February 25, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Can Evolution Keep You Safe?

A new practical use for Darwinism has come to light: natural security.  Two recent articles claim that we can learn from evolution how best to protect ourselves.

  1. Natural security:  Darwinism can be practical, thinks Rafe Sagarin, an ecologist at Duke University.  Science Daily reported that he is using Darwinian principles to write and speak about “Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World” (see also Duke University press release).  Sagarin thinks the Department of Homeland Security is going about it all wrong.  More guards, guns, and gates – this is not how organisms defend themselves, he said.  Invoking “a mode of thinking—informed by Charles Darwin’s insights into life’s struggle for survival and fecundity,” Sagarin is looking at security from the point of view of the evolutionary arms race: “If I’m an adaptive organism, how would I cope with this?

    In nature, a threat is dealt with in several ways.  There’s collectivism, where one meerkat sounds the alarm about an approaching hawk, or camouflage, where the ptarmigan hides in plain sight.  There’s redundancy, like our wisdom teeth, or unpredictable behavior, like the puffer fish’s sudden, spiky pop.
        Under the unyielding pressure of 3.5 billion years of evolution, the variety of defenses is beyond counting.  But they all have a few features in common.  A top-down, build-a-wall, broadcast-your-status approach “is exactly the opposite of what organisms do,” Sagarin says.

    He portrayed organisms learning to live with risk, not trying to eliminate it.  Remarkable as animal defenses are, it’s not clear what Darwin has to do with them.  Sagarin’s proposal seems to owe less to Darwinism than to biomimetics – copying nature’s designs.  He spoke of what organisms do—implying that they have a purpose behind whatever process originated their protections.  That would be a very un-Darwinian mode of thinking.  He gave no indication of how a complex, interrelated system of multiple factors, such as the human immune system, could have arisen in a haphazard, gradual way.
        Sagarin also seemed to beg the question that his preferred animal strategies would work fighting intelligent enemies.  Hiding like a ptarmigan seems unlikely to deter a nuclear strike.  Popping into spikes like a puffer fish seems unlikely to scare a drone bomber.  Redundancy, true, might be a worthwhile option; but he did not explain if wisdom teeth are a manifestation of a Darwinian security strategy.  Were the only pre-humans who passed on their genes the lucky ones with a spare set of molars when punched in the mouth?
        In addition, guards, guns and gates do seem to get used often in nature.  Guard bees manage security in beehives.  Spitting cobras, octopi, pistol shrimp and skunks are pretty good sharpshooters.  And cells are filled with authenticating gates to protect their interiors and nuclei.  The Department of Homeland Security could certainly learn from nature, such as diversifying their portfolio of security strategies, and learning to anticipate adaptive behavior of enemies.  But singling out the methods that make the DHS look incompetent can be considered a case of card stacking.

  2. Risk management:  A similar article was posted today on Science Daily.  Daniel Blumstein (UCLA) thinks we can each learn personal safety tips by studying evolution.  Blumstein’s presentation was apparently given at the same AAAS meeting in Chicago.  This seems to be a new spin-off theme evolutionary biologists are advertising.  Here’s Blumstein’s main idea:

    “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 plantslessons 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 again.
        “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”….
        “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.”

    Intriguing as this approach sounds, it seems to attribute conscious decision-making skills to plants, and risk management to simple animals.  What’s evolution got to do with it?  “Evolution and the diversity of life show us there are many strategies to solve problems and respond to risk,” he said.  If the lesson is to have a plurality of strategies and learn to adapt quickly, who is the teacher?  Who runs the experiments?
        Blumstein quickly turned his biological thesis into a political one.  He criticized the Department of Homeland Security because bureaucracies tend to be inflexible.  Improving communication and coordination among existing agencies could have worked better with less cost, the article said.  Here’s more political application of Darwinian security:

    “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.

These two presentations were given in Chicago “at a symposium paying tribute to Charles Darwin a day after the 200th anniversary of his birth,” the second article said.  Blumstein advised, “A lesson from biology and evolution is we need adaptable systems.”  It is not clear if the presenters believed President Bush should have used natural selection or intelligent design when planning national security.

