Biological Sciences

Learning from the Octopus: A Biologically Inspired Framework for Adaptation


Rafe Sagarin
University of Arizona


I help organize groups of biologists, anthropologists, psychologists and practitioners in counter terrorism, emergency response, and public health to ask: what can we learn from 3.5 billion years of biological evolution that can help us adapt to the challenges we face in our daily lives?


I gather groups for discussions to learn how people address the challenges they face, and generalize this knowledge to uncover how nature solves problems.  Teachers, first responders, soldiers, CEOs, and health practitioners, among others, are continually looking to improve their adaptability to the unknown and unpredictable challenges they face, but they don’t always have clear guidance on how adaptable systems work.

I try to learn from the complexity of nature and pare it down to key lessons, or practices, that are commonly seen in adaptable biological systems that can be applied in a safe way to human challenges.


I found that there are four basic rules that make adaptable systems work. Adaptable biological organisms (1) don’t pretend; (2) they don’t plan; (3) they don’t predict; and (4) they don’t try to perfect themselves.  These general rules are at first shocking or even threatening to businesses that feverishly try to develop a public image, plan for the next business cycle, fork over bundles of cash to consultants for their proprietary “predictive models,” and optimize their operations in the relentless pursuit of perfection.  But these rules have worked for biological organisms across billions of years of evolution and there are countless living examples today that show us how to survive and thrive in a risk filled and unpredictable planet.

These four rules can be translated into four basic practices that any individual or organization can implement to become more adaptable.  These practices—using decentralized organization, employing creative redundancy, developing symbiotic partnerships, and learning from success—are, like the general rules of adaptability, non-intuitive and vastly underutilized in today’s society.

The key to implementing these practices in any organization is to switch from giving orders to issuing challenges.  Such challenge-based problem solving automatically incorporates the practices of adaptability by activating multiple independent people who each sense the challenge from their own perspective.

This framework can be applied to many lines of research in a range of fields.  This range of fields extends from basic research on adaptive human behavior to historical research on how past organizations like militaries and successful companies have adapted.  What can be provided to all these fields is one common framework—proven to work across an enormous range of time and within a wide range of stressful environments—for understanding how to live with uncertainty.  This framework can be used retrospectively to examine past successes and failures at adaptation (as I have done in analyzing the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan) or prospectively to help individuals and organizations develop more adaptable practices in the future.

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