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Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease Hardcover – Mar 27 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (March 27 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465021832
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465021833
  • Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 2.9 x 23.5 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 544 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #427,322 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


Eric Liu, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government
“This book is a provocation and a delight. Rafe Sagarin invites us to look at national security with the eyes not of a state but of nature itself: for recursive patterns, adaptations, and the simple keys to complexity. It’s thrilling to apply the lessons of octopuses, tidepools and other biological systems to defense, intelligence, and government generally. It’s even more thrilling to imagine what our policymakers could learn from this book.”

John Arquilla, Professor of Defense Analysis, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School
“Simply brilliant. Rafe Sagarin is one of the world’s leading lateral thinkers. He can study tidepool life and find insights from it for fighting terrorism. He has harnessed our understanding of nature’s immutable forces—selection, learning and adaptation—and turned them to the task of guiding us to a fresh new security paradigm. Above all, Sagarin sees how networked nature is, and how building our own networks is the best way to defeat the perils our balky security institutions have done so little to overcome.”

Courtney E. Martin, author of Project Rebirth: Survival and the Strength of the Human Spirit from 9/11 Survivors
Learning from the Octopus is not just a brilliant book about natural security, though it is that. It is also a transformative meditation on what attributes are necessary to live a content, modern life—starting with adaptability, imperfection, and interdependence. Rafe Sagarin is not only a rarity in regards to the intersection of his professional gifts—science and writing—but his power to see beyond fear and conformity to what really makes us safe in the world.”

Simon Levin, Moffett Professor of Biology, Princeton University
“In a brilliant and engaging style, Rafe Sagarin moves seamlessly between natural history and security analysis, convincingly making the case that we have much to learn in national security from how evolution has helped organisms meet environmental challenges. Learning from the Octopus is must reading for those charged with protecting our nation, and a delightful excursion for anyone interested in the wonders of the natural world.”

Publishers Weekly
“A marine biologist applies his expertise to national security, delivering some ingenious ideas.... [F]ew readers will deny that Sagarin is onto something.”

Library Journal
“Sagarin uses his ecological knowledge to shed light on national security as well as other hard-to-predict challenges. Highly recommended for ecologists, nature lovers, and those interested in business, organizational change, and security planning.”

“Drawing on life science and evidence from the military and emergency services, Sagarin defines adaptability as the “sweet spot” between reaction and prediction.”
New Scientist
“Sagarin explains biology’s lessons for successful national security with a brisk, clear style, designed for the broadest possible audience. The book will be as informative to a field biologist as a field commander. The natural history examples are linked cleverly and effectively, making surprising and provocative points to prompt discussion of how the flexibility of natural defenses can be used for strategic benefit.”

“[An] open challenge to the status quo.”

The Scientist
Learning from the Octopus is a paean to biomimicry and a handbook on ‘natural security’ from an unlikely, but enlightening, source.”

Foreign Policy in Focus (online)
“Years of marine research provide [Sagarin] with a unique perspective on security issues. His new book’s conclusion: we can learn from nature about being more secure by being more adaptable. Nature, after 3.5 billion years of dealing with risk, is an experienced teacher.”

Natural History
“Sagarin identifies several characteristics of successful species—and you can almost visualize them as bullets on a motivational PowerPoint slide.... The parallels with modern-day security concerns are evident, and Sagarin is quick to cite cases of military efforts hampered by bureaucratic inertia, insurgency strategies that successfully build on cooperative relations with local populations, and the like.... In short, this book lays out some sensible policy suggestions based on biological knowledge.”

Globe and Mail (Canada)
“Despite spending billions of dollars, says marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst Rafe Sagarin, we are no better prepared for a terrorist attack or a flood than we were in 2001. In Learning From the Octopus, Sagarin rethinks the problem of security by drawing inspiration from nature. Biological organisms that have been living on a risk-filled planet for billions of years, with out planning, predicting or trying to perfect responses to complex threats. They simply adapt to solve the challenges they face every day. Sagarin says we can learn to be more adaptable by observing how organisms learn, and create partnerships, how life continually diversifies.”

About the Author

Rafe Sagarin is a marine ecologist and environmental policy analyst at the University of Arizona. Among his many accolades, Sagarin is a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship to support his work on natural security, and he was a Congressional Science Fellow in the office of U.S. Representative Hilda Solis. Sagarin has taught ecology and environmental policy at Duke University, California State University Monterey Bay, and University of California, Los Angeles. His research has appeared in Science, Nature, Foreign Policy, and other leading journals, magazines, and newspapers. He lives with his family in Tucson.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa6487a20) out of 5 stars 17 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa5f98d20) out of 5 stars Superb synthesis of seemingly disparate fields April 30 2012
By Mark - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sagarin eloquently demonstrates how lessons learned from the plant and animal world can be applied to human defense against unexpected threats such as terror attacks, disease epidemics, and natural disaster. The text is loaded with examples, often humorous, of adaptations that living organisms have made to survive. Sagarin does not bog the story down with excessive statistics or data. There are many ideas that show how we could better protect ourselves at lower cost to the dangers in the future. I highly recommend this to fans of Malcolm Gladwell and other "idea books" as a start of a national dialogue.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa5f7b918) out of 5 stars This book made me think about everything in an exciting new way April 11 2012
By African Queen - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love reading, but I usually don't put down a book and think about how it can affect my life and change my way of thinking or doing things. This is a book with take- away. It is stimulating, provocative, deeply intelligent, original and beautifully written. Hopefully it will be a catalyst for institutional change in some branches of government, in business, in the classroom and at home. It has ideas that can work for bringing up children. I recommend it to everyone. It is a terrific read (I am not a scientist) and will change your perspective.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa5f9b144) out of 5 stars Secrets From Nature Nov. 21 2013
By D. Wayne Dworsky - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
At last, a voice rises from the depths of the vast bureaucratic doldrums to address the most pressing issues we face today. Security expert and ecologist, Rafe Sagarin, arrives with a unique perspective on what should be obvious about nature. He teaches us exactly how to use natural resources that have evolved by nature to combat changing and unpredictable world threats in his illuminating book, Learning from the Octopus. He shows how each natural system works in punctilious detail, previewing how we can save precious time, effort and money. He cleverly singles out the octopus for having won the grand prize for both camouflage and defensive strategies. Here is an animal worth studying and learning from.

