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.

ADHD: Hunter in a Farmer's World

Thom Hartmann has written a dozen books covering ADD / ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder.

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