Guest Host: Matt McCleskey

The octopus may be nature’s most clever adapter. When faced with a threat, the sea-dwelling mollusks have been known to strangle sharks with their tentacles, venture into the open air for food, and use coconut shells tossed in the ocean as armor. Marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin thinks we humans could learn a lot from the way animals like the octopus react to threats. We talk to him about what nature can teach us about adaptability, interdependence, and organization that can help us meet threats in a more effective way.


  • Rafe Sagarin Researcher, University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment; author, 'Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease' (Basic Books, 2012)

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  • 12:23:33

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5. I'm sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. When animals realize they're facing a threat, they can't haul out jersey barriers, metal detectors or armored vehicles to help ward it off the way people might. But marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin thinks what they do instead -- adapt and react quickly to dangerous situations -- form symbiotic -- they know when you're perfect alliances.

  • 12:24:00

    MR. MATT MCCLESKEYThese things can sometimes be more beneficial, and he says we have a lot to learn from the animals around us. He joins me now in studio. Rafe Sagarin, marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, and his new book is "Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease." Thanks so much for being here.

  • 12:24:20

    MR. RAFE SAGARINThanks. It's great to be here.

  • 12:24:22

    MCCLESKEYYou grew up exploring the sand flats and marshes of Cape Cod, and watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, setting you on your career path. But you also spent time in Washington, and that inspired you to apply some of your knowledge of marine life to the world of security. Tell us why you were here and when that was.

  • 12:24:37

    SAGARINWell, I was here little after 9/11. I was working as a congressional science fellow, as a science advisor for Congresswoman Hilda Solis. And because the environmental issues that I thought I would be working on weren't very prominent in that Congress, I spent a lot of time just acting like a naturalist, just like back in my tide pools, looking at all this new security that was coming out after 9/11 in D.C. and really looking at that from a biologist's perspective.

  • 12:25:05

    MCCLESKEYWell, how do you make that connection between looking -- the observation as a biologist would observe, and then looking at what the national security priorities should be?

  • 12:25:15

    SAGARINWell, what really struck me through that year of observing that system grow up is how different it was from the tide pools that I studied. Every day I go down to the tide pools in Monterey where I work, I'd see something different. There was always change and variability constantly. And yet, what I was seeing in D.C. was all these new security measures, and then they would stay exactly the same. And that really troubled me because I thought that's not how adaptable systems work.

  • 12:25:43

    MCCLESKEYOne point in the book you mentioned going through the metal detectors and putting your hand over keys, so they wouldn't go off. And sort of everyone became used to that idea that that could happen, but then nothing really changed in terms of what was being detected.

  • 12:25:55

    SAGARINExactly. So if Capitol Hill staffers who wanted to save 30 seconds could figure out how to get around the system, imagine what a terrorist could do who really wanted to get around the system. And so that's when I really started thinking, I've got to learn a lot more about how adaptability works and how security and nature works because, in fact, nature has all the same problems we have, which is that we live in a risky world, and it's completely unpredictable. And yet nature's been doing it for 3.5 billion years and thriving.

  • 12:26:24

    MCCLESKEYWell, your book focuses on a number of different animals, but in the title, of course, it mentions the octopus. What is it about the octopus that shows us adaptability that then could also be helpful in terms of figuring out responses to the human problems?

  • 12:26:38

    SAGARINWell, I like octopuses because they do so many different things to keep themselves secure, but one of the most important things, that's general to most biological organisms, is that they have this decentralized security system. So they have a lot of cells spread out throughout their bodies.

  • 12:26:54

    SAGARINFor example, skin cells that each individually is changing to match its environment, and that gives the octopuses a whole -- that beautiful camouflage rather than its central brain saying, arm one turn red, arm two turn purple, arm three turn yellow. Likewise, we have an immune system that has cells all over our body that are responding to pathogens and developing the right responses without back and forth to our central brain.

  • 12:27:20

    MCCLESKEYWell, seems like in that model then, the octopus or our immune systems are -- each individual piece acting as it needs to act to respond to whatever the threat may be. How does that compare to, say, national security decisions that are perhaps made from a top-down sort of decision-making process?