Here’s another hopeless attempt for Darwinists to look useful.  This one is no better than Darwinian medicine (see 04/25/2007, bullet 3, 06/25/2003 and 01/13/2003).  If you needed Darwinian medicine like a hole in the head, you need Darwinian security like a bull’s-eye painted on your shirt.
    Beware the day when Darwinists become advisors to the Department of Homeland Security.  Have you ever in your life heard advice as foolish as this coming from scientists?  Blumstein thinks that instead of preventing a nuclear war, we should just build better triage units to deal with the aftermath.  Please tell us, Dr. Blumstein, how hospitals are supposed to treat hundreds of thousands of people vaporized by a nuclear blast.  This could get real funny in no time.  “Incoming Iranian ICBM!  Make like a ptarmigan!”  If you don’t evolve fast enough, it could ruin your whole day.
    Their whole argument is ridiculous.  It is self-contradictory in a Darwinian world view.  Whatever evolution did is supposed to be mindless and undirected.  Animals and plants did not get together and form a government and decide how to respond to threats.  Their highly-sophisticated defense systems are built in.  If Sagarin and Blumstein were consistent, they would realize it is absurd to expect humans, who are also products of natural selection in their view, to apply intelligent design to their own survival.  Lots of species have gone extinct.  If humans lack the equipment to prevent their extinction, because natural selection did not properly equip them to adapt to nuclear attacks and biological warfare and bus bombs, then so be it.
    Furthermore, what plant species do you know that terrorize their own kind?  Our main problem is not so much with other species, despite the occasional shark or grizzly attack, but with evil human beings (including corrupt government officials) who, without the restraint of laws and law enforcement and national defense, would deprive us of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The authors of the Federalist Papers, a collection of essays that constitute the epitome of scholarship on political science, recognized that it was human depravity that makes constitutional government necessary.  If we were angels, or if we were ruled by angels, they would not have needed a Constitutional Convention.  The reality of evil in the human soul is the reason for national defense and intelligently-designed protections against selfish ambition.  One only has to see the horrors produced by the likes of Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il to thank God for the American ideals of limited government of the people, by the people and for the people; separation of powers; checks and balances; free elections; and the vision of a nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  Where did you read the words liberty or justice in the Darwinists’ advice?
    Our critique does not overlook the presence of security adaptations in the human body – it just denies that they evolved mindlessly.  When threatened, all kinds of physiological responses come into play: adrenaline, hair standing on end, goose bumps, increased heart rate, shivering, and the fight-or-flight response.  These are all automatic responses designed for our survival.  Nor do we disparage the value of self-defense instruction (e.g., defensive driving, martial arts, and personal threat avoidance).  But then, is not bravery the act of consciously defying the automatic response and doing, by choice of purpose, the right thing?  Is not altruism the ideal of denying one’s self?  We can train dogs and horses to go against their instincts, but they do not purposely choose to do so based on moral ideals, Lassie notwithstanding.  Even if an animal trainer believed they could, that would not imply those capabilities evolved.  If a Darwinist wishes to believe that all those wondrous defense systems and the ability to choose bravery or altruism are products of evolution, he or she has no empirical basis for it.  It is a choice to fit observations into a preselected world view (see 01/23/2009, bullet 13, and 05/02/2008).  It also means they really had no choice in the matter because natural selection made them believe that.  (In case you didn’t notice, their belief, therefore, self-destructs.)
    Consistent with their amoral Darwinian stance, Sagarin and Blumstein put the onus on the victims, not on the perpetrators.  It’s no longer the fault of the gunman, the terrorist, or the tyrant.  No point in risking one’s life, fortune or sacred honor for an American revolution.  No sense in fighting crime any more.  Crime happens – that’s the reality of Darwinian selfishness.  It’s not the criminal’s fault he shoots you; it’s your fault that you didn’t adapt the skill of dodging bullets.  Too much of this doctrine and there will be no use for preachers and teachers who try to instill moral values in the populace, or American statesmen who will advocate our values of freedom and democracy around the world, to shame those countries where dictators run roughshod on individual human rights.  How do you evolve “human rights” in Darwinland?
    A close reading of the opinions of these self-appointed Darwin Party political advisors reveals their liberal bias along with their stupidity (those factors are often correlated; see 12/02/2004).  You can see a hint of their advocacy of socialized medicine in Blumstein’s advice.  He wants to increase our “health infrastructure” (government-sponsored, of course), presumably instead of expenditures for the war on terror.  If he thinks bureaucracies tend to become rigid, wait till he needs emergency heart surgery and some bureaucrat takes six months to decide whether or not he gets it.  “A strong public health system has the bonus of helping us respond to natural pandemics, as well as terrorist attacks,” Blumstein said.  There again, he wants to just respond to the horrific aftermath of a terrorist attack instead of preventing it.
    President Bush went after the sources of terror before they could reach us.  Darwinists want Obama to socialize our health care so that you can stand in a long line to get your nuclear radiation burns treated, if you don’t die of anthrax first.  God help us.

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Categories: Biomimetics

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