three cheers for the octopus!

Learning from the Octopus by Rafe Sagarin should be required reading for everyone–yes, everyone! A marine ecologist by training, Sagarin draws on his knowledge of the natural world to explain how ecological processes can help us better respond to national security issues, treatment of diseases, and scores of other situations. Key features of successful adaptation in his model include a ground-up process of adaptation, learning from success, decentralized organization of problem-solvers, and useful redundancy. Change created by “experts,” in this model, is the least efficient, adaptive, and imaginative. This aligns in interesting ways with the guiding ethos of composition (whether or not that ethos shows up in practice) entangled as it is with student-centered learning practices, collaboration, process, and repetition. But, I’m not so interested in those basic similarities; it’s the kind of thinking he’s doing in this book that really intrigues me.

The basic idea is simple: apply what you know about natural ecologies, especially how they address conflict and difference, to human-created problems/tensions/conflicts. Build insight and new ways of seeing from what’s already always operating around you. The intellectual migration operation (sometimes called “traveling theory,” though Sagarin isn’t dealing exclusively with theory) of taking from one place to reveal something heretofore unnoticed in the other is one that I’ve tried many times to apply in my own work (sometimes successfully) and to teach my students (no easy task in our highly disciplined silos and scenes of increasingly narrow specialization). This movement from known to unknown can be refreshing, surprising, downright intoxicating.

This book is all about natural processes of adaptation and change that evolve as creatures learn more about their environments. When new threats confronted sea anemones, they developed stingers in their tentacles for protection. Sagarin uses this and loads of other examples to demonstrate the adaptive capacities nascent within diverse environments. He contrasts this with the often heavy-handed, top-down security responses we see from the U.S. government–airport searches and body scans are perhaps the most memorable examples. Rather than adapting to a flux environment composed of creative threats, threats that are themselves flexible and highly adaptive to changing environments, airport searches (and color alert codes–no longer in use) announce their intentions through intrusive and expensive measures. These measures are so specific, so dependent on certain kinds of threats, that they practically challenge determined predators to create inventive work-arounds. And they are up for the challenge, as we’ve seen numerous times in the recent past.

Sagarin writes, “For organisms in nature or organizations in a bureaucracy, harnessing the power of learning from environmental changes is a key first step in becoming more adaptable to changes that will inevitably come in the future” (35). (A good lesson for wpas!) Helps me ask what central environmental changes comp should recognize in order to learn from them (and leads me to think about the value of observation as a research method for inquiry in our field–I’d call it “slow looking”). Throughout the book, Sagarin insists that we have misinterpreted Darwin; evolution is not about perfection (common interpretation of “survival of the fittest”) but about adaptability, a mind-set that we can see at work all over the place (not just in the government). He notes that adaptation “requires leaving or being forced from your comfort zone and into a place where you observe and experience new threats to your security” (1). While the context for his work is life-threatening security issues, the principles he describes are relevant to a wide range of settings…wherever people gather to get things done.

One possible application of these ideas to my field: the tendency in comp to announce theoretical shifts (survival of the fittest!)–i.e., we’re not process anymore; we’re postprocess–can be understood as a heavy-handed attempt to deal with the reality of changing material realities (e.g., textuality ain’t what it used to be and neither is audience, self, etc. etc.). This “shift” or “movement,” as postprocess advocates name it, is meant to represent a hard break rather than an evolving, adaptive response to changing conditions. What are the costs of this constructed move? What’s embedded in an intellectual value system that needs breaks and refutations to see difference? Who are the main beneficiaries of this move? The losers? What’s at stake in announcement of difference, this intention to dissociate? Just a teensy way to begin putting some of S’s ideas into play.


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