Computer scientists find mass extinctions can accelerate evolution

August 12, 2015, University of Texas at Austin
At the start of the simulation, a biped robot controlled by a computationally evolved brain stands upright on a 16 meter by 16 meter surface. The simulation proceeds until the robot falls or until 15 seconds have elapsed. Credit: Joel Lehman

A computer science team at The University of Texas at Austin has found that robots evolve more quickly and efficiently after a virtual mass extinction modeled after real-life disasters such as the one that killed off the dinosaurs. Beyond its implications for artificial intelligence, the research supports the idea that mass extinctions actually speed up evolution by unleashing new creativity in adaptations.

Computer scientists Risto Miikkulainen and Joel Lehman co-authored the study published today in the journal PLOS One, which describes how simulations of mass extinctions promote novel features and abilities in surviving lineages.

"Focused destruction can lead to surprising outcomes," said Miikkulainen, a professor of computer science at UT Austin. "Sometimes you have to develop something that seems objectively worse in order to develop the tools you need to get better."

In biology, mass extinctions are known for being highly destructive, erasing a lot of genetic material from the tree of life. But some evolutionary biologists hypothesize that extinction events actually accelerate by promoting those lineages that are the most evolvable, meaning ones that can quickly create useful new features and abilities.

Miikkulainen and Lehman found that, at least with robots, this is the case. For years, computer scientists have used computer algorithms inspired by evolution to train simulated robot brains, called neural networks, to improve at a task from one generation to the next. The UT Austin team's innovation in the latest research was in examining how mass destruction could aid in computational evolution.

In computer simulations, they connected to simulated robotic legs with the goal of evolving a robot that could walk smoothly and stably. As with real evolution, random mutations were introduced through the computational evolution process. The scientists created many different niches so that a wide range of novel features and abilities would come about.

After hundreds of generations, a wide range of robotic behaviors had evolved to fill these niches, many of which were not directly useful for walking. Then the researchers randomly killed off the robots in 90 percent of the niches, mimicking a .

After several such cycles of evolution and extinction, they discovered that the lineages that survived were the most evolvable and, therefore, had the greatest potential to produce new behaviors. Not only that, but overall, better solutions to the task of walking were evolved in simulations with mass extinctions, compared with simulations without them.

Practical applications of the research could include the development of robots that can better overcome obstacles (such as robots searching for survivors in earthquake rubble, exploring Mars or navigating a minefield) and human-like game agents.

"This is a good example of how evolution produces great things in indirect, meandering ways," explains Lehman, a former postdoctoral researcher in Miikkulainen's lab, now at the IT University of Copenhagen. He and a former student of Miikkulainen's at UT Austin, Kenneth Stanley, recently published a popular science book about evolutionary meandering, "The Myth of the Objective: Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned." "Even destruction can be leveraged for evolutionary creativity."

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22 comments

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RichManJoe
3 / 5 (2) Aug 12, 2015


If one is a glass half empty person, we are experiencing the Sixth Mass Extinction.
If one is a glass half full person, we are experiencing the Seventh Mass Evolution.

Finally, some good news.
nevermark
3 / 5 (2) Aug 12, 2015
If one is a glass half empty person, we are experiencing the Sixth Mass Extinction.
If one is a glass half full person, we are experiencing the Seventh Mass Evolution.


For biology, the second can't happen until the first comes to an end, as humanity is continually changing the types of pressures on the biosphere so even adaptable organisms would essentially have to survive through multiple kinds of extinction events. And humanity's ability to operate without impacting ecosystems has no end in sight.

But another glass half full view is that the Seventh Mass Evolution is the rise of self-designed life this century as the successor to DNA evolution.

