The end of the world is a thing that has played on everyone’s mind at one time or another. For me, ever since I first saw The Day the Earth Stood Still as a re-run on late-night TV, I have had a thing for silver suits. But I’ve also had a separate worry that the Earth will be destroyed in an all-consuming conflagration that will wipe out 99 percent of life.
My fears were somewhat allayed recently, however, when a paper appeared in the journal PLoS, in which a team of scientists ran a software program using simulated lifeforms to show that even if the planet does get largely cremated by a bunch of pushy police-state aliens telling us what we can and can’t do with our own nuclear weapons, some life would survive.
Even better, the ones that were left would actually have a sped-up evolutionary path as they would quickly fill niches left behind by other creatures vaporized in the name of intergalactic arms control…
Whoa, hang on; wind that back a little. Sped-up evolution?
Didn’t Charles Darwin argue that evolution doesn’t just occur for the sake of change, but through generations whose innate traits were increasingly simpatico with the environment in which they lived? But creatures changing to fill gaps? This is all starting to sound a bit too Lamarckian1 for me.
On deeper investigation2 it turns out that the computer game software simulation was actually created by a couple of computer gamers software scientists who decided that, despite evolutionary biology being a discipline largely orthogonal to their own, they could show those evolutionary biologists a thing or two by making an entire world of creatures that evolved, changed, and adapted just like real creatures do.
Having unwittingly reinvented Spore, they then wiped out varying percentages of the virtual population and observed how the mutations that they had built in would help the survivors. Unsurprisingly, the artificial algorithms driving the evolutionary mechanisms in their (super-simplistic) synthetic world made the simulacra change rapidly to suit their environment.
In other words, their program called the shots by manipulating evolution to move suitable types into appropriate niches. Never mind that real life is a complex, subtle, interplay of myriad factors and an almost infinitesimal number of outcomes influenced by a similarly vast panoply of influencing factors (i.e. luck), because, according to the researchers, one can assume anything in a virtual world:
This representation assumes that novel phenotypic traits are necessary for the organism to live in a new niche, and thus that phenotypic variability will lead to more diversity…
In other words, all bets are off; assumptions have been made, excuses have been given, and the get-out-of-jail-free card in the game of experimental research has been shown.
Bubble burst, I’m now back to worrying about the apocalypse and judgement day. Worse still, I’m fretting about leaving my silver suit on layaway for too long so I don’t get to wear it before we’re all obliterated to make way for a hyperspace bypass.[Post image via Shutterstock]
The principle that genetic changes can be influenced and directed by environmental factors. For example, Lamarck believed that the long necks of giraffes evolved as generations of giraffes reached for ever-higher leaves. ↩
which actually just means I read to the bottom of the paper ↩
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