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
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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