Book Club Guide to Learning from the Octopus by author Rafe Sagarin
One thing I have learned in my many talks about “Learning from the Octopus” with a wide range of audiences—from first responders to soldiers to teachers to business consultants—is that bringing ideas from nature into our own lives creates a huge range of topics for discussion. People have responded with fabulous examples and challenges related to adaptation that they experienced while battling insurgents in Iraq or their two year old at bath time. Accordingly, the book is a great catalyst for lively book club discussions. Already I’ve learned about “Learning from the Octopus” book clubs springing up among groups of scientists, health practitioners, and government employees. Here are some questions I’ve been thinking of that might help spark your own book club discussions. As always, I treasure your own findings and feedback – please leave a REPLY below if your book club has adopted “Learning from the Octopus”.
Early in the book I argue that “adaptation requires leaving or being forced from your comfort zone” (p. 63). Leaving my comfort zone in the tidepools of Monterey to the halls of Congress in Washington, DC forced me to adapt, but also helped me see the connections between the natural world and security in human society. When have you left your comfort zone (or been forced from it), and did you respond adaptively or not?
I argue in the book that one of the most important attributes of adaptable systems is the ability to observe and make patterns out of complex systems, including nature itself. Yet studies show that this ability is being compromised by the fact that we spend less and less time outdoors and observing nature. What are your experiences with nature observation, as a child and today? Have you seen changes in the opportunities available to today’s children for observing nature?
Some loss of our time spent in nature is clearly linked to increased time with our technological marvels. Yet technology can also be an important catalyst for adaptability. How can we use technology to help us become more adaptable again?
One of the most remarkable characters I met in the course of researching this book is Geerat Vermeij, the blind paleontologist. Besides the intellectual contributions that Vermeij made (such as the finding that most adaptable organisms are decentralized), his personal story has multiple lessons for adaptability in society. What can we learn from how Vermeij has learned to “see” the world?
Anthropologist Scott Atran suggests that “symbolic concessions” can be an important step toward opening the door to negotiation, even between the most entrenched enemies (pp. 164-165). Have you seen other examples of successful symbolic concessions in political life, in your own work, or personal life?
Communication, even with mortal enemies, is a vital component of survival and adaption in natural systems. Animals use honest and dishonest signals when communicating with their partners and adversaries (pp. 136-139). How have you used honest and dishonest signals to solve problems in your world (e.g., with business competitors, students, children) and what have the consequences been?
Networks, in biological systems and in human society, can be incredibly powerful and adaptable organizations for sharing information and ideas. Yet networks can also fail catastrophically, as the European transport network after the Icelandic volcano (p. 107) and the suppression of social media networks in Syria illustrate. Why do some networks work so well and survive multiple attacks and others fail? How have your own social networks handled or failed to handle disruptions (cross-country moves, divorces, deaths)?
I suggest that learning can take on a multitude of forms, from rote associative learning that is tied to a particular stimulus (e.g., training my dogs to avoid rattlesnakes, pp.37-38) to highly adaptive learning that develops from identifying patterns in complex situations (e.g., how babies and hockey players learn, pp. 44-45). How do the learning systems you are familiar with (schools, universities, employee training programs, etc.) promote or prevent adaptable learning strategies?
I highlight basketball coach Phil Jackson’s use of “creative redundancy” with the story of how he embraced the eccentric Dennis Rodman and made him part of a very successful Chicago Bulls franchise (pp. 222-223). Jackson suggested that Rodman was the team’s “Heyoka”—an Indian trickster spirit that helped provide a new, unexpected perspective. Do you have a Heyoka in your life? Do they help you see things differently, or do they just make life more difficult?
In the book I present general and specific stories of soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan and Iraq and how they adapted or tried to adapt to the very different circumstances they were faced with in different countries and different tours of duty (pp. 71-74). These young veterans now strike me as some of the most adaptable people in society, yet they are also beset with a range of medical and financial hardships upon return. If you are a veteran (thank you!), what skills do you think you bring to society after these wars end? If you are not a veteran, how do you think society can best integrate and promote the adaptable capabilities of today’s soldiers and Marines?
Along the course of biological evolution, even from generation to generation, many individual organisms die prematurely, even as their species becomes better adapted overall. In society, we would like to think that we don’t accept the deaths of individual humans so carelessly, and this idea has evolved and become more restrictive through time (e.g., modern medical ethics deplores past abuses where humans were part of medical tests without their consent or knowledge). How can we test and incorporate new adaptable ideas without undue risk to innocent humans or violations of widely held ethical norms?
I suggest in the book that the first step in setting off an “adaptable cascade” is to shift from giving orders to issuing challenges (pp. 217-219). What challenge could you issue starting tomorrow (in your workplace, in your family)? What incentive or prize would you need to get people to participate? What do you think will be necessary to make it work, or what factors might cause it to fail?