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Tide Pools & Terrorists

Rafe Sagarin thinks national security should use the adaptive tactics of nature. Can the behaviors that biologists see keep us safer from enemies and disasters?

Photo: Paul Chinn/Corbis Images

OBSERVE AND PROTECT: Sagarin thinks ecosystems could be mimicked to improve human defenses.

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By Kara Platoni

Nearly two decades after coming to the Hopkins Marine Station as an undergraduate in earth systems, Raphael D. Sagarin was again hunched over a tide pool identifying its briny inhabitants. His mentor, emeritus lecturer Chuck Baxter, stood on a nearby outcropping and called out helpful advice.

It was a drippy coastal morning, with fog heavy enough to dampen paper and a raucous crowd of gulls hooting from the roof of the nearby lab. The shallow pools initially appeared abandoned at low tide, but a closer look revealed dozens of tiny creatures going about their underwater business.

"Those are mostly hermit crabs taking over turban snail shells," Sagarin, '94, said, as he peered into one pool. He pointed to a pair of spongy green blobs. "Anthopleura sola, that's those two anemones."

Tabulating the creatures of the Monterey tide pools had been the modus operandi of a study Sagarin began in 1993, which became one of the first to show that climate change was transforming a regional ecosystem. It rooted his faith in observational ecology—the old-fashioned naturalist style of closely watching and meticulously calibrating the world in order to understand it.

Rafe Sagarin has since taken that methodology to much stranger tide pools. Now an assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona, Sagarin has turned his observational focus to questions of national security: How can people adapt to changing conditions using evolutionary principles? His work, which now involves collaboration with military and government officials as well as with fellow scientists, asks what humanity can learn from nature when dealing with complex uncertainties, like natural disasters or terrorism.

"The problems that are faced by natural organisms are exactly the same problems that businesses face, that security experts face, that climate change experts face, which is that the world is full of risk and it's unpredictable," says Sagarin, a wiry man with unruly brown hair who speaks in thoughtful bursts. "We have a lot to learn from natural systems because they've been adapting to unpredictable challenges for 3.5 billion years."

The tide pools offered a striking opportunity to observe a world responding to complex change. The study's starting point was Baxter's observation that the Monterey intertidal waters seemed to be changing color, likely due to a shifting algae population. Baxter, an avid diver, had lived in Southern California; on coming to Monterey, he'd been impressed by "the aesthetics of going out into the intertidal here—the early morning light and the radiance of these shades of reds and browns." But by the '90s, he noticed the algae "got to where it wasn't the same. It was getting more like Southern California."

The idea that climate change—resulting in warmer water—might be responsible for the algae changes was "a wild hypothesis, kind of a concept," Baxter recalls. Examining it "would take a hell of a lot of work."

But there was a way to do it. In the early 1930s, Stanford student Willis Hewatt had rigorously documented a slice of the region, photographing, sketching and counting everything that fell within an imaginary corridor now known as "Hewatt's transect." Hewatt, PhD '34, had hammered brass bolts into the rock to mark his line for future observers; it's a yard wide, extending from the shore bluffs 108 yards out to sea. Additionally, marine station scientists had hand-measured water temperatures daily since the 1920s, showing that, on average, summer waters were warmer than they had been in Hewatt's time. Someone willing to painstakingly count the inhabitants of Hewatt's transect all over again could ascertain whether the tide-pool population had changed, too. Baxter spent five years trying to sell this idea. "What I was looking for," he says, "was some suckers."

Sagarin was one of those suckers—and he knew that Hewatt's methodology was considered outdated. "When I came down, this lab—the whole station—was big into biochemistry, neurobiology, cellular biology stuff, which I couldn't really get my head around," he says. "No one was looking at anything in the real world—everything was done in small experimental plots or the laboratory. It was completely unfashionable to just go out and count stuff."

But Baxter and Sagarin really liked the idea of counting stuff. Both were heavily influenced by Cannery Row legends John Steinbeck and Ed "Doc" Ricketts: author Steinbeck because he relayed information about the natural world through storytelling and ecologist Ricketts for his observational philosophy. "He wanted to move away from idealistic, almost theoretical visions of what something is," Sagarin says, "to really getting down to 'What is it really made of?'"

So Sagarin and colleague Sarah Gilman, '94, began to count, targeting 45 species present in the pools of both the 1930s and the 1990s. The tallies showed that populations of some of the northern species moved to cooler seaward waters, while members of species that favored temperate southern waters had proliferated. Certain species of anemone and limpet were harder to find, while the red barnacle Tetraclita rubescens and the green chiton Cyanoplax hartwegii had multiplied. Overall, according to the study, population had fallen off for five of eight northern species while eight of nine southern species had become more abundant.

In 1995, along with Baxter and James Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Sagarin and Gilman published their findings in Science. At the same time other scientists announced they had observed similar changes in butterfly, bird and amphibian populations. "It wasn't just our study, it was a whole suite of studies that were consistently showing what you would expect from climate change," Sagarin says. The studies showed that "it was actually happening now in the real world—it wasn't some computer model."

