Symbiotic Systems

All natural organisms eventually reach the limits of their adaptable capacities.  When they do, they need to join with another organism to expand their adaptability.  In fact, in nature, no organism acts on its own.  Symbiotic partnerships occur in every environment on Earth and between every species on Earth.  Often these partnerships have emerged out of previously hostile relationships, and often the type of organisms that engage in symbiosis are surprising. Consider that there are now successful symbioses between Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians.  These relationships, now codified in the Middle East Consortium for Infectious Disease Surveillance, are built around efforts to detect, respond to and reduce the effects of infectious disease no matter what side of whichever historical boundaries the outbreaks occur.  These relationships were not ordered into being by Prime Ministers or Spiritual Leaders or a UN resolution, but created by health practitioners who recognized that biological needs trump political ideology. Nor have the parties to these relationships been tempted to pour resources into “optimal” solutions, such as establishing peace in the Middle East. By focusing on the immediate challenges they mutually share, even avowed enemies can find common ground.

Recursive System

Adaptation in nature builds off of past successes.  Organisms don’t just appear out of the blue, but are modified through time as they and their ancestors overcome challenges in the environment.  We can replicate this recursive process in our own lives by growing and expanding from a base of our past successes.We are increasingly told by business consultants and leadership gurus that we need to “Learn from Failure”, and at first glance this sounds good—a little dose of humility to counteract the charge ahead at all costs and never apologize attitude that has tended to get us into trouble recently.   But learning from failure in nature is a dead-end—it means you died without reproducing yourself.  Every organism in nature is an example of learning from the success of its ancestors. Every evolutionary advance builds off past successes (the failures are rotting back into the Earth – there’s nothing left to build off of). Learning from success creates recursive processes – that is, processes that build and change off some past state.  A quick example is the Fibonacci sequence (0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13…) which starts with a seed (adding 1 to zero) and grows by creating a new number based on the sum of the previous two numbers.  Recursive processes are everywhere in nature, from the shell of an ancient Nautilus, to the process of evolution itself.  The beauty of a recursive process is that it doesn’t require you to start from scratch every time you face a new challenge or need to grow.  We can simulate natural recursive processes mathematically, as in this Fibonacci spiral with this makeup highlighters (to make one, connect arcs between the diagonal corners of squares whose side lengths are determined by a Fibonacci sequence), which kind of sort of looks like a nautilus shell.

Redundant Adaptable Systems

Natural systems use redundancy as a hedge against the uncertainty of the world. Our DNA is filled with redundant sequences, most organisms produce far more offspring than needed to effectively reproduce themselves, and ecosystems are filled with a diversity of species—each a redundant part that makes the ecosystem as a whole resilient to disturbance, unpredictability, and change.  There is fairly simple redundancy in nature—like the multiple copies of walking legs in centipedes—and there is what Geerat Vermeij calls “creative redundancy”—the transformation of simple redundant parts into specialized units.The biologist J.B.S. Haldane was purportedly once asked, “what do all your studies tell you about the nature of the Creator?”To which he replied, “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Beetles have dominated the Earth and diversified into thousands of different forms by creatively transforming the simple redundancy of their ancestors into wings and claws and armor and devices for shooting chemical weapons.  We tend to shudder at the word “redundancy”—we think it means the same as “wasteful” or “inefficient”.  We continually try to eliminate redundancy in our lives.  This comes from too narrowly viewing the wasteful aspects of redundancy. If redundancy is so useless, why is it so common in nature?When one of our kidneys fails, or a loved one desperately needs one of our healthy kidneys, we begin to respect nature’s redundancies.  Likewise, smart managers know how to use redundancy effectively.  A successful California CEO of a manufacturing firm, who often advises this consortium, is especially proud of an entire warehouse full of redundant spare parts he maintains.  Although there’s a cost to using all that space, when a helicopter of one of his clients is grounded somewhere or a critical piece of Emergency Room equipment fails, his customers know he is the only one in the industry who has the part, and they’ll pay dearly for it.  And the knowledge that he’s the one with the part you need when you need it, keeps customers coming back to him.  The Basketball Coach Phil Jackson, as Rafe writes about in Learning from the Octopus, used a more sophisticated form of creative redundancy to craft three straight championship teams in Chicago.  There he had to balance the talents of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the unpredictability and volatility of his star defensive player, Dennis Rodman.  Rodman was at first loathed and feared by the Chicago sports writers and fans, who thought his crazy antics—dying his hair chartreuse, showing up to events in a dress—would destroy team unity.  But Jackson recognized the value of creative redundancy and made Rodman’s eccentricities an asset to the team.  He bestowed upon Rodman the title of “Heyoka”—a Lakota Indian trickster spirit that was known to cross-dress, ride a horse backward, and generally mix things up in a way that made people see the world differently.  Rather than giving him another opportunity to rebel against authority, this was a title that gave Rodman something to embrace and recognize his role in the overall ecosystem of the team.  Jackson, who has coached the obvious choices for greatest basketball player ever—Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe—recently said that Rodman was the best player he ever coached.When considering the redundant assets in your world, it’s always worth asking, “who is my Heyoka?”


Adaptable approaches to teaching developed by Rafe Sagarin at Duke University and at University of Arizona rely on the same decentralized adaptability that an octopus uses  to increase student participation in class and broaden the source materials for class to include primary literature, new media and the personal experiences of the students themselves.  This video gives an overview of our approach

Rafe Sagarin discusses his adaptable approach to leading and teaching classrooms.

