Adapt or Die

What Charles Darwin can teach Tom Ridge about homeland security.

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?

Antagonistic interactions between organisms have driven much of evolution. These battles have taken a variety of forms, including symmetric conflicts, pitting closely matched competitors that fight for dominance but seek to avoid deadly clashes; and far more lethal asymmetric conflicts involving unequal opponents, in which the weaker combatant resorts to unanticipated, often insidious tactics.

The Cold War was a symmetric conflict in which the two rivals had enough weaponry to guarantee that a "hot" war would result in mutual destruction. Superpower tensions played out in what biologists call dominance displays. In evolutionary terms, the annual May Day parade of missiles in Moscow's Red Square and former U.S. President Richard Nixon's "madman" strategy -- when he put the United States on secret nuclear alert in 1969 to rattle the Soviets -- were no different than the ritualistic claw waving between competing male fiddler crabs.

Terrorist networks such as al Qaeda represent a decidedly asymmetric threat. Like a virus, al Qaeda is an infectious organism, capable of lying dormant for long periods of time. It then hijacks the critical machinery of its victims to weaken their evolutionary fitness. And just as the treatment for viruses is more complex than the remedy for blunt trauma, combating al Qaeda requires a more subtle approach than the chest puffing generally used to meet a symmetric challenge.

In 1987, biologist Geerat Vermeij published a provocative treatise titled Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life. The book focuses on the fossil history of snails and crabs, but it makes five observations about evolutionary strategies that can also serve as a blueprint for improving U.S. homeland security.

Form good relationships. An organism can survive, and thrive, in the presence of an enemy by forming symbiotic relationships that can take a multitude of forms. These relationships can link aggressive, highly toxic species (clown fish living in anemone tentacles, for example), or they can link small and large organisms (such as bioluminescent bacteria living within the organs of deep-sea fish). Sometimes the relationships are transient, sometimes permanent.

Such flexibility should guide U.S. diplomacy in the war on terrorism, and to a certain extent it has. Prior to September 11, 2001, for instance, relations between the United States and Pakistan were frosty, and U.S. officials viewed Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf with contempt. But after the attacks on New York and Washington, the Bush administration recognized that defeating al Qaeda would require Pakistan's cooperation and embraced Musharraf as an indispensable ally.

Never stop adapting. A fundamental tenet of evolutionary biology is that organisms must constantly adapt just to stay in the same strategic position relative to their enemies -- who are constantly changing as well. For example, to protect its DNA against viruses, a host organism must continually change the access code to its genetic material. Likewise, security procedures around sensitive sites such as government buildings and military bases must be regularly updated to guard against potential terrorist attacks. Screening in identical fashion the cars that enter a military base every day presents an unchanging target, making it easier for terrorists to launch a successful strike.

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. The ability to adapt is limited by competing demands. An organism that puts all its energy into acquiring mates may be woefully unprepared for an attack by a skilled enemy. A male peacock with his feathers fully extended might set female hearts fluttering, but the flashy display also leaves him dangerously exposed. An organism prone to such behavior could only have evolved in a relatively predator-free environment.

In the past, U.S. corporations could largely ignore security and focus on competitive advantage. They no longer have that luxury. Yet, in the last two years, numerous studies and news reports have detailed lax security at sensitive locations, such as chemical plants. Why? Because companies would rather invest in research and development than hire more security guards. This behavior reflects adaptive priorities that evolved in a predator-free habitat. Now that the habitat has changed, so must the spending priorities.

Be redundant. Many species spawn an overabundance of offspring to improve their chances of survival. Many genes have multiple copies of DNA to protect genetic material against attack. Similarly, the threat of terrorist attacks compels vital institutions to embrace redundancy. Determined to avoid the paralysis that gripped U.S. markets following the September 11 atrocities, Washington has urged investment banks and other key economic institutions to incorporate redundant features, such as fully operational backup facilities. The financial services industry has begun to embrace this evolutionary lesson. Other industries would be wise to follow suit.

Be flexible. From an evolutionary standpoint, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security was a highly questionable step. Evolutionary success requires the ability to adapt rapidly to changed circumstances. Likewise, meeting today's diffuse terrorist threats requires fast, flexible crisis management. Putting homeland security in the hands of a massive, plodding bureaucracy hardly represents evolutionary advancement.