  • 12:27:37

    SAGARINWell, you see it right away. As soon as 9/11 happened, we all scrambled, and our solution was exactly the wrong thing to do, create this Department of Homeland Security -- a big top-down organization. And in their first task after 9/11 which was hurricane Katrina, of course, everyone was asking, where is FEMA? Where is FEMA? Well, you got to look at the org chart and FEMA became one little box in this whole stack of boxes in Department of Homeland Security.

  • 12:28:01

    SAGARINNow, I'm not saying we need to get rid of the Department of Homeland Security or any of our big bureaucracies, but what I try to do in the book is explain how we can inculcate or infect adaptability into any kind of organization.

  • 12:28:15

    MCCLESKEYOne of the points bring up in the book is talking about the soldiers in Iraq who didn’t have armor on the bottoms of their vehicles and how they were at particular threat to improvised explosive devices and how we didn't have those -- enough of the armored vehicles, but then how they begin improvising themselves and collecting armor, putting it on the bottoms themselves, working on an individual basis. How does that example compare in terms of looking to the animal world and then to the human world about how we're reacting to -- adapting in changing threats?

  • 12:28:48

    SAGARINWell, the IED situation in Iraq and Afghanistan is a particularly tragic example of what happens when we don't adapt or use our most adaptable assets, which are, in fact, those soldiers on the ground who, like the skin cells of the octopus or our immune system, recognize very early this IED threat. But you may recall when a soldier brought this to attention of Secretary Rumsfeld.

  • 12:29:10

    SAGARINHe said, well, soldier, you go to war with the Army you have, which was really not an adaptable statement. And the outcry that came from that exchange lead the Department of Defense and its top-down way to produce more armored vehicles, but they took three years to get into combat there. In that time, over 1,300 troops died due to IEDs.

  • 12:29:32

    SAGARINSo the soldiers on the ground then turned to another hallmark of adaptable systems, which is creating symbiotic partnerships and often partnerships with absolute enemies, and that's what soldiers on the ground did. They created partnerships with people that used to be shooting at them, people that used to be making bombs, and they started getting information from those people. And that's when you see the big decline in the IED threat in Iraq well before those armored vehicles came out into theater.

  • 12:30:00

    MCCLESKEYWell, then I seem to be hearing, are that humans are adaptable. In fact, I would imagine we're one of the more adaptive species, although you could tell more than that that than I could certainly say. But given that we do have that innate adaptability and the ability to innovate and think of new solutions to problems, where does the disconnect come in then between the individual and then the structural, perhaps, constraints of the bureaucracy or just large organizations?

  • 12:30:25

    SAGARINYeah, you make a great point. We are absolutely a wonderfully adaptable species, and for 99 percent of our existence, we lived in an environment where we were constantly challenged to adapt and adapt further and many, many humans still today are forced to adapt on a daily basis. They still live in that struggle for survival, but many of us don't.

  • 12:30:43

    SAGARINAnd what we see is in cases where we're forced to survive, like these young officers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and the people in their charge, they become very adaptable. But when we're insulated from that, we need to sort of jump-start our adaptability. And the thing -- the disconnect that you talk about happens when we rely too much on small groups of experts to issue orders and say, this is what the rest of you have to do.

  • 12:31:15

    SAGARINWe've come up with the best solution. What I advocate is to jump-start adaptability. We switch from giving orders to issuing challenges. Challenges is when an organization or a leader says, here's a problem we're all facing. Who of you can figure out the best way to solve this problem? And then you get that activity of multiple, multiple sensors, seeing what the problem is and coming up with multiple different solutions, just like that octopus has multiple different solutions to problems. We can encourage people to develop those solutions by issuing challenges.

  • 12:31:49

    MCCLESKEYWhat do you think we could learn from the animal world? Give us a call. The phones are open, the number 800-433-8850. You can also send us an email at You can connect through our Facebook page as well or send a tweet, @kojoshow. We're speaking with Rafe Sagarin, the author of "Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease."

  • 12:32:13

    MCCLESKEYAnd tell us about some of the other animals that you look at in the book. The octopus, we've already addressed to some degree, but what are some others that we can take lessons from?

