Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tide Pool Warfare and the Way of the Octopus, Part 1


Then the creeping murderer, the octopus, steals out, slowly, softly, moving like a gray mist, pretending now to be a bit of weed, now a rock, now a lump of decaying meat while its evil goat eyes watch coldly.  It oozes and flows toward a feeding crab, and as it comes close its yellow eyes burn and its body turns rosy with the pulsing color of anticipation and rage.  Then suddenly it runs lightly on the tips of its arms, as ferocious as a charging cat.  It leaps savagely on the crab, there is a puff of black fluid, and the struggling mass is obscured in the sepia cloud while the octopus murders the crab.

-John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

The Rise of "Natural Security"

                                                        (Rafe Sagarin)

A growing number of researchers are bringing the tools of evolutionary biology to bear on complex social phenomena such as markets and battlefields.  In the standard terminology, these phenomena may be classified as complex adaptive systems (CAS) in which the seemingly random behavior of interdependent individual agents creates---through network effects---a large-scale phenomena that appears organized, directed, and purposeful. These systems typically reveal deep sophistication, unpredictable solutions, and rich, intricate capabilities.  Because the CAS approach (variously also called the "organic" or "ecosystem" model of mass social behaviors) is less tractable to closed-form engineering solutions than the more mechanistic, clockwork models of culture tend to be, it presents many frustrations for those who seek to bring the tools of classical physics to bear on the social sciences. 

Qualitatively, the biological approach is intrinsically difficult for many of us to fully appreciate, since we are habituated to thinking in terms of command-and-control-style centralized leadership:  in the view of the dominant social narrative, politicians are *responsible* for economic booms and busts and for "steering the ship of state"; the citizens of a complex, heterogeneous modern nation-state can be reduced to a single, articulated set of domestic and foreign policy interests; powerful, decisive CEOs make companies rise or fall; great generals win battles through visionary strategic foresight and schemes.  In short, the traditional assumption is that major political, economic, and military campaigns are designed by powerful strategists who are well-positioned to move subordinates around like pieces on a chessboard. The most fitting analogy might be that of a social group being transmogrified into a single human body and the small, specially privileged cabal of strategic thinkers representing the brain of that virtual person.

However, a substantial body of evidence is pointing us away from the "cult of leadership" model and towards the development of systems that rely less and less on the grand strategic designs of an elite committee of socioeconomic or military planners.  These phenomena are in an important sense strategically leaderless; they serve to empower agile individuals and small teams that respond to local events and craft tactical solutions through iterative, trial-and-error processes.  Prediction becomes less important than rapid, adaptive learning via small-scale, constrained experimentation in the field (and, importantly, the sharing of that knowledge through information technologies).   In fact, "strategy", insofar as it exists as a coherent term at all, may lie in the creation of *anti-political* policies that limit the ability of central authorities to meddle with events and that encourage localized adaptation and decentralized decision-making. 

In Antifragility, the ever-provocative Nassim Taleb endorses and explains the biological approach, and warns against the naivety of interventionism:  

This organic-mechanico dichotomy is a good starter distinction to build intuitions about the difference between two kinds of phenomena... Many things such as society, economic activities and markets, and cultural behavior are apparently man-made but grow on their own to reach some kind of self-organization. They may not be strictly biological, but they resemble the biological in that, in a way, they multiply and replicate---think of rumors, ideas, technologies, and businesses. They are closer to the cat than to the washing machine but tend to be mistaken for washing machines. ...You need to think in terms of ecology: if you remove a specific animal you disrupt a food chain; its predators and will starve and its prey will grow unchecked, causing complications and a series of cascading side effects.

  Taleb favors program vehicles that piggyback on the dynamic aspects of complex adaptive systems. He prepares for unpredictable, occasionally wild systemic behavior by use of "barbell strategies" in which two extreme programs are paired off in different silos: one end of the strategy, preferably housed in a bankruptcy-remote asset protection structure, uses extremely risk-averse investments that are taken with full consideration of worst-case scenarios; the other end, housed in a limited-liability risk vehicle that is automatically quarantined if it blows up, is very aggressive about risk. A portfolio might therefore consist of a 90% allocation to cash and a 10% allocation to high-risk, highly exposed securities (in contrast to a 100% allocation to medium-risk instruments, which Taleb considers far more dangerous---FWIW, I agree with him on the superiority of a barbell-type allocation).


