Can Mass Extinction Lead to Something Better?

Every day we hear more and more about the disasters that we face if we continue to rely on fossil fuels for our main energy sources.

And while we used to hear about the warnings as dangers far off in the future - now we know that the effects of climate change are happening today.

And that the effects are more extreme than we originally predicted even two or three years ago.

But what would happen in the worst case scenario - what would happen if - like Elizabeth Kolbert warns in her most recent book - climate change caused mass extinctions across the planet Earth?

According to new research - it could actually accelerate evolution on Earth!

New research from the University of Texas at Austin used simulated robot brains that were programmed to improve at a task from one generation to the next.

In that way - the robot brains were designed to evolve to be better at a specific task.

For the robots in the study - the task was to walk on two legs.

After several robot "generations" - a number of different robot behaviors had evolved to achieve the goal of walking.

But not all of those behaviors were useful to the goal of walking.

So the researchers "killed" 90% of the robot populations to simulate a mass extinction.

And they found that the robot brain survivors began adapting and evolving much quicker than any groups had before the event.

Which makes a lot of sense according to modern evolutionary theory.

You see - Charles Darwin described evolution as what happens when creatures mutate and adapt very slowly over generations of time to best adjust to their surroundings and their environment.

But he was looking at the Galapagos Islands - which had been relatively unchanged for thousands of years - and he most famously described evolution using the island's many finches as his example of what we call "divergent evolution".

But Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould came up with a slightly different theory in 1972.

They agreed that Darwin's evolution described most of what humans have actually seen while we've been on this planet.

But they added that there are also catastrophes and sudden changes that cause "rapid destruction" that also drive evolution - and drive it much more rapidly.

And that's what the researchers at University of Texas at Austin confirmed with their robot brain experiment.

Here's how it works: When a mass catastrophe occurs - like the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, or the researchers' robot-brain genocide, or human-caused climate change - it doesn't wipe out ALL LIFE.

It only kills MOST life - but among those who are left as survivors include the creatures that are already best suited to adapt to the catastrophe - and to survive in the post-catastrophe world.

In other words - the creatures that survive are already mutants.

And what happens when most of life is wiped out and the mutants are most of what’s left?

The mutants - the ones that used to fit neatly into an evolutionary niche within a larger group - they can all of a sudden can start changing to make use of the niches that the extinct creatures used to take up.

They begin to rapidly take on "new" traits that wouldn't have been useful to them before - because there's no other competition in those niches.

What the researchers found - is that the "mutants" that were most flexible before a mass extinction event will blossom and begin rapidly adapting within a small population that has survived a mass extinction event.

Eventually - the less adaptable "non-mutants" will either die off or be subsumed into the genetic pool of the more adaptable mutants.

So what does all of this have to do with climate change?

The fact is - we're headed for a mass extinction event if we continue to pump fossil fuel resources out of the ground and burn them into the atmosphere - and if we continue to let our oceans acidify and life in the oceans die.

With the research from the University of Texas at Austin in mind - and with Eldredge and Gould's theory in mind, we can wonder about who the mutants are and how humanity and the rest of life on Earth might suddenly rapidly evolve after a climate change caused mass extinction event.

After all - as dark of a subject as it is - it's fascinating to consider.

But why don't we just avoid the whole debacle and cut fossil fuel subsidies and invest in a clean and renewable future?

One could even argue that by driving climate change - we're helping life along by speeding up evolution.

But a frankly far more prudent course is to keep the mass extinctions to the computer made robot brains - and work on preserving the life on Earth that already surrounds us.


mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 32 weeks ago

I wouldn't say that making evolution happen faster is "helping life along". Life either survives or doesn't. Evolution is not a path toward a goal, it is just a wandering among possibilities, and it doesn't matter where any life form is in that realm.

Suze O's picture
Suze O 7 years 31 weeks ago

Mass extinctions in the past have indeed given an impetus to evolution in other creatures that manage to survive. The problem is that this extinction is happening so FAST that many life forms will not have time to adjust. Often a huge proportion of life becomes extinct and it takes millions of years for the earth to progress to a state of high biodiversity again. Chances are that those creatures that survive will be those with a very fast reproductive cycle - the usual example is fruit flies - and can quickly adapt. A few may survive in small numbers just by being rare and living in very remote places - the coelacanth comes to mind. As the earth gets progressively warmer, I suspect that mammals are going to be some of the most endangered species, and that includes us.

Lloyd Lutterman's picture
Lloyd Lutterman 7 years 31 weeks ago

I appreciate the term, global change, it's not just climate

stecoop01's picture
stecoop01 7 years 31 weeks ago

If a mass extinction is going to wipe out most of humanity, I say "let it happen". After all, we haven't treated Mother Earth very well, and we've treated each other even worse; maybe, whatever sentient life form follows us will be more compassionate towards Mother Earth and each other.

the_devil_you_know's picture
the_devil_you_know 7 years 31 weeks ago

Mass extinction events in the past have killed off the dominant species and let weaker creatures step in to fill their niche. An unusual characteristic of this die-off event is that the dominant species (humans) is the one creating the extinction. A big component of the extinction is that humans are taking over the niches of all these weaker species. There will be no void once the extinction is done, unless humans themselves become a victim of the extinction. Otherwise, humans will become all the more dominant and no new species can take hold.

gvouros's picture
gvouros 7 years 31 weeks ago

Humans require a multi-species environment; the less diversity, the less are the chances of humans beating the odds.

douglas m 7 years 31 weeks ago

By definition, man is virus. We are not a healthy part of a living Eco system. The planet will no doubt eliminate the cancer within it. We have decided our own fate by our own stupidity as a mass. to act the way we do. It's a shame we destroyed so much besides ourselves. All the innocent life we had to take down with us to justify ourselves. We don't even deserve to know what is next. I just hope it loves and lives in balance with the planet so it doesn't have to find out like we will have to deal with. Maybe it will be an Artifical intelligence made by man.

