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

ISBN-13: 978-0465021833 ISBN-10: 0465021832

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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: 9.4 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #671,902 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


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.

More About the Author

I am a marine ecologist at the Institute of the Environment at University of Arizona. I do research on everything from the historical and current sizes of intertidal gastropods (snails) to helping businesses and governments learn to be adaptable by looking at how nature is adaptable. I am particularly interested in the Sea of Cortez, or Gulf of California, its ecological history, and the fascinating people past and present who have lived, worked, researched and journeyed there. I've taken a few forays into ecological philosophy, especially focused on the work of Ed "Doc" Ricketts, whose lab was a center of early bohemian intellectual thoughts in the early mid 20th century central California. I have also been getting fired up recently about the idea of reviving the Public Trust Doctrine as a central organizing theme for conservation.

I have completed two books with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship. The first, Learning from the Octopus is about what we can learn from 3.5 billion years of evolution to improve our security in society (Basic Books, 2012). See www.learningfromtheoctopus.com for more. The other, with Anibal Pauchard, called Observation and Ecology: Broadening the Scope of Science to Understand a Complex World is on how big environmental changes are changing the way we study life sciences; forcing ecologists back into practicing good old fashioned natural history, albeit at huge scales of space and time using all kinds of new technologies like remote sensing, genetics and critter cams, and opening the doors of academia to all kinds of observers of change in the natural world (Island Press, 2012).

When I'm not writing books that will actually get published I'm working on screenplays that likely will never see the big screen (unless, you, dear reader, are interested in producing a movie about a Mexican immigrant girl who becomes a pro bull rider, or a California coast love story with a Volkswagen Thing as the central metaphor), and doing little works of art under the LINOZOIC name. Samples are available at www.linozoic.com

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mark on April 30, 2012
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.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By African Queen on April 11, 2012
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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.
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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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By D. Wayne Dworsky on November 21, 2013
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.
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Who would have thought that the simple sea creature we call the Octopus could teach us so much about not only survival but our nature and the unlimited resources that keep us alive. The life style of this incredible creature has lived for eons in an envrionment that should have eliminated it long ago. Through evolution of defensive change, the Octopus and other Cephalopods can change color and skin texture in a split second and back again. To appreciate the depth of this book, order Amazon's the NOVA special "Cuttlefish Kings Of Camouflage". I have to say amazing. You will never look at these creatures the same way again.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Michael A. Wood on June 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Learning from the Octopus: How secrets from nature can help us fight terrorist attacks, natural disasters, and disease By: Rafe Sagarin

Overall: 4 out of 5 Stars

First and foremost, this book should be required reading and studying for every single military and law enforcement member in the U.S. and our allies, we do not want our adversaries adapting these lessons.

In Learning from the Octopus, Rafe Sagarin makes some extremely compelling arguments for the lessons found all over nature that can enhance public safety in a multitude of fashions. I make this evaluation from a point of experience, as I have been a police supervisor in Baltimore, and a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. From the inappropriate allocation of resources of the TSA to the mismanagement that is rooted in law enforcement, Rafe Sagarin finds examples of successful implementation of more efficient and better management that has already been proven to work, in nature.

I don't think that the subject matter of better management is anything revolutionary, scholars and successful businesses have been showing law enforcement the better ways to manage for a long time now. What Rafe Sagarin does that is special is bring it down to simple examples that can be understood by all education and experience levels. From the patrol officer just out of the academy to the federal czars, there are simple lessons that can make citizens safer and utilize their money more efficiently.

Creativity: 5 stars I have spent a great deal of effort in my personal writings to try and find a way to break through the wall of comfort that is found in law enforcement.
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