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What Biology And Evolution Can Teach Us About Our Safety: Tribute To Darwin

UCLA behavioral ecologist Daniel T. Blumstein. (Credit: Image courtesy of 
University of California - Los Angeles)

ScienceDaily (Feb. 25, 2009) — When it comes to our own security, says UCLA 
behavioral ecologist Daniel T. Blumstein, there is much we can learn from 
biology and evolution.

Speaking Feb. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the 
Advancement of Science in Chicago, at a symposium paying tribute to Charles 
Darwin a day after the 200th anniversary of his birth, Blumstein shared lessons 
and insights from Darwin that can be applied to our own safety — from using 
ATMs in unsafe neighborhoods to dealing with terrorist threats.

"Species that don't figure out ways of dealing with threats go extinct," said 
the UCLA associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, who studies 
fear, risk assessment and management, and anti-predator behavior. "Species that 
persist are those that figure out how to manage risk. From the paleontological 
record, we can see evidence of successful strategies. We can learn fundamental 
lessons from animals and plants — lessons from biology and evolution — that are 
applicable to managing security threats. Evolution has given us a wonderful 
historical record and series of experiments that have been replicated again and 

"How do you manage risk? How do you decide to allocate energy to defense versus 
other things? These are fundamental trade-offs that all organisms face," he 
said. "One possible reason for extinction is that individuals are making 
incorrect decisions about how to manage the risks they face."

Among the lessons Blumstein draws: Accept that you have to learn to live with 
risk (in Los Angeles, for example, almost all of us drive on freeways); don't 
overreact; maintain flexible and adaptable response systems; eliminate defenses 
when you do not need them anymore; and slightly overestimating risk is better 
than underestimating risk.

"A problem all organisms face is how not to allocate too much energy to 
defense," he said. "All animals have to live with risk. Over evolutionary time, 
we can use life as an experiment that gives us insights into what might work 
and what might not work. There are commonalities that humans and nonhumans face 
when dealing with threats."

To illustrate various evolutionary risk-management strategies, Blumstein 
suggested imagining one's self at an automatic teller machine in a bad 

"One strategy to reduce risk would be to approach the ATM cautiously and spend 
a lot of time looking around while there. By doing so, you will spend more time 
in an exposed position," he said. "An alternative strategy would be to run in 
and run out as quickly as possible. We see evidence that animals use both 
strategies in nature. Some species are more vigilant in risky areas, while 
others are less vigilant, and by being less vigilant, they are able to reduce 
their exposure to predators because they decrease the amount of time in risky 
areas. Evolution and the diversity of life show us there are many strategies to 
solve problems and respond to risk."

The government cannot eliminate risk for all citizens, Blumstein noted, and 
citizens cannot eliminate all risk from their lives.

Creating a new Department of Homeland Security may not have been more effective 
than improving communication and coordination among preexisting agencies, which 
could have achieved as much without the additional infrastructure and without 
the additional cost, he said.

"Having a specific agency tasked to, say, biodetection identification is not as 
good as a generalizable defense," Blumstein said. "Why not just increase our 
health infrastructure? Why not increase first responders' training capabilities 
and communication among first responders so that if an outbreak of a disease 
occurs, hospitals around the country will quickly detect it — whether it is 
terrorism or not?

"That approach has the added benefit of increasing the overall health of the 
citizens and does not have an extra cost that is looking only for a 
low-probability, but admittedly high-consequence, event. A strong public health 
system has the bonus of helping us respond to natural pandemics, as well as 
terrorist attacks."

He sees the immune system as an analogy. You need specific responses to 
specific pathogens, but the immune system is also adaptable.

"A lesson from biology and evolution is we need adaptable systems," Blumstein 
said. "We should try to create systems that change over time. The practical 
problem is when you create a bureaucracy, it tends to be very rigid."
Adapted from materials provided by University of California - Los Angeles.
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