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What biology and evolution can teach us about our safety: A tribute to Darwin

University of California - Los Angeles

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 today 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 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."

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 neighborhood.

"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 terrorist attacks."

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."


UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer more than 323 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Four alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.

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