Another lesson from the octopus is that adaptability requires redundancy. "We think of redundancy as wasteful and inefficient, but it's everywhere in nature," he notes.
Defensively and offensively, an octopus has no shortage of coping mechanisms – camouflage, powerful arms, intelligence, a sharp beak, symbiotic toxins and a cloud of ink. When escaping, it can squeeze into a tight space, blend in with the background, jet away, and, in the lab at least, grab two halves of a coconut shell and sequester itself inside them.
Just as importantly, Sagarin discovered what it is that organisms don't do. In general, they don't plan, predict or try to be perfect. When Sagarin tells this to the members of strategic planning departments in government agencies, it leads to "a lot of consternation and grinding of teeth," in part because it's so counter-intuitive.
Indeed, if there is a single message that sums up all of Sagarin's work, it's that organisms realized long ago that the world is a much less predictable place than humans would like to believe. What Sagarin calls the "non-normal distribution of truly interesting events," which was explored at length in Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan, has relevance to how we'll cope with everything from disease outbreaks to climate change.
"We spend a lot of time in planning exercises, making predictive models, and in optimization routines," says Sagarin. "All of which have essentially been selected against in nature, because they're incredibly wasteful when you live in an unpredictable world."
Organisms and humans should plan for things that occur with some frequency; buildings in earthquake-prone areas must be ready for tremors just as surely as mating Horseshoe crabs need to know the phase of the moon. But the biggest dangers are those we've yet to identify, and if nature is any guide, the only way to prepare for them and respond to them effectively is to have an abundance of flexibility and skills which can be combined to meet any challenge.