The politician, lawyer, author, professor and commentator, Gary Hart, presents a praising preface that brings this delightful and insightful book to life. The naturalist's view of the world is so captivating that I wonder how long this untapped resource can be neglected. As Hart notes, the tide is changing. The enormous governmental waste patterns cannot be ignored forever. The greatest empires that ever ruled the Earth lay in ruins, reinforcing the urgent need for a change towards effective action.

Sagarin's emerging proposal of natural defense is featured on his road tour promotion from Tucson to Washington, San Francisco, Seattle and Silver Springs, MD. One of his biggest peeves is that despite access to high-tech security and nearly limitless resources, humans have a poor track record. US reaction to security threats amounts to nothing more than closing the barnyard door after the horse escapes. Millions of years of evolution have allowed issues of security in the natural world to be addressed in the most effective way. Animals are much more in-tuned to natural cycles and events than humans are, anticipating disasters long before they occur. Sagarin invites the reader to re-examine our ineffective bureaucratic maze and compare it to the much leaner, more efficient natural system used by the creatures of nature. He is completely aware of the natural rhythms and looks upon the simpler, cost-effective techniques that shelters animal life and keeps nature in balance.

We need more progressive thinkers like Sagarin to encourage us and guide us through a hostile world in the 21st Century. With the help of people like Sagarin, we can be led into the future with a sense of pride and security. Rafe Sargarin makes the mark and some--summer reading at its most enduring and enriching best.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa5f9800c) out of 5 stars Snorkling could save your life June 21 2012
By Robert C Ross - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Sound unlikely to you?

Rafe Sagarin makes a pretty good case that it could.

"Adaptation requires leaving or being forced from your comfort zone." Sagarin is very comfortable in the tidepools; he watches with wonder as a rock suddenly turns into an octopus, moving at great speed away from danger. He himself moves out of his comfort zone to present his findings on the search for security in Congress in Washington D.C.

He believes that one of the most important attributes of adaptable systems is the ability to "observe and make patterns out of complex systems, including nature itself. Yet studies show that this ability is being compromised by the fact that we spend less and less time outdoors and observing nature."

He believes we have to work with technology, of course, in order to adapt to the new social networks that our technologies are forcing upon us. At the same time, he worries that distancing ourselves from nature weakens our ability to adapt to other changes. As a hiker and an early adapter of almost any electronic device I can find, it was great fun to see if either tendency carried over into the enjoyment and the challenges of the other universe.

One of Sagarin's heroes in this book is Geerat Vermeij, a blind paleontologist. Two of his books make fascinating reading: The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization and A Natural History of Shells (Princeton Science Library).

Vermeij discovered that most adaptable organisms are decentralized), but Sagarin finds multiple lessons in Vermeij's life to achieve adaptability in society.

In Talking to the Enemy: Faith, Brotherhood, and the (Un)Making of Terrorists, Scott Atran suggests that "symbolic concessions" can lead to negotiation; Sagarin challenges the reader to use these concession in your own work or personal life.

Some of the most interesting sections of Sagarin's boo describes both honest and dishonest signals organisms use when communicating with their partners and their enemies. Some of his examples for how I might do the same seemed a little extreme, dishonest even, but made me think hard about whether my moral compunctions might have been preventing me from accomplishing reasonable goals, without doing harm to others.

He discusses several techniques for learning; as I get older, it appears learning new skills can be very important for avoiding dementia, and I read these sections with real care: rote associative learning teaching dogs to avoid rattlesnakes, to what he calls "highly adaptive learning" -- identifying patterns in complex situations.

I struggled with the concept of an "adaptable cascade" Sagarin seems to believe that leaders should shift from giving orders to issuing challenges. I don't give orders very often, but I do think that in a close, family relationship it is important to let other members of the family know specifically what will make you happy or unhappy. Challenges? I'm having trouble figuring out how to put that concept into practice.

Nonetheless, despite not always getting what Sagarin is suggesting, I found much of interest, much to enjoy, and hopefully much to learn from this fascinating book.

Robert C. Ross
June 2012
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa5f96cd8) out of 5 stars Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease Sept. 4 2012
By seun - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Talking about being adaptive to the ever changing situation in our dynamic world, we need to unlearn the old method of learning from our mistakes and stop believing some people out there are doing things to us and learn to adapt.