Natural Security vs National Security

January 29, 2008 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

“A new book due to come out shortly caught my eye today. Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, is the result of more than two years of investigation and debate by a multidisciplinary group of scientists and security experts lead by Duke University’s Raphael Sagarin and international security expert Terence Taylor. 

The book explores the myriad ways that biological organisms have found to protect themselves from the threats posed by predators, disease, and other dangers in the environment.  “Arms races among invertebrates, intelligence gathering by the immune system and alarm calls by marmots are just a few of nature’s successful security strategies that have been tested and modified over time in response to changing threats and situations,” Sagarin said. “In our book, we look at these strategies and ask how we could apply them to our own safety.”

According to early reviews the book explores how evolutionary models and ideas can be applied to threats ranging from terrorism to natural disasters and the spread of disease.

It sounds like a fascinating premise and I look forward to reading the book.  I think that the current popularity of popular books on cross-disciplinary studies is a wonderful thing. My bookshelves are full of books like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked; Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and more.  

We’ve reached a wonderful point in world culture where the proliferation of new knowledge and ideas combined with the searchability and availability of information are coming together in an absolutely wonderful way. Not only are we discovering more pieces of information every day, we also have a much better ability to see how they fit together. 

And the fit is often surprising.

A report last year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed what most Americans already suspected. Despite heightened awareness and tightened restrictions, “the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cannot possibly control all potential threats to airport security. According to Raphael Sagarin “Biological organisms inherently understand this. They realize they can’t eliminate all risk in their environment. They have to identify and respond to only the most serious threats, or they end up wasting their resources and, ultimately, failing the evolutionary game.

Here’s the important thing folks, right from the expert – Mother Nature.  It is impossible to eliminate risk.

So why is our society so obsessed with doing just that? From soccer moms to news reporters and trial attorneys, eliminating (not minimizing) risk is the key issue in modern life. We worry that satellites will fall on our heads, pit bulls will attack us or that we’ll die of bird flu —  when it is far more likely that we’ll die on the toilet, be killed by a loved one or succumb to a common flu virus (even though statistics say that the latter three are much more likely than the first). The unknown scares us. This is an evolutionary advantage, or at least it used to be.  But that fear of the unknown is an ancient piece of our psyches that we focus too much on today, largely because politicians and the media find it convenient to hype issues that focus on fear rather than facts.H. L. Mencken had it right when he said that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”There’s a great quote in this new book that hits this issue head on: “Whether you’re dealing with al Qaeda or an emerging pathogen, studying animal behavior teaches us basic principles of survival,” Sagarin said. “You can’t eliminate all risks, so you have to focus on the big ones, while adapting to minimize risk from the rest. You have to be aware of your environment, understanding that it’s constantly in flux. And when it comes to adapting and responding to threats, a centralized authority can get in the way. Individual units that sense the environment, with minimal central control, work best.” Are we the enemy, or is the enemy a government and media that control us by playing on our fears?


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January 2008

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