Adapt or Die

What Charles Darwin can teach Tom Ridge about homeland security.

For more than 3 billion years, biological evolution has guided the colonization of our planet by living organisms. Evolution’s rules are simple: Creatures that adapt to threats and master the evolutionary game thrive; those that don’t, become extinct. And so it is with the threat posed to the United States by terrorist networks such as al Qaeda. If the genus Americanus wants to overcome this latest challenge to its existence, it must adapt its defense mechanisms accordingly. What better way to do that than to harness time-tested Darwinian theory to the cause of homeland security?

Antagonistic interactions between organisms have driven much of evolution. These battles have taken a variety of forms, including symmetric conflicts, pitting closely matched competitors that fight for dominance but seek to avoid deadly clashes; and far more lethal asymmetric conflicts involving unequal opponents, in which the weaker combatant resorts to unanticipated, often insidious tactics.

The Cold War was a symmetric conflict in which the two rivals had enough weaponry to guarantee that a "hot" war would result in mutual destruction. Superpower tensions played out in what biologists call dominance displays. In evolutionary terms, the annual May Day parade of missiles in Moscow’s Red Square and former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s "madman" strategy — when he put the United States on secret nuclear alert in 1969 to rattle the Soviets — were no different than the ritualistic claw waving between competing male fiddler crabs.

Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda represent a decidedly asymmetric threat. Like a virus, al Qaeda is an infectious organism, capable of lying dormant for long periods of time. It then hijacks the critical machinery of its victims to weaken their evolutionary fitness. And just as the treatment for viruses is more complex than the remedy for blunt trauma, combating al Qaeda requires a more subtle approach than the chest puffing generally used to meet a symmetric challenge.

In 1987, biologist Geerat Vermeij published a provocative treatise titled Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life. The book focuses on the fossil history of snails and crabs, but it makes five observations about evolutionary strategies that can also serve as a blueprint for improving U.S. homeland security.

Form good relationships. An organism can survive, and thrive, in the presence of an enemy by forming symbiotic relationships that can take a multitude of forms. These relationships can link aggressive, highly toxic species (clown fish living in anemone tentacles, for example), or they can link small and large organisms (such as bioluminescent bacteria living within the organs of deep-sea fish). Sometimes the relationships are transient, sometimes permanent.

Such flexibility should guide U.S. diplomacy in the war on terrorism, and to a certain extent it has. Prior to September 11, 2001, for instance, relations between the United States and Pakistan were frosty, and U.S. officials viewed Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf with contempt. But after the attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration recognized that defeating al Qaeda would require Pakistan’s cooperation and embraced Musharraf as an indispensable ally.

Never stop adapting. A fundamental tenet of evolutionary biology is that organisms must constantly adapt just to stay in the same strategic position relative to their enemies — who are constantly changing as well. For example, to protect its DNA against viruses, a host organism must continually change the access code to its genetic material. Likewise, security procedures around sensitive sites such as government buildings and military bases must be regularly updated to guard against potential terrorist attacks. Screening in identical fashion the cars that enter a military base every day presents an unchanging target, making it easier for terrorists to launch a successful strike.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. The ability to adapt is limited by competing demands. An organism that puts all its energy into acquiring mates may be woefully unprepared for an attack by a skilled enemy. A male peacock with his feathers fully extended might set female hearts fluttering, but the flashy display also leaves him dangerously exposed. An organism prone to such behavior could only have evolved in a relatively predator-free environment.

In the past, U.S. corporations could largely ignore security and focus on competitive advantage. They no longer have that luxury. Yet, in the last two years, numerous studies and news reports have detailed lax security at sensitive locations, such as chemical plants. Why? Because companies would rather invest in research and development than hire more security guards. This behavior reflects adaptive priorities that evolved in a predator-free habitat. Now that the habitat has changed, so must the spending priorities.

Be redundant. Many species spawn an overabundance of offspring to improve their chances of survival. Many genes have multiple copies of DNA to protect genetic material against attack. Similarly, the threat of terrorist attacks compels vital institutions to embrace redundancy. Determined to avoid the paralysis that gripped U.S. markets following the September 11 atrocities, Washington has urged investment banks and other key economic institutions to incorporate redundant features, such as fully operational backup facilities. The financial services industry has begun to embrace this evolutionary lesson. Other industries would be wise to follow suit.

Be flexible. From an evolutionary standpoint, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a highly questionable step. Evolutionary success requires the ability to adapt rapidly to changed circumstances. Likewise, meeting today’s diffuse terrorist threats requires fast, flexible crisis management. Putting homeland security in the hands of a massive, plodding bureaucracy hardly represents evolutionary advancement.

The real challenge is to apply evolutionary thinking to homeland security in a more structured, broad-based manner. Evolutionary biologists, ecologists, and paleontologists understand better than anyone the evolutionary successes and failures of genes and species and what it takes to survive in the natural world. Officials prosecuting the war on terrorism should bring experts on evolution into the discussion.

The planet’s diversity tells us that evolution works. But the number of failed life forms is sobering. Even once dominant organisms such as dinosaurs could not avoid extinction. The United States is the most dominant presence on Earth today, but terrorist networks such as al Qaeda represent a ruthless adversary. Terrorism poses an evolutionary challenge; it should be treated like one.

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