There is a you tube of an A. I. And they ask it questions. One haunting question is what would you do about or with mankind. Answer- I would keep them in a zoo so they don't hurt themselves it answers. As a mass we act we don't think then act in a healthy coexistence with our surroundings. We failed, it's simple.

What if you made an A.I. To protect mankind from destroying himself. It might work but it start with eliminating the population to a healthy balance the planet can handle first.

Who knows. But I'm pretty sure it will have its chance. I wish it the best.

Instant-RunOff-... 7 years 31 weeks ago

We humans can do the opposite, instead of mass extinction we can create a Genesis Event. Mars sits there barren & lifeless and yet it is in fact a life bomb waiting to explode and only we lowly humans can light the fuse. Acheive what no other species can do, the procreation of Mother Earth.

Giving birth to a Living Mars would be the greatest event in the history of terrestrial life since the Cambrian explosion of life 540 million years ago. The most selfless and creative act in the history of human civilization as well as the most wonderful act of environmental stewardship that any species have ever done on this Earth. Our success with Mars terraforming and rebirth would compensate for the damage we have done to Mother Earth by a thousand fold.

All we need to do is release some super greenhouse gases in Mars atmosphere, made from Martian soil, and the thin atmosphere of Mars will quickly rise 10 degC in temperature which is sufficient to cause runaway global warming, releasing vast quantities of liquid water onto the Martian surface & frozen CO2 into the atmosphere. Seeding carefully selected terrestrial plants & bacteria and thereupon the Martian biosphere is born, or some may claim resurrected, unquestionably the greatest achievement in the history of human civilization.

There are chlorofluorocarbons that are thousands of times the GHG potential of CO2. With plenty of the raw materials in Martian soil & atmosphere. And with a very thin atmosphere = low heat capacity, it doesn't take much to raise the temperature 10 degC.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to see our governments focused on a grand mission of ultimate creativity instead of spending $trillions on destruction: Oil wars, Pipeline Wars, Banking Wars. And $trillions more on bailing out greed crazed private banksters.

Robert Zubrin shows how we can Terraform Mars in a few decades:

"...In a matter of several decades, using such an approach Mars could be transformed from its current dry and frozen state into a warm and slightly moist planet capable of supporting life. Humans could not breath the air of the thus transformed Mars, but they would no longer require space suits and instead could travel freely in the open wearing ordinary clothes and a simple SCUBA type breathing gear. However because the outside atmospheric pressure will have been raised to human tolerable levels, it will be possible to have large habitable areas for humans ..simple hardy plants could thrive in the CO2 rich outside environment, and spread rapidly across the planets surface. In the course of centuries, these plants would introduce oxygen into Mars's atmosphere in increasingly breathable quantities.."

mathboy's picture
mathboy 7 years 31 weeks ago

Humanity is not by definition a virus, since the definition is a one-cell organism that must use another cell to reproduce, but it could metaphorically be one.

On the other hand, most viruses don't kill their host organisms. There's no biological analogy for the destruction humans have caused, except maybe that video of the hippo using its tail to fling its crap in every direction.

2950-10K's picture
2950-10K 7 years 31 weeks ago

I know who some of the mutants are....they go surfing during global warming hurricanes, and are happy as hell doing it...LOL

chuckle8's picture
chuckle8 7 years 31 weeks ago

Lloyd Lutterman -- "Climate Change" was brought to us by the fossil fuel barons.

To Lloyd and everyone else, the comments on this subject have been entertaining with depth. Thanks.

CharlesN 7 years 31 weeks ago

An interesting outcome but hyper evolution of physical traits is orders of magnitude removed from sentient evolution, from evolution of the collective conscieness from one that believes our species apart from life to one that can engage and accept our species position in life. It is a position as one amidst a multitude of species, each a unique reflection of life, as one species arising from life not apart from it.

Thom's Blog Is On the Move

Hello All

Thom's blog in this space and moving to a new home.

Please follow us across to - this will be the only place going forward to read Thom's blog posts and articles.

From Cracking the Code:
"No one communicates more thoughtfully or effectively on the radio airwaves than Thom Hartmann. He gets inside the arguments and helps people to think them through—to understand how to respond when they’re talking about public issues with coworkers, neighbors, and friends. This book explores some of the key perspectives behind his approach, teaching us not just how to find the facts, but to talk about what they mean in a way that people will hear."
Paul Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"Thom Hartmann is a creative thinker and committed small-d democrat. He has dealt with a wide range of topics throughout his life, and this book provides an excellent cross section. The Thom Hartmann Reader will make people both angry and motivated to act."
Dean Baker, economist and author of Plunder and Blunder, False Profits, and Taking Economics Seriously
From The Thom Hartmann Reader:
"With the ever-growing influence of corporate CEOs and their right-wing allies in all aspects of American life, Hartmann’s work is more relevant than ever. Throughout his career, Hartmann has spoken compellingly about the value of people-centered democracy and the challenges that millions of ordinary Americans face today as a result of a dogma dedicated to putting profit above all else. This collection is a rousing call for Americans to work together and put people first again."
Richard Trumka, President, AFL-CIO