  • 12:32:21

    SAGARINWell, there's so many different animals, and that's what I love about this topic 'cause they're sort of this infinite database to mine. Some of the interesting ones that you wouldn't suspect, like ground squirrels -- you think it's a pretty boring animal -- ground squirrels have a very precise way of communicating with their enemies. So if they're faced with a coyote or a hawk that they see, they will make an alarm call to that predator.

  • 12:32:47

    SAGARINAnd what it does is it tells the predator, you can't sneak up on me. You don't have the advantage of uncertainty on your side anymore. It also warns other ground squirrels. But they won't make an alarm call if they see a snake in the area because snakes don't hear. What they'll do is they'll puff up their tail and shake it around, and it gets even better because only if that snake is a rattlesnake will they also heat up their tail because rattlesnakes see in infrared.

  • 12:33:13

    SAGARINSo what you see is this communication between predator and prey, and it's designed to deal with the uncertainty that predators are always trying to create for their prey. But it has to be very tightly wound to what the predator is perceiving and what we tend to do, like in airports for several years until recently, we said, oh, it's code level orange. And it was constantly code level orange.

  • 12:33:36

    SAGARINWell, that tells our predators or adversaries, in fact, that we know nothing about what they're doing, whereas this ground squirrel says, I know exactly what you're up to. I know how you perceive me. You're not going to sneak up on me.

  • 12:33:48

    MCCLESKEYNow, of these attributes, perhaps they've been selected for over eons to be able to get animals to the point where they reacted this way. For humans trying to learn lessons from the animals, you mentioned earlier this idea of jumpstarting adaptability or innovation. Speak a little bit of the difference in time scale we're looking at there.

  • 12:34:08

    SAGARINWell, one of the interesting things we're learning as biologists is, in fact, that evolution can happen very, very quickly. So it's no longer just the eons and eons, multiple, multiple, years and years, but evolution happens very quickly. We're seeing that at the genetic level. But in fact, when you activate multiple, multiple sensors as you can do by issuing these challenges, you can have very quick reaction times.

  • 12:34:34

    SAGARINAnd you just look at the difference, for example, between developing weapon systems and the typical DOD top-down model where one contractor gets awarded multi-billion dollars versus DARPA, which is this branch of DOD that issues challenges to develop new technology. And they just issue it broadly to university engineering departments and that kind of thing, and they get results very, very quickly.

  • 12:34:57

    SAGARINAnd they keep iterating those results by saying, let's next year's challenge is going to even more difficult or the next challenge next week is going to be more difficult. And so you can create essentially generations of new solutions very quickly by just re-running these challenges and maybe making them a little more difficult, pulling out the successes. And that's one of the big lessons from nature that we tend to hear the opposite of, but nature really learns from success.

  • 12:35:24

    SAGARINIt replicates those things that work. Every living thing is an example of its ancestors' successes. And we often hear business gurus talking these days, oh, we've got to learn from our failures. It's really important to learn from our failures. We actually focus far too much on our failures. Those only tell us what to do if the exact same thing happens again. They don't give us any positive guidance for what works and what can go forward. And so we really need to switch to that, and that's another way to accelerate the learning process and the evolutionary adaptability process.

  • 12:35:55

    MCCLESKEYHave you ever learned something by observing an animal? Tell us the lessons that you took away. Call 800-433-8850. That's the phone number to take part in the conversation. You can also email us at with your comments. Rafe Sagarin, a minute ago, you were talking about the ground squirrels and their alarms. Now, through technology, humans -- we've been able to create warning systems for everything, from smoke detectors to tsunami warnings following earthquakes.

  • 12:36:21

    MCCLESKEYBut it turns out we sometimes ignore this after being desensitized by false alarms. How does that compare and what lessons can we learn there from nature in terms of taking note of these alarms we've created?

  • 12:36:33

    SAGARINYeah. It's again about the sensitivity of the observations that are made. These technological sensors that we have, for example, after the tsunami in Asia -- there was a big rush by the international community to get tsunami warning systems out. But even some of the hardest hit areas eventually turned off their tsunami warning systems because they gave too many false alarms. And yet the animals that they're surrounded by did not give false alarms.

