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Grandeur in Extinctions?

computer simulation
Image: A scene from The Information Enigma, via Discovery Institute.

A new “study” from the Tokyo Institute of Technology applied artificial intelligence (AI) to the history of life on earth. According to the GIGO law (garbage in, garbage out), one cannot get more out of a model than what one puts in. Perhaps this one could be a corollary of that law, DIDO: put Darwinian assumptions in, and you will get Darwinian models out. Phys.org introduces the project with some Darwin praise: 

Charles Darwin’s landmark opus “On the Origin of the Species” ends with a beautiful summary of his theory of evolution: “There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” In fact, scientists now know that most species that have ever existed are extinct. [Emphasis added.]

What is a “study”? It’s one of those subjective, indefinite terms that could mean something good, bad, or indifferent, depending on how hard the people studied, and how objective they tried to be. One should glide over anything called a “study” and consider it sloppy till proven rigorous. This new study’s model is pictured in a color graph, with the following caption:

A new study applies machine learning to the fossil record to visualise life’s history, showing the impacts of major evolutionary events. This shows the long-term evolutionary and ecological impacts of major events of extinction and speciation.

History was what it was, not what a machine says it must have been. Machines don’t learn unless they are instructed by intelligent human minds to do so — and humans have biases. 

Something Surprising

The Tokyo group mixed together some inputs but got something surprising: two Darwinian inputs appeared to clash with each other.

This extinction of species has, on the whole, been roughly balanced by the origination of new ones over Earth’s history, with a few major temporary imbalances scientists call mass extinction events. Scientists have long believed that mass extinctions create productive periods of species evolution, or “radiations,” a model called “creative destruction.” A new study led by scientists affiliated with the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at Tokyo Institute of Technology used machine learning to examine the co-occurrence of fossil species and found that radiations and extinctions are rarely connected, and thus mass extinctions likely rarely cause radiations of a comparable scale.

This should be rather sad for Darwinians. They thought that a mass extinction creates new organisms (“productive periods of species evolution”). They had believed that “creative destruction” was sufficient to bring forth new organisms in rapid speciation events called radiations. But whenever clashing Darwin inputs lead to a contradiction in expectations, there’s never cause for worry. New scenarios can always be imagined in order to keep evolutionary theory intact. In Quinian terms, their web of belief is robust against perturbations. They can have their Creative Destruction, and Grandeur, too! 

A New Narrative and the Cambrian Explosion

Here’s how they applied this new narrative to the Cambrian Explosion.

Creative destruction is central to classic concepts of evolution. It seems clear that there are periods in which many species suddenly disappear, and many new species suddenly appear. However, radiations of a comparable scale to the mass extinctions, which this study, therefore, calls the mass radiations, have received far less analysis than extinction events. This study compared the impacts of both extinction and radiation across the period for which fossils are available, the so-called Phanerozoic Eon. The Phanerozoic (from the Greek meaning “apparent life”), represents the most recent ~ 550-million-year period of Earth’s total ~4.5 billion-year history, and is significant to palaeontologists: Before this period, most of the organisms that existed were microbes that didn’t easily form fossils, so the prior evolutionary record is hard to observe. The new study suggests creative destruction isn’t a good description of how species originated or went extinct during the Phanerozoic, and suggests that many of the most remarkable periods of evolutionary radiation occurred when life entered new evolutionary and ecological arenas, such as during the Cambrian explosion of animal diversity and the Carboniferous expansion of forest biomes.

No harm was done to Darwinism in their “study,” because the web of belief can be rearranged so that radiation takes place in the arena of ecology instead of extinction. “Creative destruction” no longer needs to be the cause for sudden appearance of many new species. Changing ecology can be re-routed to become the cause for it. Maybe it was climate change.

Chatting at Lunch

The team discussed how to rearrange the inputs while chatting at lunch. If extinctions don’t cause radiations, they pondered, that means the classic K-T extinction/radiation narrative needs rewiring. With billions of data points available to crunch in their models, there was plenty of wiggle room for the model to get the desired Darwin output. 

Lead author Dr. Hoyal Cuthill said, “Some of the most challenging aspects of understanding the history of life are the enormous timescales and numbers of species involved. New applications of machine learning can help by allowing us to visualise this information in a human-readable form. This means we can, so to speak, hold a half-billion years of evolution in the palms of our hands and gain new insights from what we see.”

How this differs from interpreting tea leaves was not explained. It would seem that the more leaves, the more opportunities to give the customers what they want to hear. Customers in academia want to hear it in jargon, so the authors obliged by publishing their lunchtime chat, translated into appropriate stultiloquence, in Nature. They scored extra points by getting noted Cambrian paleontologist Graham Budd to sign on.

Here we apply machine learning to generate a spatial embedding (multidimensional ordination) of the temporal co-occurrence structure of the Phanerozoic fossil record, covering 1,273,254 occurrences in the Paleobiology Database for 171,231 embedded species. This facilitates the simultaneous comparison of macroevolutionary disruptions, using measures independent of secular diversity trends….

… and so on and so forth. Their take-home finding, though, was simple: extinctions and radiations are not necessarily correlated, as previously thought. Phys.org shares the reaction:

Surprisingly, in contrast to previous narratives emphasising the importance of post-extinction radiations, this work found that the most comparable mass radiations and extinctions were only rarely coupled in time, refuting the idea of a causal relationship between them.

Once Again, No Problemo

In one co-author’s colloquial translation, “you don’t necessarily have to chip an existing piece off to allow something new to appear.” Why, organisms can suddenly emerge without a prior extinction to push them into colonizing vacant ecospace. There is grandeur in this view of life!

With that aspect of their “study” complete, they concocted another scenario by flipping the phrase into “destructive creation.”

The team further found that radiations may, in fact, cause major changes to existing ecosystems, an idea the authors call “destructive creation.” They found that, during the Phanerozoic Eon, on average, the species that made up an ecosystem at any one time are almost all gone by 19 million years later. But when mass extinctions or radiations occur, this rate of turnover is much higher.

This narrative had an advantage. It gave them an opportunity to blame our modern technological society. This has become almost a requirement for any paper about extinction.

Dr. Hoyal Cuthill says, “Each extinction that happens on our watch erases a species that may have existed for millions of years up to now, making it harder for the normal process of new species origination to replace what is being lost.”

And what is that normal process of new species origination, class? It’s Creative Destruction. Or was that Destructive Creation? Whatever. The details don’t matter in this “study” because the web of belief is robust to perturbations. Input Darwin assumptions; stir the billions of tea leaves; output Darwin conclusions. There is grandeur in this view of life, Darwin taught us. With its several powers, including new ones like Creative Destruction and Destructive Creation, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved — and destroyed.