Mass Extinctions May Actually Speed Up Evolution

Walking the walk. Joel Lehman.

Surprising research has shown that mass extinctions, despite being, well, mass extinctions, may actually have a positive effect on evolution. Bear with us here.

In research published in the journal PLoS One, scientists from the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) created a computer simulation in which neural networks were connected to simulated robotic legs. The goal of the networks was to evolve a virtual robot that could walk smoothly and stably.

Random mutations were introduced during the process, as occur in actual evolution, which created a wide range of traits after hundreds of generations, although only a few of these actually fulfilled the goal of walking. However, by randomly killing off 90% of the robots – mimicking a mass extinction – something rather intriguing happened.

The researchers found that the lineages that survived a simulated mass extinction had a greater ability to evolve than when there was no mass extinction. Simulated mass extinctions also resulted in more novel approaches to solving the walking problem. 

"This is a good example of how evolution produces great things in indirect, meandering ways," explained co-author Joel Lehman from IT University of Copenhagen, formerly from UT Austin, in a statement.

"Focused destruction can lead to surprising outcomes," added his fellow co-author Risto Miikkulainen from UT Austin. "Sometimes you have to develop something that seems objectively worse in order to develop the tools you need to get better."

The research doesn’t go so far to say that mass extinctions, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago, are necessarily good. But it does highlight that, even when faced with untold adversity, life is able to adapt and survive. And indeed, the demise of the dinosaurs allowed mammals to flourish, as previously occupied niches of the environment opened up.

“The conclusion is that although they are destructive in the short term, extinction events may make evolution more prolific in the long term,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

In the words of Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.”

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