Sagarin's subsequent work initially explored similar themes. He studied the biological effects of climate change as he earned his PhD at UC-Santa Barbara and as a postdoc at UCLA. He traveled from Alaska to Baja tallying a dozen intertidal species to show they don't all cluster in the center of their geographic ranges, as had been previously thought.

His next evolutionary step put him on dry land.

"Adaptation itself is kind of being forced from your niche," Sagarin says. "My niche was being down here in the tide pools." He was perfectly happy there, but he won a congressional science fellowship in 2002-03. He arrived in Washington, D.C., to be a Geological Society of America fellow shortly after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the nation's capital was on red alert. "I didn't have any tide pools to study so I started turning my eye on the environment—the ecology of Washington, D.C., less than a year after 9/11," he says. "What you saw there was an ecology of fear."

Although the capital had initially adapted by boosting security, Sagarin realized it hadn't continued to evolve. When he saw guards searching lines of cars, they'd check the same space—the trunks—instead of randomly looking into backseats or under the hoods. Once airport and office screening procedures were instituted, they remained static. "The new security measures, the new metal detectors that were popping up everywhere, the Jersey barriers that were being erected everywhere—none of them were dynamic systems," he recalls. "I was thinking back to the tide pools. Every day I'd go to these tide pools and I'd see something different, even when I'd go to the exact same location, because they're constantly changing. D.C. had changed once, and then they thought they'd solved the problem. I thought, 'How long would it take for an adaptable enemy to overcome these defenses?' It wouldn't take long at all."

Human society hadn't made many of the security adaptations the natural world does, Sagarin later wrote in Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, a 2008 essay collection he co-edited. Unlike species that produce multiple offspring because redundancy safeguards against individual misfortune, much of the U.S. infrastructure, such as the financial system, was concentrated. Valuable resources like chemical plants weren't well protected because they'd rarely been threatened. And as the D.C. "tide pool" showed, our security systems lacked variability—the very principle that drives evolution.

Sagarin credits Stanford president emeritus and biologist Donald Kennedy with introducing him to government experts who helped him pursue these ideas. In 2003 Sagarin wrote a piece for the journal Foreign Policy called "Adapt or Die: What Charles Darwin Can Teach Tom Ridge about Homeland Security" in which he argued that the "genus Americanus" must change its defense approach to deal with the viral Al Qaeda threat. By 2006, he had put together a working group and was consulting with emergency first responders and security experts to learn about the adaptation challenges their organizations face.

Perhaps his most influential new connection was former British army officer Terence Taylor, a bioterrorism expert who now runs the International Council for the Life Sciences. Like Sagarin, Taylor was critical of too-rigid defense structures: in particular, treaties governing biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. Because technology advances quickly, he says, these documents were always "out of date before the ink was dry."

Taylor had long been interested in a more adaptive, flexible defense structure. "I was delighted when I met Rafe to have someone—a scientist and an ecologist and marine biologist—talking in a way that seemed to be just such a natural fit," he says. Along with the working group, they began to articulate a number of "evolutionary best practices," which they laid out in collaborations like 2008's Natural Security and a 2010 opinion piece in the journal Nature.

STRATEGY 1: Embrace uncertainty. In the natural world, they argue, most species increase uncertainty for their enemies by deploying multiple strategies for attack or defense. Think of the octopus, says Sagarin: "It's got an ink cloud it can use; it's got a beak it can use; some of them have poison; they've got these suckers; it's got really good camouflage." If one strategy doesn't work, it can fall back on another.

But humans often defend themselves by planning for the next emergency as though it will be like the last one, says Sagarin. After 9/11, the world braced for another attack by airplane or by anthrax. Instead, the next decade's biggest threats to human well-being included hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, oil spills, volcanic eruptions, Japan's nuclear near-meltdown and the threat of natural pandemics.

"True adaptability is owning the space between reacting to a past crisis and trying to predict a future crisis," Sagarin says. "What we do too much of is react post-crisis—someone tries to blow up a plane with a shoe bomb, then everyone has to take off their shoes. Or we spend a lot of effort trying to predict what the next crisis will be, and that ends up wasting a lot of resources."

STRATEGY 2: Decentralize. "Putting homeland security in the hands of a massive, plodding bureaucracy hardly represents evolutionary advancement," Sagarin wrote in his Foreign Policy piece, referring to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Sagarin's ideal defense would operate more like the human immune system—with units that react semiautonomously to threats, loosely governed by a central command. "Instead of relying on a centralized brain or controller for everything, you farm out the responsibility of searching for and responding to changes in the environment to many, many different agents," he says.

Crowd-sourcing is a more efficient and creative method of problem-solving and technology development than relying on a bureaucracy, he says. He admires strategies like the DARPA Grand Challenge, in which the Department of Defense research agency put up a $1 million prize for the development of a self-driving vehicle. Security experts should transition "from issuing orders to issuing challenges," Sagarin says.