  • 12:36:58

    SAGARINWhen those animals start acting strangely, the villagers now know, wow, there is something coming. We ought to pay attention because they have such keen observational senses. And that really speaks to another idea in the book, which is that nature provides us with a lot of security systems that we take for granted or sometimes take away out our perils. So I'm talking about not only the domestic and wild animals that act strangely before tsunamis but also things like wetlands and mangrove forests, which provide protection from a lot of the natural disasters we face.

  • 12:37:32

    SAGARINBut when we take those away or drive a canal straight through wetlands as they did in New Orleans, which was basically a red welcome mat for Hurricane Katrina to come straight up into New Orleans, then we've actually worked against ourselves and worked against the adaptability that's provided completely free from nature.

  • 12:37:51

    MCCLESKEYWell, do you think our technology -- whether it is an alarm system that perhaps goes off falsely sometimes or if it is the canal, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet that leads directly into New Orleans, do you think these things have overall dulled our instincts? The fact that we can do something technologically or engineering wise make us think we should do it or just because we can, we should go ahead?

  • 12:38:15

    SAGARINOf course, it's a mixed bag. I mean, technology, as we've developed throughout our tenure as humans on Earth, has done wonderful things to protect us from a lot of the daily threats that we face. And yet the feedback is that it's insolated us a bit from getting signals from nature and adapting to them. But, now, we're coming to a period where technology is becoming available in such a way that it can help us get back to those feedback loops.

  • 12:38:42

    SAGARINSo I'm talking about very cheap cellular phone technology, which allows people even in the poorest country to start reporting in real time when they're seeing disease outbreaks and that kind of thing. And then that information can be use to make appropriate responses, which never could have been done if you just had teams of U.N. observers going into certain parts of certain countries. You need to have those observers everywhere.

  • 12:39:05

    SAGARINAnd technology now gives us that ability to really connect in a networked way observers from all over the place, even in the most remote places. So in a way, it's bringing us back to our adaptable selves.

  • 12:39:19

    MCCLESKEYOne of the things you mentioned in the book that stood out to me was the Google Flu initiative where they're tracking -- where people around the country search for information about the flu and found out that just by looking at that, it tracked almost perfectly with the CDC's numbers that came out sometime later, actually hearing from doctors about where cases had been. So more of a real-time ability to keep track of things?

  • 12:39:43

    SAGARINExactly. And you see the difference right there. People searching Google gives you real-time information, all these distributed observers. The CDC needs to compile their surveys, bring them back to Atlanta, write up a report of them and publish that. That comes out about two weeks after Google Flu Trends can provide that information. And two weeks, when you're talking about a potential pandemic, is massively important in terms of fighting flu.

  • 12:40:08

    MCCLESKEYWe're speaking with Rafe Sagarin about his book "Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters and Disease." We're going to take a short break, but we'll come right back and get to your phone calls. We do have the lines open. You can also still call in, 800-433-8850. You can send an email to And we look forward to continue the conversation just on the other side of this break.

  • 12:42:22

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey, local host of "Morning Edition" here on WAMU 88.5, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're speaking with Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist at the institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona. His new book is "Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters and Disease." I do want to go to our phone lines now. First, let's go to Tom calling from Middleburg, Va. Tom, thanks for calling. Good afternoon.

  • 12:42:48

    TOMHi. How are you? Thanks for the call. I have a very good friend, whose name is Josh Rosenthal, and I just wonder if your guest knew him. He's a marine biologist who's now in Puerto Rico, but he was in Monterey. And he has just been published on -- a study on octopus and how they can actually change their DNA by water temperature. And he, as I say, has just been published and has been working on that. Are you aware of Josh or his work?

  • 12:43:14

    SAGARINYeah. Josh is an old friend of mine from the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey. And I'm happy to hear that he's working on that. I haven't read that recent study. But certainly, new things that we're learning about DNA in general -- and these jumping genes and this kind of thing is absolutely amazing to us as biologists -- is how, again, speaking with the idea of how rapid evolutionary change can happen.

  • 12:43:38

    SAGARINAnd we are just learning all kinds of new things. It's almost like, in biology, we're in a whole new period of discovery. And I'm really happy and not surprised to hear that Josh is leading some of that work.

