Computer scientists find mass extinctions can accelerate evolution

Aug 18, 2015

Joel Lehman

By University of Texas at Austin

A computer science team at The University of Texas at Austin has found that robots evolve more quickly and efficiently after a virtual mass extinction modeled after real-life disasters such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs. Beyond its implications for artificial intelligence, the research supports the idea that mass extinctions actually speed up evolution by unleashing new creativity in adaptations.

Computer scientists Risto Miikkulainen and Joel Lehman co-authored the study published today in the journal PLOS One, which describes how simulations of mass extinctions promote novel features and abilities in surviving lineages.

“Focused destruction can lead to surprising outcomes,” said Miikkulainen, a professor of computer science at UT Austin. “Sometimes you have to develop something that seems objectively worse in order to develop the tools you need to get better.”

In biology, mass extinctions are known for being highly destructive, erasing a lot of genetic material from the tree of life. But some evolutionary biologists hypothesize that extinction events actually accelerate evolution by promoting those lineages that are the most evolvable, meaning ones that can quickly create useful new features and abilities.


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12 comments on “Computer scientists find mass extinctions can accelerate evolution

  • First of all, a big fat like to this collaboration for publishing the article on PLoS One, thus making it freely accessible to everybody. This is really appreciated. And also thanks to Science Daily for reporting it.
    Here’s their paper: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0132886

    Secondly, it’s very nice to see this actually supported: the fact that extinction events, by freein up many niches, are actually a sort of “creative” boost when it comes to evolution. I’m now reeading their article… I may comment further later.



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  • Thanks for the link Lorenzo.

    If I can grasp the basis of the idea I too may comment further later, but at a glance, for now, it puts me in mind of that simple act carried out by gardeners; namely, pruning.

    The essential act which promotes regeneration, and vigorous new growth; indeed, in some cases, the harder the pruning the more effective are its results.

    Whether or not the two are analogous I don’t know.



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  • Extinctions caused by large environmental changes, have a similar effect to the emergence of pristine volcanic islands in an ocean.

    They offer new habitat to species which adapt to the new conditions, in the absence of the well adapted constraining competition for resources which exists in long established habitats.



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  • Alan, does what you point out mean that I was more or less thinking along the right lines, in that evolution is driven by environmental changes, and that so called mass extinctions aren’t in fact extinctions but thinnings out or winnowings?

    Don’t worry, I’m here to learn, and that means risking being shot down.



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  • Stafford Gordon
    Aug 20, 2015 at 4:07 am

    that evolution is driven by environmental changes, and that so called mass extinctions aren’t in fact extinctions but thinnings out or winnowings?

    It is a question of scale. Thinnings out tend to be on-going routine losses of a small proportion of the life removing the less competitive from the diversifying masses, in the context of the current environment.

    Mass extinctions remove a very large proportion of the populations (particularly species vulnerable to the changes), and only a small selection of species diversify to lead the recovery.

    In the KT extinction animals were more vulnerable than plants, so while many plant species became extinct with ferns proliferating in vacated niches, all over the planet, because plants can exist as dormant seeds/spores for many years, they were less prone to damage from short-term changes.

    http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/103/7/v.full
    They explain the ‘fern spike’ as due to impact (blast) ‘knock down’ of Late Cretaceous forests, rather than destruction by forest fire.

    Perhaps the single most important conclusion of these authors is that ‘no major plant groups disappeared at the boundary, and the damage primarily occurred at the species level’. This of course contrasts strikingly with the much more extensive extinctions occurring at that horizon in the animal kingdom.

    Other geological events, such as changes in sea-level or tectonics, creating or removing land-bridges between continents, can lead to invasions by species new to particular areas, having radical effects on existing local populations.



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  • Many thanks Alan; rather than feeling shot down, your elaboration has afforded me something of an uplift.

    It seems to me that once the basics of evolution have been grasped it’s possible even for the layperson to recognize and tease out its various threads logically.

