’s that we have to not be so prejudiced against taking advice from the rest of the natural world. If we can get over that thinking that there’s a boundary [between us and it], then we can open our minds to the ideas that we can learn from these other organisms.

So you’re trained as a marine ecologist, but you also seem to dabble in policy and security issues. These seem like pretty different fields—how did you get into those areas?
I’ve always been interested in the interface between science and policy. I worked for Congresswoman Hilda Solis for a while, and that’s really where this particular project started. I was working in D.C. after 9/11, and I remember noticing all this extra security but not being very impressed by it, by its adaptability and ability to meet a changing threat.

If we could borrow one thing—one lesson—from the octopus what do you think it should be?
I think it’s this combination of having a lot of ways to see change in the world, combined with a lot of ways to respond to that change: Having redundancy in the way you see the world, as the skin cells of the octopus demonstrate, but then having a lot of ways to respond to that change.

If you can always try to make that combination in what you’re doing, you’re going to be a lot more successful, rather than relying on a small number of responders and a small number of “best practices.”

What lesson from the octopus do you think will be most difficult for us to integrate into our current way of thinking?
In talking to people it seems the most difficult is a fear of getting started, a feeling that: “We’re already stuck in these huge bureaucracies that are not at all like the decentralized concepts you’re talking about.” But what you find is that when people in these organizations start to do these things on their own, things start to fall into place. My big thing is: “Just get started.” Start by having people respond to unusual challenges.

Okay, so we both seem to agree that the octopus is awesome. But if you had to look to another animal for bio-inspiration—to help us learn how to respond to challenges better—what would you pick?
That’s a hard one. It really depends on the lesson. There are exemplary species for many lessons. Communicating with an enemy is an important one. It’s really interesting to see that ground squirrels send very direct messages to their predators that can hear—very loud noises. But for snakes that can’t hear, a squirrel puffs up its tail. But if it’s a rattlesnake that can sense heat, a squirrel will heat up its tail. That shows that the squirrel has learned to communicate with its predators in its predators’ own languages, rather than send out vague messages—like we do with airport security messages. Saying that we’re at “threat level orange” communicates to our enemies that we really don’t know anything.

Anything else?
Organisms in nature have survived and thrived for three and a half billion years, and they’ve done it without any kind of planning or predicting, or anything that we spend so much of our time doing. They have a very efficient process for dealing with unknown threats.

Illustration courtesy of Ivan Phillipsen

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Rev.Corvette 11:41 pm 04/5/2012

    Thank you Katherine Harmon for a well written article about octopuses (even if I thought their plural was octopie). They are exemplary as animals we will do well to study further, as their intelligence may well rival or surpass that of human animals.
    You have sparked my interest sufficiently for me to read Rafe Sagarin’s new book, Learning from the Octopus: How secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease

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  2. 2. Chris Miller 5:51 am 04/8/2012

    The root is Greek, so octopuses normally; octopods if you wish to be pedantic; but never, never octopi.

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