Field of Science

Darwinian security

ResearchBlogging.orgMany times have I read opponents of evolutionary theory argue that it is good for nothing. They apply a very utilitarian view of science, in which science must serve a purpose beyond mere understanding. And this, they posit, evolutionary theory does not provide. A fairy tale for grown-ups. Not even science, but a religion.

That's blatantly false, though. Yes, the main benefit to humankind is that evolutionary theory explains where we come from - and if that's not important, please do tell me why nearly all cultures have creation myths. But that is not all. Combating pathogens (e.g. HIV) is futile without an understanding of evolution. Breeding and conservation programs rely on evolutionary theory. Evolutionary algorithms are used for mathematical optimization.

Now evolution has a new application: national security. Researchers who normally work in evolution, ecology, and conservation have teamed up to help out the Homeland Security Department think of new ways to efficiently counter threats to national security. The 2003 article below is by Raphael Sagarin in Foreign Policy, but it is not free. This article from yesterday in Global Security Newswire is, and refers to the book from 2008: Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World (Amazon).

From the 2003 article:
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?
It makes perfect sense. Most species have to deal with permanent threats to their existence (e.g. predators), and the way to do that is by evolving defenses that can contain or reduce the threat and the damage it can cause as much as possible. America at present is like Hawaiian flora, when it should be more like the one in California. Plants in Hawaii have evolved in the absence of predators, so their natural defense are nearly non-existent. Recently introduced species have a field day with them. America is similarly vulnerable, because there previously weren't any threats on American soil. After September 11 this is no longer the case. At least that is the idea behind the Homeland Security Department. Nuclear power plants are completely defenseless, and we are all very fortunate that none of the planes that day were aimed at one of them. The idea is then that America needs to become more like Californian flora, which is made up of tough and spiky plants ready to fend for themselves in the harshest conditions (not counting those introduced and farmed sissy-ass strawberries). This will require allocating resources previously used for production (e.g. energy) to defense, and will this come at a cost. Such is life.

R. Sagarin (2003). Adapt or die: what Charles Darwin can teach Tom Ridge about homeland security Foreign Policy (September/October), 68-69

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