Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World

  • Published

Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World edited by Raphael D. Sagarin and Terence Taylor. University of California Press, 2008, 306 pp.

The beginning of the twenty-first century has presented humanity with the need to rethink its notions and practices of security. This requirement has been provoked not merely by the end of the Cold War that brought an end to the comfortable bipolarity neither by security thinking nor by the beginning of the global war on terror that drew attention to the asymmetrical leverage of various nonstate actors. While significant, such changes do not require a qualitative and fundamental realignment of security thinking on their own, no matter how profoundly ingrained practices had to be altered. What provokes the demand for a conceptual overhaul of the notion and practices of security governance is the turbulent reality of discontinuous change as a result of the pervasiveness of environmental degradation. In other words, the shifting relationship between sociopolitical and ecological systems that significantly has altered the conditions for security.

Editors Raphael D. Sagarin and Terence Taylor cogently argue that if individuals and societies live in nature, they should do as nature does. In other words, their framework of security governance needs to benefit from the patterns of securitization developed by ecological systems. The volume seeks to “provide a first sweep of the potential biological inspirations for solving security problems in modern society” (p. 10). It achieves its objectives, not least through the editorial daring to bring together people who would not normally be described as security specialists but through the construct of those who would more comfortably fit under the label of “natural scientists.”

The editors themselves are no strangers to controversy: – Sagarin is associate director for ocean and coastal policy at Duke University’s Nichols Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and Taylor is president and director of the International Council for the Life Sciences. He has served with the United Nations as a commissioner and chief inspector for Iraq on weapons of mass destruction.

In this respect, Natural Security manages to offer a much-needed reconsideration of security practices because of the original idea that provides the driving force for the volume’s exploration and because Sagarin and Taylor were not schooled in the conventional discourses of security. What is also different about this collection is that it analyzes the various responses of biological systems to threats and that it offers possible frameworks for the editors’ translation into security policies. Thus, it is refreshing to encounter a volume that dares to step outside the hackneyed narratives and fractured politics of security studies and address thoughtfully the ways in which the conceptual frameworks of the field can be restructured.

The volume is divided into six sections. The first provides the analytical outlines of the notion and practices of natural security (p. 3) by emphasizing its defining characteristic: “living with risk” (p. 14). This section suggests that the frameworks of natural security are not underscored solely by the desire to eliminate risks but also by the willingness to accept risk as a normal part of life. In this respect, the logic of natural security suggests the need of constant adaptation to an environment marked by complexity, unpredictability, and the adaptation to change.

The editors reconsider security governance by zooming in on the notion and practices of adaptation to show the impossibility of achieving security responses conventionally through control. In a nutshell, the security logics of control demands if not the eradication of the perceived threat, then at least its successful management by keeping it at bay—all with the intention of avoiding adaptation and securing the survival of business as usual. Thus, in a radical departure from mainstream discussions of the topic, Sagarin and Taylor suggest the necessity of acknowledging the pervasive reality of unpredictable security threats and of learning to live with them rather than aiming to eliminate them.

The second part of the volume focuses on the evolutionary history of security; that is, it highlights how various organisms learned to survive by developing appropriate security strategies. The two chapters in this section point out the general misunderstanding of the Darwinian dictum of “survival of the fittest” by security strategists. Usually understood as a confirmation of the realist belief that greater capabilities ensure survival, the theory crumbles as the volume shows that more often than not, amassing offensive resources to ensure security is of lesser consequence than the capacity and willingness to undergo constant adaptations.

Parts three and four see different security issues through “biological lens” (p. 71). The bulk of the contributions analyze terrorism. The editors’ underlying claim is that asymmetric conflicts emphasize the need for more adaptive frameworks of security governance that are willing to accept the notion that “modern security challenges are more episodic than traditional single-engagement conflicts, mimicking the evolutionary battle for survival in a hostile and changing world” (p. 83).

In conclusion, parts five and six synthesize the framework of natural security and offer possible ways for incorporating its inferences into policy making. The chapters included in these sections reiterate the relevance of looking into the threat-responses of biological systems for insight into developing new ways of responding to global threats. One of the contributors indicates that biological systems have demonstrated their capacity “to respond to threats never before seen” (p. 230).

This book offers one of the most insightful templates for the conceptual overhaul of the notions and practices of natural security. Constructed around the notions of adaptation, flexibility, and resilience, the framework of natural security suggests that socio-political/human systems have much to gain by looking at the security responses of biological systems. In fact, their survival might depend on such. This collection, therefore, is indispensable for anyone with a genuine interest in security.

Emilian R. Kavalski, PhD

University of Western Sydney (Australia)

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."