by Judith Curry
Indeed, if there is a single message that sums up all of Sagarin’s work, it’s that organisms realized long ago that the world is a much less predictable place than humans would like to believe. “We spend a lot of time in planning exercises, making predictive models, and in optimization routines,” says Sagarin. “All of which have essentially been selected against in nature, because they’re incredibly wasteful when you live in an unpredictable world.”
Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist at the University of Arizona, has written a provocative book entitled Learning from the octopus: How secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and disease.
From an article in The Week:
FISH DON’T TRY to turn sharks into vegetarians. 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. The fish can dash away from the shark in a burst of speed, live in places sharks can’t reach, use deceptive coloration to hide from the shark, form schools with other fish to confuse the shark — it can even form an alliance with the shark. All of these things may help the fish solve the problem of how to avoid getting eaten by the shark. But none of these adaptations will help the fish solve the general problem of predation, and it doesn’t need to. The fish doesn’t have to be a perfect predator-avoidance machine. Like every single one of the countless organisms it shares a planet with, the fish just has to be good enough to survive and reproduce itself.
The major threats society faces today are ominous and complex interplays of human behavior and environmental change, global politics and local acts of cruelty or carelessness, historical accidents and long-simmering tensions. Some of these threats have plagued us as long as we have been human, and yet we’ve still made little progress against them; others are becoming more dangerous in synergy with rapid climatic and political changes; and still others are just now emerging. Yet the responses we have been offered or forced to accept by the experts we’ve trusted to solve these problems often seem frustratingly ineffective, naïve, or just plain ridiculous.
Life on Earth has a lot to show us about how to create more adaptable systems than these, but with the doors to this vast pool of expertise on adaptability blown open, a daunting new question emerges: Where to begin? If you want to learn about security and adaptability from nature, I can think of no better place to start than to stare into the eye of an octopus.
Taken together, the octopus reveals almost all of the characteristics you would want in a biologically inspired adaptable security system. Its use of tools (the coconut shells) and its well-known ability to wreak havoc on laboratory containment systems show that it can learn from a changing environment. The rapidly changing skin cells show it has an adaptable organization in which a lot of power to detect and directly respond to changes in the environment is given to multiple agents that don’t have to do a lot of reporting and order-taking from a central brain. That it has an ink cloud and camouflage and a powerful bite that it uses both for offense and defense reveals its redundant and multi-functioning security measures. Its ability to deliberately stalk, surprise, and even kill prey much larger than itself shows that it can manipulate uncertainty for its own ends. Finally, its use of deadly bacteria in its own defense reveals that it uses symbiotic relationships to extend its own adaptive capabilities. Not all organisms in nature display these characteristics so prominently as the octopus, but all organisms use them to varying extents to survive and adapt.
DESPITE THE MASSIVE variation in nature’s security systems, all of their solutions follow from one very straightforward concept: adaptability. Adaptation arises from leaving (or being forced from) one’s comfort zone. Accordingly, it’s understandable that we might be a little resistant to dive into this strange world where reacting to the previous crisis is no longer good enough and making vague predictions of the future no longer counts as “doing something.” It’s natural that we’d come up with all sorts of excuses for why we can’t be more adaptable. But one of the results of using nature — with its relentless ability to solve problems and neutralize unpredictable threats — as a template for adaptability is that it weakens almost every excuse we have for not becoming more adaptable.
From an article in BBC Future:
Just as importantly, Sagarin discovered what it is that organisms don’t do. In general, they don’t plan, predict or try to be perfect. When Sagarin tells this to the members of strategic planning departments in government agencies, it leads to “a lot of consternation and grinding of teeth,” in part because it’s so counter-intuitive.
Indeed, if there is a single message that sums up all of Sagarin’s work, it’s that organisms realized long ago that the world is a much less predictable place than humans would like to believe. What Sagarin calls the “non-normal distribution of truly interesting events,” which was explored at length in Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan, has relevance to how we’ll cope with everything from disease outbreaks to climate change.
“We spend a lot of time in planning exercises, making predictive models, and in optimization routines,” says Sagarin. “All of which have essentially been selected against in nature, because they’re incredibly wasteful when you live in an unpredictable world.”
Organisms and humans should plan for things that occur with some frequency; buildings in earthquake-prone areas must be ready for tremors just as surely as mating Horseshoe crabs need to know the phase of the moon. But the biggest dangers are those we’ve yet to identify, and if nature is any guide, the only way to prepare for them and respond to them effectively is to have an abundance of flexibility and skills which can be combined to meet any challenge.
From Sagarin’s Foreign Policy article Adapt or Die, 5 adaptation strategies:
Form good relationships. An organism can survive, and thrive, in the presence of an enemy by forming symbiotic relationships that can take a multitude of forms. These relationships can link aggressive, highly toxic species (clown fish living in anemone tentacles, for example), or they can link small and large organisms (such as bioluminescent bacteria living within the organs of deep-sea fish). Sometimes the relationships are transient, sometimes permanent.
Never stop adapting. A fundamental tenet of evolutionary biology is that organisms must constantly adapt just to stay in the same strategic position relative to their enemies — who are constantly changing as well. For example, to protect its DNA against viruses, a host organism must continually change the access code to its genetic material.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The ability to adapt is limited by competing demands. An organism that puts all its energy into acquiring mates may be woefully unprepared for an attack by a skilled enemy. A male peacock with his feathers fully extended might set female hearts fluttering, but the flashy display also leaves him dangerously exposed. An organism prone to such behavior could only have evolved in a relatively predator-free environment.
Be redundant. Many species spawn an overabundance of offspring to improve their chances of survival. Many genes have multiple copies of DNA to protect genetic material against attack.
Be flexible. Evolutionary success requires the ability to adapt rapidly to changed circumstances.
JC comments: Most of what I have seen written about Sagarin’s ideas are applications related to security and protecting against terrorist attacks. But it seems that there are some useful applications of these ideas for adaptation to extreme weather events and climate change. We are fooling ourselves if we don’t take this particular insight into account:
Indeed, if there is a single message that sums up all of Sagarin’s work, it’s that organisms realized long ago that the world is a much less predictable place than humans would like to believe.
Building our adaptive capacity and imagining black swan scenarios seem like a much better bet than putting all our eggs in the CO2 mitigation strategy tied projections of future climate sensitivity to atmospheric CO2.