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Friday, September 19, 2014 | Last updated: 12:49am

Author and UA scientist talks national security and terrorists



After 9/11, Rafe Sagarin was working in Washington, D.C., as a science adviser to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, a congresswoman at the time.

Everything was about security. The issues he wanted to work on, the environment and labor, weren’t on the agenda.

The marine ecologist found himself with skills he couldn’t use. He had to adapt. As a naturalist, Sagarin could keenly observe the world around him. What he saw was a security system that wasn’t evolving and terrorists who were. So, he decided to pull together security experts and biologists to look at what could be gleaned from nature about how to improve security.

Now an associate research scientist at the UA’s Institute of the Environment, he has put some of that research in to a book called “Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease.”

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Press Photo
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Press Photo of Rafe Sagarin

You talk about how, post-9/11, you noticed security never changed. Can you give an example?

I learned that the metal detector wouldn’t go off if I just put my hands over my keys. I thought, ‘My goodness. If we could adapt so easily, what would a terrorist do if they were faced with these kinds of defenses? They could adapt just as easily.’ That led me back to biology. I thought about how organisms in nature have adapted for billions of years and dealt with essentially exactly what we’re dealing with concerning terrorism, which was an unpredictable threat we knew was out there.

How does nature handle security differently?

Organisms don’t waste energy trying to predict what’s going to happen in the distant future. Organisms stay alive because they’re good observers of change in the world. They decentralize their ability to sense change in the world.

That’s why you used the octopus centrally in your book. How does it decentralize?

An octopus has an amazing brain, but when it wants to camouflage itself, it doesn’t have its brain say, ‘Arm one, turn purple, and arm two, turn blue, and arm three, turn kind of purplish-blue.” What it has are millions of skin cells all running around and doing their own thing. They’re responding to the change in their little part of the world. Our immune system works the same way. We have a bunch of cells that run around and take care of invaders. They don’t ask our brain what they should do. They just are going around doing it. They still serve our body, but they have the independence to solve the problems.

How can we apply lessons from the octopus to the problems we face?

The power of individual people to solve problems and observe change in our world — that’s the most important thing that up until very recently we have neglected. Too often we rely on a small group of experts or a single leader to say, “This is what we’re all going to do.” That always gets us into trouble.

What’s another lesson we can apply from your book?

Organizations need to learn from their successes. Management gurus tell us, “Oh, we’ve got to learn from our failures.” Every organism in nature is an example of learning from the success of its ancestors. The failures died before they reproduced. It’s a dead end. Yet for some reason we focus intently on our past failures and try to learn from that.

Can you give an example of when we should have focused on success instead of failure?

The after-action reports the government put out following Hurricane Katrina identify hundreds of failures, but they fail to identify the successes. The biggest success of the aftermath of Katrina was the Coast Guard containing about a 9 million-gallon oil spill, which they did very well under incredibly different circumstances. Then it turned out that the one important lesson about Katrina for the next big gulf disaster was how to clean up oil in a really difficult circumstance.

Why is it that what should come naturally is counterintuitive?

We’re essentially at odds with ourselves, and we’re at odds with common natural sense because we’ve very quickly, in the last 50 to 100 years, separated ourselves from hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution and billions of years of biological evolution.

We’re seeing more and more mass shootings now. Is there a lesson in nature we can learn from those kinds of threats?

The commonality of all these kinds of events — even underneath the fact that they all involve guns is some kind of psychological damage. It’s pretty clear. This is all speculative and still being looked at, but there are people who talk about nature deficit disorder — basically psychological deficits that emerge from being disconnected from the natural world.

We are losing our ability to connect, empathize and understand the complexity of other people. More and more, we see th at people in our own world, who should be the people we understand intimately, are just going off the map. People say, “Oh, yeah, he’s kind of a loner, but I had no idea he’d do that.” It’s like, well, you weren’t paying attention. You didn’t have the skills to see it.

*You do hear that all the time. People just didn’t notice someone was having a problem. *

When we lived back in our evolutionary time, in these really small intensive groups, we intimately knew everyone’s intention in our group. We are disconnected from essentially the source of all of our lives. But in a more practical sense, we are much less able to deal with complex problems and issues when we haven’t trained ourselves through the daily practice of being outside, to observe this complexity of nature.

When disasters and tragedies happen, is there a focus on how the security system failed, not on how we as observers failed?

Absolutely. That was the problem I initially saw in 9/11. It was all about these security measures that were metal detectors. There was very little focus on that human connection part. One of the most successful things that the Transportation Security Administration has done is implement behavioral screening, which gets at our deeply embedded evolutionary ability to look at another human and understand their intent.

Why are TSA screenings so successful?

There are characteristics that we can train people very quickly to identify, that could be, “I have a bomb, and I’m feeling anxious about this.” It’s almost impossible to hide that. You can’t even have actors mimic those kinds of behaviors. They’re just there. They’re so deep in our evolutionary psyche that we can’t repress them.

When the TSA first started training people in behavioral screening, they showed them randomized security videos, and the screeners picked out every single one of the 9/11 hijackers.

*You talk a lot about being cut off from nature, but you also talk about the ways technology can help us solve these issues. Correct? *
I am not at all a total technophobe. There are a lot of ways that this new technology can reconnect us and allow us to see change in the world better.

—This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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