  • 12:43:48

    MCCLESKEYAll right. Well, Tom, thanks so much for your call. Let's go to Ralph now in Falls Church, Va. Ralph, you're on the air.

  • 12:43:54

    RALPHHi. Thank you for taking my call. I have been a DARPA program manager for 10 years, which is about as innovative as you get in the Defense Department. I created foreign language computer games that teach foreign languages to the foreign-language-impaired soldiers. I'd like to point out that there's another side to biomimetics, which is -- it's explained well by Steve Vogel's "Cats' Paws and Catapults," a book I highly recommend. And the point is that evolution is extremely constraining to the possible solution that you can take. Now, people aren't nearly as highly constrained.

  • 12:44:38

    RALPHOne example is that -- for example, you might want to look at or think you want to look at a dolphin's sonar as an example for marine warfare. But dolphins optimize their metabolic cost for catching fish. And if they miss a fish or two, that's probably good. But if you miss a mine or two, that's terrible. And if you have a dolphin system that works that way, you're going to get blown up. So you just have to look at the other side of this biomimetics issue. That's my point.

  • 12:45:21

    MCCLESKEYTrue. Thanks, Ralph, for your call. And, Rafe Sagarin, we're talking about the specifics of particular animals and how they react as ways that humans should try to emulate or more of the process?

  • 12:45:32

    SAGARINYeah. I think the caller's point speaks exactly to why I'm really looking a lot at the process and not a one-to-one mimic of what's in nature because, just as with my environmental policy work, I recognize that there's not a direct translation from the best science to the best policy. There's all sorts of filters which are economic, political, ethical filters that we have to go through, and I acknowledge those before you take what happens in nature and apply it to what happens in our society.

  • 12:46:03

    SAGARINSo it's really important to recognize and be able to identify where those disconnects are. Where does the dolphin system come up short if we want to apply it to something where we have less-risk tolerance? So thank you for the caller.

  • 12:46:15

    MCCLESKEYAnd Ralph also mentioned he worked with DARPA. And you talked about challenges earlier as an idea to jumpstart adaptability. Has DARPA been particularly engaged in that?

  • 12:46:24

    SAGARINYeah. DARPA is a great model where, instead of saying one contractor do this, make this for us, they say, anyone who can solve this problem, let's solve it. And in some cases recently, some of their challenges have been solved way faster than even the DARPA people thought they would have been solved. And this kind of challenge-based approach is being replicated all over the place. There were biologists who struggled forever to try to figure out conformations of protein folding.

  • 12:46:50

    SAGARINSo some biologists made a video game that gamers online competed with one another to come up with the best protein folding solutions and came up with many solutions much faster, and many unexpected solutions, that the biologists just didn't come around to.

  • 12:47:06

    MCCLESKEYLet's go to another call now, Bill, calling from Alexandria in Virginia. Bill, thanks for calling. You're on the air.

  • 12:47:13

    BILLHi. Thanks for taking my call. I heard that during the tsunami in Southeast Asia that there was a remote tribe that just followed the animals to higher grounds and avoided the tidal wave. I wanted to know, one, if that was true and, two, if it was -- if it is true, how do we -- you know, since we're so -- since we're not so immersed in nature like, obviously, they are, how do we -- how can we learn from that and develop some sort of ability that connect that way?

  • 12:47:43

    MCCLESKEYWell, Rafe Sagarin, have you heard anything about that?

  • 12:47:46

    SAGARINI don't know the particular story. It would not surprise me at all. We are learning in ecology just how much information people who are close to nature on a daily basis, whether through traditional lifestyles or through their livelihoods as fishermen or as foresters, really understand about the changes in nature. For example, I do know that in the recent Japanese tsunami, fishermen recalled, as this huge swell went under their boat -- because if you're offshore, you don't feel a tsunami as a giant wave. You feel it as a big swell.

  • 12:48:18

    SAGARINThey recalled their grandfathers saying if the ocean swells, go out. So they didn't go in the shore. They went offshore. And they saved their lives and their boats because they had this wisdom that was handed down through generation. And that speaks to a really important point, which is -- as the caller said, we're getting disconnected from nature. We're losing that connection and our understanding.