 For anti-fragility is the combination of aggressiveness plus paranoia---clip your downside, protect yourself from extreme harm, and let the upside, the positive Black Swans, take care of itself...a barbell can be any dual strategy composed of two extremes, without the corruption of the middle... 

...Biological systems are replete with barbell strategies. Take the following mating approach, which we call the 90 percent accountant, 10 percent rock star. Females in the animal kingdom, in some monogamous species, tend to marry the equivalent of the accountant, or, even more colorless, the economist, someone stable who can provide, and once in a while they cheat with the aggressive alpha, the rock star, as part of a dual strategy. They limit their downside while using extrapair copulation to get the genetic upside, or some great fun, or both. Even the timing of the cheating seems nonrandom, as it corresponds to periods with high likelihood of pregnancy. We see evidence of such a strategy with the so-called monogamous birds; they enjoy cheating, with more than a tenth of the broods coming from males other than the putative father.  

Creating an Adaptive Security Capability

One of the more interesting individuals involved in this ongoing perspective shift is the biologist Rafe Sagarin.  Sagarin, who studies tide pools on the Pacific coast of the United States, would like to see America adopt a layered national security approach that is built on the decentralized actions of empowered independent agents, rather than by top-down strategic planning. The agents, equipped with modern communication tools, would become something similar to neurons in a brain, and adaptive structures and frameworks would emerge spontaneously from network effects that were generated as these agents communicated with one another and collaborated on specific projects.

The idea that such intricate and sophisticated macro-level behaviors can simply spring from uncontrolled agents searching for solutions at the micro level will strike many of us as almost magical---indeed, those who favor free markets and the associated price discovery mechanism are familiar with this natural incredulity and the frustrations that come with trying to argue the anti-central planning case. Sagarin acknowledges that it is very difficult for most people to place their faith in a system in which no one is really in charge. Compounding the problem, most of our management and leadership literature takes it as axiomatic that success is the product of detailed strategic plans made by stalwarts on Mount Olympus. The politician or pundit who speaks of grand schemes enjoys a rhetorical advantage over the person who champions the merits of de-centralized, bottom-up systems.

 To combat this bias against the "unplanned" adaptive response, Sagarin makes effective reference to extraordinarily well-adapted and ingenious examples from the natural world. Although he frequently discusses immune systems and sophisticated mammalian meta-behaviors, his most vivid and poignant vignettes stem from his extensive studies of the octopus.

Nature's Ninja

Octopuses learn not only how to survive, but thrive, in almost any environment.  Even in the barren isolated tanks of a marine biology lab, colleagues have discovered octopuses escaping from their chambers and braving the dry air to scamper across a lab bench and find a snack in a nearby tank before returning to their own.

...With its soft, meaty body, the octopus is an attractive target for predators.  So it constructs a protective den in the rocks, sometimes with a peephole for its keen eyes to peer out from.  If good rocky crevices aren't available, it will learn to use whatever is around it...

...Taken together, the octopus reveals almost all of the characteristics you would want in a biologically inspired security system.  Its acquisition of tools (the coconut shells) for future use and well-known ability to wreak havoc on laboratory containment systems show that it can learn from a changing environment.  The rapidly changing skill cells show that it has an adaptable organization in which a lot of power to detect and directly respond to changes in the environment is given to multiple agents that don't have to do a lot of reporting and order-taking from a central brain.  That it has an ink cloud AND camouflage AND a powerful bite that it uses for both offense and defense reveals its redundant and multi-functioning security measures.  Its ability to deliberately stalk, surprise, and kill even prey much larger than itself shows that it can manipulate uncertainty for its own ends.  Finally, its use of deadly bacteria in its own defense reveals that it uses symbiotic relationships to extend its own adaptive capabilities

-Rafe Sagarin

(watch this badass making his way across the tide pool rocks)



  1. "In fact, "strategy", insofar as it exists as a coherent term at all, may lie in the creation of *anti-political* policies that limit the ability of central authorities to meddle with events and that encourage localized adaptation and decentralized decision-making."

    Well, yes.

    If you don't want some sort of imperial system with wealth pumps.

    In today's political science lesson, we discover the concept of rhizome!

    Part of the problem with most political systems is Dunbar's number.


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