In 2005 marine biologist Rafe Sagarin had the simple but brilliant idea of asking whether there are lessons from the 3.5 billion years of life on Earth for improving homeland and international security. At the time, not long after 9/11, there were major counter-terrorism efforts around the world, a rise of rogue states and WMD proliferation, counter-insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and major natural disasters such as rapidly receding polar ice caps and Hurricane Katrina. Scholars and practitioners of domestic and international security were scrambling for new approaches to deal with a litany of novel and rapidly changing threats.

Rafe’s insights led to the “Natural Security” project, an interdisciplinary working group of collaborators in Europe and the United States, representing the diverse disciplines of anthropology, animal behavior, biology, ecology, evolution, political science and psychology, as well as engaging with a range of policy professionals and practitioners. Key among these is project co-leader Terry Taylor, a career British army officer, founder of IISS in Washington, D.C. and now president of ICLS (the International Council for the Life Sciences). His experience and expertise in linking up the research and policy worlds was vital in making the project a success.

The core idea is to use insights from biology and evolution to tackle an empirical challenge we face in the real world. Compared to past conflicts between clear-cut nation states, international security in the 21st century is dominated by unpredictable, rapidly changing threats from non-state actors such as terrorism, insurgency, ethnic violence, WMD proliferation, pandemic diseases, and climate change. Currently, we lack a unified strategy to deal with this novel security environment. Novel challenges need novel responses, and this project offers a novel approach informed by the evolutionary sciences.

While unpredictable and rapidly changing threats may appear to be a novelty for security in the human realm, they have been a constant problem for biological organisms since the dawn of life on Earth, 3.5 billion years ago. Since then, at least 100 million species have evolved and gone extinct, all of which faced threats to their security—competition, predation, resource scarcity, extreme heat and cold, weather, environmental disasters—and evolution has responded with a host of adaptations to optimize their prospects of survival and reproduction. These adaptations include an array of physiological and behavioral strategies, spanning sensory and immune systems, methods of self-healing, genetic diversity, complex nervous systems and remarkable organizational behavior. Our “natural security” project asks whether we can derive useful lessons from this massive natural experiment to help solve problems of human security in the 21st century.

Obviously, interactions among biological organisms have many differences from interactions among humans in the modern world. However, there are also many similarities and common patterns that make lessons from nature extremely valuable.

First, humans are biological organisms themselves, so evolution is essential to our understanding of human physiology, psychology, and behavior—even in the modern world (see Jonah Lehrer’s Frontal Cortex blog for lots of examples). For this reason, a new and expanding area of research on international security has begun to focus on the role of human biology, with exciting new experimental and empirical research ( on how human judgment and decision-making is influenced by genetics, endocrinology, neuroscience, and psychology.

Second, the power of Darwin’s theory is that the process of adaptation by natural selection applies to any interacting agents, biological or not. Natural selection can occur whenever there are three simple features in place: (1) variation in characteristics; (2) selection of some characteristics over others; and (3) replication of surviving characteristics. Selection is a simple but powerful and widespread process. We can therefore use the knowledge, examples, and tools developed in evolutionary biology to understand adaptation in human contexts—from competition among states, firms, and machines to ideas and individuals. This is already a commonplace idea. For example, Darwinian “genetic algorithms” are used by engineers to design ship hulls, because testing many variations in an evolutionary process of trial and error can lead to better designs that a human designer. It is an example of “thinking outside the box”—many designs from genetic algorithms would never have even been thought of by a human designer. David Sloan Wilson recently blogged about the rapid expansion of evolutionary thinking in economics.

The Natural Security project uses similar evolutionary principles to offer a fresh perspective on our understanding of security threats, as well as to design effective responses to those threats. While evolution may seem to be a simplistic paradigm, especially applied to complex issues such as human conflict, this simplicity is its power. As H. Allen Orr noted in Scientific American, “Darwinism was revolutionary not because it made arcane claims about biology but because it suggested that nature’s underlying logic might be surprisingly simple”. That logic extends to processes of adaptation in any context.

Biology offers more than just analogies, it offers: (1) ideas (ways of thinking and understanding); (2) innovations (specific designs that can be adopted for human security); (3) lessons (which strategies have worked and which have failed over long periods of time?); (4) methods (what techniques and tools can we use to analyze evolutionary change?); (5) expertise (biologists have developed numerous subdisciplines that offer insights for security—from genetics to immunology to ecology); (6) novelty (nature has rarely been exploited for its security lessons, so it is likely to be a rich resource); (7) scientific grounding (all of life’s diversity and the process of adaptation fall within a single unifying framework: evolutionary biology).

The Natural Security project is a holistic vision for understanding and dealing with threats to security. It does not offer all the answers, but it offers a treasure trove of novel ideas in an “open-access library” of the 100 million or so species alive today, and the 3.5 billion years of the evolution of life on Earth before that. It is one example of how the power of evolution can be brought to bear to generate novel insights for big problems facing society.

Natural Security links:
The Natural Security project website
Natural Security book by our working group
Nature opinion piece by the working group entitled Decentralize, Adapt and Cooperate
Rafe Sagarin’s forthcoming book Learning from the Octopus

Dominic Johnson

Dominic Johnson

Dominic Johnson is Alistair Buchan Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. He received a D.Phil. from Oxford in evolutionary biology, and a Ph.D. from Geneva University in political science. Drawing on both disciplines, he is interested in how new research on evolution and human biology is challenging theories of international relations, conflict, and cooperation. For the 2012-2013 academic year, he is co-leading a project on evolution and human nature at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

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