  • 12:48:40

    SAGARINSo the first thing is we've got to make better observers out of ourselves. And that means getting our kids back out into nature, stop being afraid of sending our kids into the parks and that kind of thing, and avoiding this -- bring everyone inside and put everyone in front of a screen. So that's what I say to ecologists, and it's equally important to keeping ourselves secure. It's really having a good sense of changes in nature.

  • 12:49:05

    MCCLESKEYDo you think humans tend to ignore their instincts? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. You can send us an email at Again, that number, 800-433-8850. One thing you mentioned, in terms of looking at the idea of natural selection, is that people can often -- tend to hold out for an ideal solution to a problem or seek perfection.

  • 12:49:29

    MCCLESKEYWe're going to -- this is going to fix any possible thing that's going to come down the pike, regardless of what it is. But perhaps that's a waste of time when you look at the natural world rather than responding to the threat immediately at hand.

  • 12:49:43


  • 12:49:43

    MCCLESKEYLet's talk about that a bit.

  • 12:49:44

    SAGARINSo three things that nature doesn't do: It doesn't plan, it doesn't predict and it doesn't try to perfect itself. And we waste so much effort and time in strategic planning, in exercises to perfect ourselves or optimize ourselves. And I point out this fish, the Mola mola, the ocean sunfish. It's the ugliest fish you've ever seen. It looks like half a fish. And if you are ever asked to plan or design a fish, you'd never make a fish like that. And yet it's been incredibly successful because it solves problems in the environment, and it found a niche where it works.

  • 12:50:18

    SAGARINNow, in the human realm, my friend Terry Taylor has helped to organize health networks. These are symbiotic networks of health practitioners between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians. They are all working together, sharing information, sharing medical technology, sharing patient data to understand when there are outbreaks of diseases, which don't care at all about what side of the wall that disease comes out on because it's going to come on the other side of the wall.

  • 12:50:47

    SAGARINAnd so there's an example where these guys are working together, not for peace in the Middle East. They are not trying to make a perfect solution to their problems. They are trying to solve the immediate problem, and it works very well because they're focused on the problem, not focused on the entire situation around there, and trying to have an optimal solution.

  • 12:51:07

    MCCLESKEYWhat are some other examples of organizations or situations around the world where this type of adaptability has helped? You mentioned learning from success as opposed to learning from failure. What are some other examples?

  • 12:51:18

    SAGARINWell, certainly, there's been a lot of successful examples of this challenge-based kind of approach. The company 3M, which is certainly a fairly traditional company, it's not really like Google, but they're -- they wanted to reduce their environmental impact. And instead of the CEO printing out a bunch of memos and sending to everyone, saying, recycle 20 percent more, they said, anyone in any department who can reduce our environmental footprint, give us some ideas.

  • 12:51:45

    SAGARINAnd so you had administrative assistants figuring out ways that they can massively reduce paper. You had chemists figuring out ways they can reduce their chemical waste. You had engineers figuring out how could they improve the efficiency of the HVAC systems, and so you had a system where 3M saved hundreds of millions of dollars, massively reduced their environmental impact.

  • 12:52:07

    SAGARINAnd they had about 8,000 solutions proposed, and all people got in return was something like a certificate, saying, thank you for participating in this program. That's the amazing thing. People want to solve problems. When you issue the right challenge, you really don't need a huge incentive to make it work and get multiple different solutions coming in, which is just how nature does it.

  • 12:52:29

    SAGARINObserve as much as you can and get as many different solutions onto a problem as you can without worrying about am I doing this optimally, or am I planning for something that may or may not happen in the future because the world is very unpredictable.

  • 12:52:44

    MCCLESKEYIn terms of national security, though, I want to ask, when you're looking -- this gets back to what our caller, who had worked for DARPA, earlier mentioned as well, where, if you're planning on trying to prevent a threat, for example, you need to get it right all of the time. When you're looking at natural selection, some things work. Some things don't. Is there a lesson to be learned there, or are the stakes higher, perhaps, in human security?

  • 12:53:06

    SAGARINWell, they are, and, of course, we can't operate in the same way that nature does, where there's a lot of death and injury on the route to getting better systems. But, because we have this complex mind, which is one of the few differences we have with most of the rest of the natural world, is we can attempt and often do make simulations or scenarios that envision possible different futures. But the main thing is that we often try to do that risk elimination when it's too late, when it's already well past the point.

