Review of “Learning From the Octopus” by Rafe Sagarin

Rafe Sagarin, a marine ecologist, suggests that we can use the lessons of nature to help prepare for natural disasters as well as to manage conflict among groups. Millions of species on Earth have learned how to survive and thrive in a risky, variable, and uncertain world – why not learn from natural organisms how they do it?

Through numerous very entertaining examples of behavior of biological organisms, the author finds that the most important property of surviving in response to selective pressures is adaptability. As he points out, “Fish don’t try to turn sharks into vegetarians.” Instead, they learn how to live with the risk and survive in spite of it. He describes, for example, how limpets withstand the pressures of waves, how starfish manage to feed on mussels, why beetles are so successful and how octopi avoid predators.

He also gives many examples of failures in human societies that could have been avoided by using the main lessons from organism survival that enhance adaptability: decentralization (maximizing benefits of on-site ability to react to changes in the environment); the use of redundancy; learning from success instead of just learning from failure (which is, at best, a solution to a one-time problem that has already occurred); and the use of symbiosis – i.e., working together so that each party benefits. Working together can result in large networks of independent, redundant parts, or it can result in emergent organizations that take on new properties from the combination of its constituents.

One barrier to using the nature model to increase societal adaptability is the top-down organization of many institutions in our society. Small elites get insulated and ossified, and resist sharing power. When change does take place it is often too late. On the other hand, allowing small networks within organizations to have the freedom and resources to innovate in response to problems that arise, and/or soliciting help for identified problems by issuing challenges, would emulate the natural adaptive organization of nature. This is already happening, he asserts, on an informal basis. Organizations that act more like networks, with units capable of reacting semi-autonomously to threats, can respond faster and more effectively. Compare, he proposes, the human immune system, and how well it works.

The lessons of nature, Sagarin notes, are “free for the taking”:

“It’s time to feel the cactus spine, listen to the marmot’s shrill call, and stare deep into the eye of an octopus.”

Evaluation: While there are those who resist attempts by academicians to reach beyond the narrow confines of their disciplines, I for one applaud their eclecticism, and think there is much to be learned from the practice. But even aside from Sagarin’s arguments for recognition of the value of biological understanding for human organizations, the stories he tells about organisms, particularly those found in tide-pools, are fascinating and worthwhile on their own. It also turns out that many of Sagarin’s ideas about connecting nature and society were inspired by Ed Ricketts, the very same “Doc” from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. I found out interesting facts in every chapter. I really enjoyed reading this book! My one complaint is that the index is not very helpful.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2012

Marine Ecologist Rafe Sagarin


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10 Responses to Review of “Learning From the Octopus” by Rafe Sagarin

  1. sandynawrot says:

    This is not a book I would automatically gravitate towards, but falls into that category of something I would learn from and enjoy if I gave it a chance. I admit that I find the animal kingdom endlessly fascinating and miraculous.

  2. CuriousSue says:

    Octopuses –> always fascinating.

  3. Veens says:

    Sounds amazing… but I don’t think I will pick this one up now. But I will definitely put it in my TBR

  4. that sounds oddly interesting! adaptability is something we all need to consider.

  5. Jenners says:

    I thought this was going to be a review of a children’s book!! I think it sounds like a fascinating view and one that we should all learn from.

  6. Vasilly says:

    This sounds like my kind of book!

  7. Staci@LifeintheThumb says:

    You make this non-fiction books sound very interesting and I don’t read much non-fiction….maybe I should change that with this book.

  8. zibilee says:

    I love nonfiction about nature, and think that I would love this book. Some of my favorite books are books that explore the connections and behaviors that humans and animals share. This sounds like it would be an excellent read for me, and I am going to add it to my shopping basket the next time that I am out and about at the book store. Fantastic review today!

  9. bookingmama says:

    I have a feeling that I’m not smart enough for this one!

  10. Rafe Sagarin says:

    Just a note from the author – thank you for this sharp summary and review – and a note to bookingmama and others with science anxiety – you are definitely smart enough for this book! I have heard from teenagers who love it and my wife, who has never read a single one of my scientific papers (she finds science incredibly tedious), read it through in one sitting and got it completely and even laughed several times. If any of you are interested in adopting “Learning from the Octopus” for your book club, I’ve made a series of discussion questions, available at – I hope you enjoy it! – Rafe

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