    It’s wonderful that what is arguably the most profound discovery ever is accessible to all.

    What a shame more don’t avail themselves of it.



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  • You’re on the right track with the gardening analogy 🙂 an extension of that could be tree-grafting, where a new but slightly different tree grows out of the grafting of one tree onto another. Once new growth is removed and prevented on the two original trees and all the weeds are cleared away, the new tree is free to grow with its new features. Nice analogy…



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  • 10
    Lorenzo says:

    In my spare time I’ve been reading an article about the radiation of birds after the K-Pg extinction event: it turns out that speciation at that time was tremendously fast, with a branching scheme that resembles a star rather than a tree:

    http://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1002224

    It’s nice when things work out even when considered from two very different point of view.
    Also, the article is very interesting. The whole home page of Plos Bio is stuffed with interesting things today.



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  • It would appear that the Lord of Evolution ruling over the evolvability of plants and animals is the unique species we call Homo sapiens. Over the last 30,000 years or so humans have come gradually to occupy or control many of the niches for species gradually displacing natural selection with technology to determine outcomes of survival or extinction.

    Consider the contrasting fortunes of the American bison (buffalo) and commercial beef cattle. At their zenith, 50 million bison occupied the central plains. Small tribes of indigenous nomads hunted them for food, clothing and shelter material but made little impact on their survival through adaptive grazing on infinite grasslands. Within several decades in the second half of the 19th century, Euro-American settlers hunted them on an industrial scale with powerful “buffalo rifles” into near extinction. Humans moved swiftly to fill the niche they had just emptied with beef cattle domesticated for the slaughter house and the dining table. Today over 2 billion cattle are slaughtered each year worldwide. None of these developments had anything to do with “evolution” as discussed in the article -nothing to do with climate change, natural disasters -volcanic eruptions or meteor crashes- or the mass extinctions shown to follow them.. As for “evolvability”… Well, from here on out friends, we’ll be the judge of that.



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  • Melvin
    Aug 29, 2015 at 1:33 am

    It would appear that the Lord of Evolution ruling over the evolvability of plants and animals is the unique species we call Homo sapiens.

    Humans are more like the “Lords of Extinction”!

    Over the last 30,000 years or so humans have come gradually to occupy or control many of the niches for species gradually displacing natural selection with technology to determine outcomes of survival or extinction.

    Human enhancements on survivability are limited. Most changes have simply been to make the species CVs dependent on humans for survival – with rapid extinctions when human fashions change. Technologies just add another layer to Natural Selection, with natural adaptations being triggered by this sort of selection. (Hence anti-biotic and pesticide resistant species)

    Humans moved swiftly to fill the niche they had just emptied with beef cattle domesticated for the slaughter house and the dining table. Today over 2 billion cattle are slaughtered each year worldwide.

    When Europeans tried to introduce their breeds of cattle into parts of (White-man’s grave) Africa, Natural Selection by the native diseases and insects, promptly killed them.

    None of these developments had anything to do with “evolution” as discussed in the article -nothing to do with climate change, natural disasters -volcanic eruptions or meteor crashes- or the mass extinctions shown to follow them..

    These developments, were simply the evolutionary features of invasive species – humans and their (intentionally and otherwise) introduced livestock and plants. The biological inputs, can out-compete and eliminate native species, just as effectively as geological events in some ecosystems in some circumstances.

    As for “evolvability”… Well, from here on out friends, we’ll be the judge of that.

    Not that our judgement shows much sign of competence! We take short-term advantages of cleared niches, but as evolution moves on, many sorts of unanticipated (and anticipated but widely ignored) effects, continue to kick in!
    Many technically enhanced exploitative human communities, operate as bumbling observers of evolution, often destructively invading and displacing more sustainable cultures or ecosystems. – Behaving like some virulent parasite which destroys its food/material sources by killing its host.



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