STRATEGY 3: Learn from success, not just from mistakes. "Learning from failure is fine, but from an evolutionary standpoint it's a total dead end," says Sagarin. "The creative process in evolution is this recursive process of building off of past success and then adding something new."

For example, he says, most of the analysis of the government's response to Hurricane Katrina overlooked what he calls its "one unqualified success," the Coast Guard's cleanup of millions of gallons of oil. More attention might have paid off during the Deepwater Horizon spill five years later.

One more key point—and Sagarin's list keeps evolving—is developing symbiosis. Even antagonists have mutual needs. He cites the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance, an Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian collaboration that prevents the spread of illness. The program works because it responds to people's immediate, shared needs without attempting to resolve broader geopolitical differences, says Taylor, who is involved with the group. "But if you had started with a clean sheet of paper and tried to design that in a top-down way," he says, "you could never have got there because the political obstacles would have been too great."

There are, of course, ways in which human societies are unlike other natural systems: We have cognitive minds that let us test adaptation scenarios in advance, while "most of the natural world doesn't have a luxury like that," Sagarin says. Also, insurance and government bailouts protect us from bad decisions. "In nature," says Baxter, "if you're stupid, you don't survive and reproduce." And unlike the Monterey tide pool denizens, who left their habitat once it became inhospitable, humans may resist adaptation. We often respond to environmental threats like sea-level rise and coastal erosion by trying to engineer solutions, rather than ceding ground.

Sagarin readily acknowledges that human ethics won't always let us do as nature does—we aren't likely, for example, to risk human lives to test a new security adaptation, although survival is the ultimate evolutionary test. And although there is no single biological model that would be the perfect template for all of humanity's security needs, he says, it would be folly to pass up a 3.5 billion-year-old data set tracking the survival strategies of our older planet-mates.

Sagarin's Stanford advisers have reacted to his career path switch with great interest. "I think it's what scholars should do, to try to pick connections between phenomena at rather different levels in rather different systems in order to understand both better," Kennedy says. "His point is: Can we learn something from those phenomena in the natural world to apply to a setting in which much of the evolutionary change is cultural, rather than genetic or ecological?"

"Rafe has always been a continuing set of surprises," Baxter says. "It's so much fun to see observational ecology diversify into the variety of areas where it could be applied."

Sagarin, who won a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship in 2011, is writing two new books. Learning From the Octopus, due in April, will be a less academic follow-up to Natural Security. Observational Ecology in an Era of Global Change, co-authored with biologist Aníbal Pauchard, will be what Sagarin calls an "alternative textbook" for science undergraduates, filled with stories of field ecology and discussion about "how important observation, rather than mathematical theory, is becoming to the science."

The security questions of the coming era are so urgent, dynamic and difficult to test in the lab, Sagarin says, that they're going to require the kind of observational science that originally took him to Hewatt's transect. "When you want to solve big complex problems—whether it's global geopolitics or climate warming—you can't do it in a vacuum. . . . We're back to where we have to observe systems [and] see them changing."

Kara Platoni is a frequent Stanford contributor who lives in Oakland.


Comments (2)

  • Mr. Dana Visalli

    Thanks for the stimulating article Kara.  There are however a few issues that could be examined with Rafe's work.  He advises the US military establishment on how to respond to what you call 'the viral Al Qaeda threat,' but this overlooks critical details.  If Al Qaeda actually exists, it is because the USA has abused the people of the Middle East (and elsewhere) so severely.  The UN estimates that a million Iraqis died during the 1991-2003 sanctions, for example.  MLK in 1967 called the US 'the greatest perpetuator of violence in the world,' which it certainly is.  Vietnam vet Mike Hastie characterizes the US as a 'non-stop killing machine.'  In fact one study shows we have killed 20-30 million people in their home countries since 1950.  This is the organization that Rafe is advising. There is nothing more damaging to the biosphere than the US military.  I find academics typically lack compassionate intelligence.      
    Dana Visalli

    Posted by Mr. Dana Visalli on Jan 18, 2012 5:35 PM

  • Mr. John Watney

    I think that the cognitive ability of us humans has been underplayed in this article. If our security people used random security checks and another shoe bomber realizing this managed to blowup a plane, Natural selection might be fine in the animal world, but would be unacceptable to us with moral beliefs. Similar thinking would find flaws in most of Kara's evolutionary approach to security. The trunk of a car is a great place in which to transport weapons, A successful threat i one area is likely to be imitated immediately in another -  not wait for evolution to to give birth to more successful terrorists while decentralized security each responded only to threats experienced by them. Really, does Kara really believe " The problems that are faced by natural organisms are exactly the same problems that businesses face, that security experts face ... ". I can just see an intense cyclone noting the lack of flood control in a remote South African village, and planning to take revenge for Apartheid.  

    Posted by Mr. John Watney on Jan 18, 2012 6:16 PM


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