The real challenge is to apply evolutionary thinking to homeland security in a more structured, broad-based manner. Evolutionary biologists, ecologists, and paleontologists understand better than anyone the evolutionary successes and failures of genes and species and what it takes to survive in the natural world. Officials prosecuting the war on terrorism should bring experts on evolution into the discussion.

The planet's diversity tells us that evolution works. But the number of failed life forms is sobering. Even once dominant organisms such as dinosaurs could not avoid extinction. The United States is the most dominant presence on Earth today, but terrorist networks such as al Qaeda represent a ruthless adversary. Terrorism poses an evolutionary challenge; it should be treated like one.


Terrorizing Aid to Somalia

The United States is willfully letting millions of Somalis go hungry in its drive to hunt down terrorists.

There is a new humanitarian crisis unfolding in Somalia, and the United States is partly to blame. Despite sending $2 million and 40 tons of arms and ammunition to the country's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) earlier this year, now, the United States is withholding humanitarian aid until relief agencies agree to comply with strict, game-stopping conditions.

The decision to abruptly halt assistance came following suspicions that U.S. aid might be ending up with Somali "terrorists." The main worry is an al Qaeda-linked group called al-Shabab, the leading Islamic militant group fighting against the feeble but internationally backed government. Al-Shabab controls most of south-central Somalia, while the TFG controls only a few areas of the capital, Mogadishu. The south-central region is home to 2.7 million of the 3.63 million Somalis in need of emergency assistance. So, reaching many of Somalia's people with aid would likely entail operating on al-Shabab's turf and interacting with elements of the group to facilitate logistics.

U.S. Treasury Department sanctions strictly prohibit any financial transactions or dealings with al-Shabab and other Somali groups labeled as "terrorists."  Yet clearly the concern is not absolute; the U.S. government seems less concerned that the guns and ammo sent as military assistance, intended to prop up the fragile government and keep control of a country brimming with violence, are allegedly being resold on the streets of Mogadishu.

The halt in humanitarian assistance will cripple the work of relief organizations and, as a consequence, hurt their Somali beneficiaries. U.S. officials justifiably fear that they and their partners could be held responsible, even prosecuted, for supporting terrorists if relief funds ended up in the hands of al-Shabab. At first, the U.S. government reviewed the situation and "delayed" funding. Subsequently, Washington issued conditions with which aid agencies must comply to legally operate in Somalia. But the conditions are so restrictive that it would be virtually impossible for operating agencies to meet them. (To preserve the security of those groups on the ground, specific conditions cannot be stated here.)

The damage is not just temporary. The new, politically charged rules would destroy relief organizations' neutrality in Somalia. Humanitarian aid derives its legitimacy from impartiality -- the notion that aid is provisioned on need alone, rather than politics. In Somalia, where the U.S. government is often viewed unfavorably, political impartiality is a practical consideration as well; it is central to the ability of relief agencies to function safely and effectively. The new U.S. conditions would undermine this core principle by making it nearly impossible for relief agencies to legally operate in al-Shabab-run territory, including many of the most desperate regions of Somalia. The country is already one of the most dangerous for humanitarian workers, so the United States' attempt to bring relief workers under its purview will only increase Somali suspicion toward them and make the environment more precarious.

On top of this policy disaster, money for relief in Somalia is running out. The U.N. World Food Program estimates that its coffers will be empty within the next few weeks. Even if more funds were pledged today, it could require as many as four months for the money to reach beneficiaries on the ground. There will be an inevitable gap in assistance to Somalis. 

The timing could not be worse. The country's already catastrophic humanitarian crisis is being compounded by a drought that has struck much of the Horn of Africa. Nearly half the population is estimated to urgently need aid -- some 3.63 million people.

The U.S. government is holding the Somalia relief enterprise and its beneficiaries hostage to its counterterrorism policy. Agencies have resolutely upheld their commitment to humanitarian impartiality and refused to be shut down by unreasonable conditions. Unfortunately, that precludes them from accepting U.S. funds -- normally half of all aid to Somalia. Until Washington lets agencies fulfill their mission unhindered, the U.S. mission to win "hearts and minds" in Somalia, a feared up-and-coming stronghold of terrorism, will be completely undermined. Knowingly allowing millions of people to suffer is no way to win friends.