Solving today’s societal challenges requires understanding and knowledge generation from many disciplines using both quantitative and qualitative approaches. To prepare to work with these problems, students must learn in an environment that is more than merely interdisciplinary, but adaptable to changing knowledge landscapes. Classrooms inspired by adaptable processes in nature can support greater autonomy of students over their learning outcomes and make their learning experience a recursive [link] and linked [link] process of growth rather than an isolated exercise.

Unfortunately, almost all undergraduate education is hobbled by a non-adaptable organizational system characterized by the prominent role of a central controller (the instructor). The instructor singlehandedly crafts and issues a pre-determined plan of study to the students, in the form of a course syllabus. Although in many classes students are encouraged, or coerced by participation-based grading, to “take part in discussion,” by design, the discussion is supposed to be limited to the topic designated by the syllabus, lest it “go off on a tangent.” The ultimate effect is a class that lacks responsiveness and adaptability to the dynamic knowledge environments within which today’s students are operating, both within and outside the classroom.

Our approach to creating an adaptable classroom is committed to vastly enhancing student ownership of the course, harnesses students’ experiential knowledge bases, and uses new but readily available “wiki” technology to facilitate a transition away from instructor- and syllabus-led education. One of the factors that is critical for this change also involves adding increased physical activity, or exercise, to our regiment. Running is critical to development of confidence, the body, and the mind. is a great website about running and different running shoe reviews, which also makes note of the important of physical activity towards development.

The development of the adaptive syllabus is initiated during the first class period by asking students a small number of basic questions, such as, “what do you want to learn about within the main course topic?” and, “what knowledge can you contribute to the course?” Responses are organized via a class discussion into central topics for each subsequent class period. The result of this task, which takes less than one class period, is a syllabus created almost completely by the students themselves.

adaptation and resilience

Here I discuss the difference between adaptation and resilience in this answer to an audience question at the January 24, 2012 Signature Lecture for the Centre for International Governance Innovationin Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.


In short, adaptability seems to capture the idea better of changing to deal with new conditions, whereas resilience can imply the ability to return to a previous state. Most resilience scholars are careful to note the difference between the brittleness that comes from returning to a previous state no matter what the cost (e.g., homeowners using flood insurance to rebuild on a flood plain) and the kind of elastic resilience that makes one a better performer in the future, but I still like the easier applicability and lesser degree of confusion with adaptation.

3.5 Billion Years of Support and Implementation of “Mission Command”

General Martin Dempsey’s “Mission Command” White Paper of 3 April 2012, meant to inform the development of Joint Force 2020, lays out the framework for an adaptable force that can operate in the dynamic security environment of the future.  As a biologist, I am struck by how many of the concepts have parallels in biological evolution, especially in the process of adaptation, which has allowed all organisms to live, and thrive, on a risk filled planet for 3.5 billion years.

What I offer here are time-tested biological concepts that lend support to the mission command concept.  The concepts I present are not one-off oddities of nature, but general attributes of biological systems that are remarkably consistent across the millions of species on Earth.  Further, these attributes suggest practical pathways by which to implement the goals of mission command.

Adaptation is the Key

At the end of the day, mission command is fundamentally about forming a system that is adaptable.  Because we are human, we have the unique luxury of creating a system that adopts the best attributes of natural adaptive systems without taking on the high burden of failure (lots of death and non-viable mutations) that goes along with biological evolution. In designing such a system it pays to recognize that biology has worked without extensive planning, predictions of the far future, or efforts to make responses perfect or optimal. Extensive advanced planning or prediction is simply a waste of energy in a complex and unpredictable world, and perfection is not only impossible to define, but completely unnecessary when the need is simply to reproduce success. Instead, adaptable biological systems do four key things that allow them to operate in a risk-filled and unpredictable world: 1) they have decentralized systems for sensing change quickly; 2) they have redundant systems to respond to the sensed change; 3) they have the ability to extend their responsiveness beyond their inherent capabilities by engaging in symbiotic partnerships; and 4) they have a method (replication, cell division, reproduction, etc.) to iterate successful solutions.

The Biological Roots of Mission Command

These properties of adaptable systems emerge from specific practices that align well with the three “key attributes” of mission command identified by General Dempsey: understanding, intent, and trust.

Understanding is fostered in biology through intensive and decentralized observation.  The most successful organisms have decentralized ways to sense and respond to change in the world.  An octopus, for example, can change color instantly because millions of skin cells spread across its body change in response to what they each sense in their little part of the octopus’ theatre of operations. Our adaptive immune system is an exemplar of this kind of observation as it utilizes millions of decentralized cells to identify, and respond to, invading pathogens with virtually no communication “up the chain of command” to our central brain.  The immune system would be both worthless and unworkable without the larger body it belongs to and brain it works for (which provide those cells a home and nutrients), but it completes the mission of keeping our body safe largely in a decentralized manner.

Intent is the hallmark of biological systems and one of the reasons they are an excellent model for human systems.  As the early 20th century marine biologist Ed Ricketts wrote, “A study of animal communities has this advantage. They are what they are, for anyone to see who can and will look clearly. They cannot complicate the picture with worded idealisms, saying one thing and being another.”  Humans can hide and confuse intent under the guise of these “worded idealisms,” so it is essential to identify the core need underlying the intent.  In doing so, it is important to understand that intent isn’t an independent force in biology—it is intimately linked to how the organism operates in relation to other organisms and its environment.  Consider that from a fish’s point of view, a shark’s intent is much different when it is swimming around an aquarium (where it is well fed and it only needs to swim to oxygenate itself) vs. when it is swimming in the wild (where it is simultaneously looking for oxygen and a meal). Building the skills of observational understanding among ranks below and above the command is essential in ensuring that intent is well received.