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Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Can Mass Extinction Lead To Something Better?

Can Mass Extinction Lead To Something Better?

By Thom Hartmann
August 18, 2015

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

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 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.

Thom Hartmann is a Project Censored Award-Winning New York
Times Best-Selling Author, and Host of a nationally syndicated
daily talk program on the Air America Radio Network.

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