  • 12:53:40

    SAGARINSo we screen everyone for shoes now in airports because someone in the past tried to bomb an airliner with a shoe. So we're reacting rather than creating a system that can deal with problems going forward. And that kind of massively observational system that I'm talking about that you stimulate by issuing these kind of challenges is one way to get ahead of the problem so that you're perceiving problems as they -- as they're emerging rather than after they're long past.

  • 12:54:11

    MCCLESKEYMm. Let's go back to the phones now, turn to Michael, calling from Washington, D.C. Good afternoon, Michael.

  • 12:54:16

    MICHAELHi. Good afternoon to you. So I was just listening to the show and the point that you're talking about, how do we learn from nature or react to it? And, basically, I grew up in Africa, and my grandmother would always tell us when it was going to rain. Or they would tell us when something -- if it was going to be dry for that season. One of the things is they looked at the leaves of the trees. And if the leaves were looking downwards, they would tell us it was going to rain.

  • 12:54:42

    MICHAELSo what they used to say is that the leaves are trying to protect themselves from standing up and being faced by the rain. And most of the time it would actually rain. And also, sometimes they would look at the patterns of -- if they would see a lot of snakes running around or a lot of the animals moving into the (word?) at a certain time of the day, they would tell us it's going to be dry, just based on the fact that the snakes are trying to move from one region to another.

  • 12:55:07

    MICHAELSo that's something that I've seen, and I've learned from them that we can actually predict weather patterns. We could also predict what kind of climate or environment it's going to turn into just by just looking at how the animals behaved.

  • 12:55:20

    MCCLESKEYAnd these are very -- thanks -- first of all, thanks for your call, Michael. These are very real instances where it's a direct connection.

  • 12:55:27

    SAGARINYeah. Thank you so much for that call. And those are really beautiful examples of combining both a very keen observational sense, which is better than most modern naturalists would have, scientific naturalists, with stories and lore that can be passed on. And as an ecologist, I'm very sensitive to this now, that both the observational and the storytelling aspect are important for seeing the change and then being able to communicate that change broadly.

  • 12:55:59

    SAGARINThere is no need that your grandmother needed to get into the whole biochemistry of why the leaves go up and down. She had a good narrative that connected for anyone in your community how the likely weather was going to connect to what you could observe about the world around you. So thank you for that call. I appreciate it.

  • 12:56:18

    MCCLESKEYWe're coming up towards the end of the hour, and I want to get to the issues one of our callers is raising here, Patrick calling from Falls Church in Virginia. He's writing a paper on instinct, and he says, "Are instincts inborn, or can we -- can it be taught as well?"

  • 12:56:33

    SAGARINWell, that's a really good question, and I don't think it's completely resolved. There are certain things that we do instinctually. For example, we'll pull our hand away from a fire because there's a long history where fire could hurt us. But one thing we don't do instinctually, which we need to relearn, is moderate our intake of sugar or fats because, for 99 percent of our existence, we could not possibly, no matter how hard we worked, get enough sugar or fat.

  • 12:57:01

    SAGARINNow that sugar and fat has become so cheap and so available, we never developed a psychological or a physical shutdown mechanism. When we take sugar in or fat in, we just say, more, more, more, more. So there's an example, a contrast of something instinctual that keeps us safe and something we never developed an instinct for, where we need to teach that, oh, this is something dangerous to us in our modern society.

  • 12:57:26

    MCCLESKEYWell, we're almost to the end of the hour. One more question perhaps, the most important yet this hour: If we have more than one octopus, is it octopuses or octopi?

  • 12:57:35

    SAGARINI've heard about 10 years ago an octopus researcher said it is octopuses, and I'm going to stick to that. I think it sounds nicer than octopi.

  • 12:57:43

    MCCLESKEYAll right. Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona, his new book is "Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease." Rafe Sagarin, thanks so much for joining us.

  • 12:57:56

    SAGARINThank you so much. It was a pleasure to be here.

  • 12:57:58

    MCCLESKEYAnd I'm Matt McCleskey, sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. Thanks for listening.

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