What We Can Learn From Mass Extinctions
Maybe it’s truer and more useful to marvel at how we very nearly destroyed ourselves after discovering an unstable new energy source, then figured our way out of it.
Since “no problem can be solved from the level of thinking that created it,” let’s look at our ecological crisis from the only angle that will help us solve it: not as an invasive species separate from the rest of the biosphere and “killing the planet,” but as something the Earth is doing, part of the story of life, participants in the distributed intelligence of the evolutionary process and thus performing a valuable function we cannot fully understand. This is the sixth mass extinction, so let’s look at how we (identifying with life as a whole, since we have never been completely removed from the layer of life that covers this planet) made it through a comparable crisis before:
Three and a half billion years ago, we had our first industrial revolution – the evolution of photosynthesis – and learned to convert sunlight into sugar. Like any Great Progress, it produced complex second-order consequences. By 2.5 billion years ago we had flooded the atmosphere with oxygen – a flammable and corrosive gas that was toxic to all life at the time. Some of us hid underground to escape the polluted skies; but some of us evolved a new metabolism, which used oxygen as a fuel source and powers our cells with tiny fires.
We revere the mutual respiration of animals and plants and speak of the sacred balance of nature. Maybe it’s truer and more useful to marvel at how we very nearly destroyed ourselves after discovering an unstable new energy source, then figured our way out of it – by coming up with a complementary metabolism that supported an even more diverse, dynamic, and intelligent ecosystem. We did it before; we can do it again.
(In one of nature’s great reversals, solar power caused the first ecological catastrophe, and internal combustion saved us from the brink of extinction…whereas today, it seems to be the other way around. We see this played out again and again in the cycle of forest fires, as carbon and other nutrients are stored in wood and then released back to the soil and atmosphere, nourishing a new cycle of life.)
So as scary as it is to think about the plastic islands in the Pacific Gyre, the rainforests turned to pasture, and the plumes of industrial exhaust, “life finds a way” and the collective intelligence of our species is a tissue in the body of the Gaian superorganism that is specialized for finding new solutions. Every time we paint ourselves into a corner with pollution, we find a way to turn that trash into energy – and so cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, a modern food web of complementary consumption, will become the new norm as “market forces” (a.k.a. the will to survive) pressures us to evolve new metabolic systems in partnership with both organic and digital life – a vaster, richer, smarter ecology in which nothing is wasted.
The solutions are many, from bottle bricks to bioremediation, aquaponics to time banks. Recycling is profitable and the history of life yields an inexhaustible wealth of good ideas. One of the best is that all pollution is a potential resource…and collapses come and go, leaving us wiser in their wake.
Paleontologist turned performance philosopher, Michael Garfield's ecodelic explorations map the evolutionary landscape and our place in it through improvised acoustic guitar electronica, live painting, and techgnostic evangelism for planetary culture. Follow him on twitter @michaelgarfield.
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.