Mass extinctions and global recession - the triviality of catastrophe

While spending today chopping out well over a hundred devils fig trees from our gully and land I came up with an idea. It is that:
The mass extinctions that punctuate life on earth where periodically more than 50% of all species disappear within a short interval are not so much a consequence of the catastrophes that precipitate the extinctions so much as they are a result of the increasingly complex ecosystem's inability to adapt to the catastrophes without the dramatic species loss.
Life is complicated. From starting with a single cell, a complete incredibly complicated animal gets built just by feeding it the right raw materials.
Incredibly complex? Yes, but its just the beginning. Depending on the animal, it is then subjected to a period where it is educated by its parents and surrounding environment so that it can perform effectively in the incredible web of interdependent life on Earth. An incredible place where, for example, a single species of orchid depends upon one specific species of wasp to fertilise it and that wasp in turn might depend upon one specific species of moth to reproduce and that moth...
Evolution and adaptation ensure that the specialists thrive because, when conditions remain relatively stable, a specialist will always outperform a generalist.
However, the interdependence of ever more specialised specialists creates an ever more rigid structure where the probability of biological evolutionary change providing effective adaptation to externally imposed change goes down.
The result of these conflicting factors is oscillation - The ecosystem cycles from relatively low biodiversity and low interdependence such that it is robust (it adapts to externally imposed changes) up to a highly interdependent biodiverse ecology that cannot adapt because any such adaptation would have to be multivariate and is thus outside of the scope of the evolutionary process in the required timeframe.
Given the slightly declining background of catastrophic externally imposed events (the Earth is becoming more stable as it slowly cools down) the ecosystem is inevitably 'toppled into a mass extinction' soon after it reaches a certain level of complexity and interdependence and the cycle then starts over. In the past these 'mass extinctions' have occurred roughly once every 100 million years with the last one about 65 million years ago when we said goodbye to the dinosaurs. Many people believe that the human factor is accelerating the onset of the next mass extinction. This could well be true (nobody really knows because we have not had accurate enough records for long enough).
The ecosystem is arguably still adapting through the mass extinction process but that is scant recompense for the vast majority of species within the system that die out with each cycle. Its quite likely that we humans will be both among the causes and the victims of the next mass extinction event.
As a species, the notion that we can stop this 'sixth mass extinction' through our own activity is to vastly overestimate our own collective powers of self control.
Our only chance of surviving to live on as a species past the next mass extinction is to begin creating additional distinct ecosystems that are not subject to the same influences. This would mean establishing substantial self-sufficient off world colonies. Something that is already well within our technological capability. These colonies would not just ensure humanity's long term survival but would also secure species diversity for much of the Earth originated ecosystem (emigrants would, of necessity, take it with them). I live in hope that we'll start to see real movement in this direction before the end of my lifetime (in 50 years or so if I'm lucky).
So Life cycles through increasing biodiversity leading to inability to respond to calamity causing mass extinctions leading to reduced biodiversity with increased responsiveness and so on because there is a constant background of calamity (its an unstable and changing world) and because natural selection generates progressively greater biodiversity and species specialisation.
The system for the global economy is simple in comparison but still very complicated. As we head towards another recession I cannot help but wonder if we're seeing the same kind of cycle and whether there is some underlying mathematics that both systems share.
Increasingly specialised companies (and qualified people) perform incredibly well against their competition leading to more specialisation and rarified qualifications and requirements which results in a critical vulnerability to change. A crucial and significant economic change (such as the rising expectations of the Chinese people) and the system comes tumbling down. Then you have a recession and the companies that rise up for the next cycle are more general and less vulnerable to change but of course they get beaten out by the more specialised companies who are beaten out by even more specialised operations until the vulnerability gets to a point that the whole system is knocked back by another calamity...
This contrasts with the causes indicated by economists who are pretty much obligated to come up with something more tangible as an 'explanation'.
So... if this idea is to become a theory I'd have to develop it to being a testable hypothesis. To develop the theoretical element in mathematical terms is not something I have time for (and if I did, I might discover it was beyond me) but I think some of the ideas in complexity theory and chaos theory are in the right vein. Circumstantial support could be obtained in any event by seeking events similar to the catastrophic events postulated for the mass extinctions (or economic discontinuities) that failed to cause a similar level of extinction or discontinuity. If these could be compared against an index for specialisation (or just time to keep it simple initially) then we'd have some pretty good circumstantial evidence.
Perhaps I'll get around to it one day but half an hour on this idea is all I have to spare for it now unless anyone fancies donating me some major funds :)


Jeremy Armstrong 12 years ago

What about the stock market?
Wow... I wonder if the same logic can be applied to the stock market. All the companies and businesses get more and more interrelated and specialised until they tumble down en mass as a result of the 'butterfly effect'. Then the few general companies start building up again (the biggest companies are 'general' almost be definition) and becoming more specialised until *crash* down they come again!

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