There would still be selection of the fittest, but science and engineering already create radical improvements in technology much faster than random mutations.
Zzzzzzzz
4 / 5 (4) Aug 13, 2015
its logical - if environments change enough to kill off many species, new conditions are developing. When new conditions develop, surviving life forms adapt (evolve) to take advantage of the new conditions and the space vacated by the massive dying.
Glass is overflowing for the survivors who make it through the genetic keyhole
Glass is completely empty for the vast majority that die
Vietvet
3.5 / 5 (8) Aug 13, 2015
Mass extinctions are a scientific fact, evolution is a scientific fact. Some people don't have even half a brain to accept those facts.
jsdarkdestruction
3.7 / 5 (6) Aug 13, 2015
If anyone has half a brain, if you consider that if there really was a mass extinction, not having animals and plants around you anymore that you depended on previously for food means that you too will likely die off.

That is a great point verkle. A good example being a flood lasting 40 days and nights covering the entire earth....if a few pairs of some of the life forms were to survive miraculously what would they eat afterwards? Everything would be rotting and dead and inedible for many species not suited for eating rotting decaying matter...
antigoracle
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2015
I only worry when mass extinction meets mass ignorance.
Wow!! The stupidity that evolves!
JVK
2 / 5 (4) Aug 13, 2015
A global flood of Biblical proportions could release enough phosphorus into the water to support rapid ecological adaptations in species from octopuses to mammals, as was reported with the results of genome sequencing, which were subsequently reported as

Octopuses 'are aliens', scientists decide after DNA study http://metro.co.u...iiLYD42V

evolution is a scientific fact.


That will make it easier to accept the "Octopuses 'are aliens'" report at face value.

It seems likely that at least one mass extinction led to mass ignorance among neo-Darwinian theorists, who accepted the likelihood of mutation-driven natural selection despite no experimental evidence that it met Darwin's "conditions of life."
Vietvet
4.2 / 5 (5) Aug 13, 2015
A global flood of Biblical proportions could---

Could have never happened.

jsdarkdestruction
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2015
A global flood of Biblical proportions could release enough phosphorus into the water to support rapid ecological adaptations in species from octopuses to mammals

So you are saying the phosphorous allowed mammals to survive a global flood? How? Are you going to claim that's where aquatic mammals originate from?
Vietvet
5 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2015
jsdark, have you noticed in springtime after the snowmelt how fast foliage can appear on the earth? Same thing would happen after a flood.


More staggering ignorance from verkle.
JVK
1 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2015
Could have never happened.


I suspect that anyone who has visited the national parks in the 4 corners area of the US could claim that Monument Valley and the Arches both represent 310 million years of erosion, but there are 2000 arches that look like they formed from water rushing through the rock and the Monument Valley formations offer some striking contrasts.

However, I'm not a geologist so Vietvet could be right -- except he has never been right about anything he has ever commented on.

Besides, let's remember: the bacterial flagellum "re-evolved" in 4 days via two amino acid substitutions. http://www.the-sc...ewiring/
JVK
1 / 5 (2) Aug 13, 2015
Also, remember that even a difference in the gases that were incorporated into biophysically constrained nutrient-dependent RNA-mediated protein folding chemistry could have had substantially more impact on the speed at which ecological variation led to ecological adaptations via the physiology of reproduction in species from microbes to man.

For example: http://www.scienc...15003064 /abstract excerpt "H2S promotes Tet1 and Tet2 expression, which are recruited to Foxp3 by TGF-β and IL-2 signaling to maintain Foxp3 demethylation and Treg-cell-associated immune homeostasis."

Conclusion: "In conclusion, physiological levels of H2S are required to maintain immune homeostasis by regulating Tet expression in T cells. Treg cell lineage determination and maintenance require synergistic regulation by signaling pathway and epigenetic modification..."

That does not sound like mutation-driven evolution to me.
Vietvet
5 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2015


However, I'm not a geologist so Vietvet could be right --

Nor are you a biologist.
JVK
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 13, 2015
Nor are you a biologist.


My co-authors might disagree, but they would only be disagreeing with a biologically uninformed science idiot, so WHO CARES?

In yeasts for example: http://www.hawaii...ion.html

Excerpt: "...differences arise from different epigenetic modifications of an otherwise identical MAT locus (Runge and Zakian, 1996; Wu and Haber, 1995)."

That explains the recent report of sex differences in the immune system via X chromosome–encoded microRNAs in sexual dimorphism. http://www.ncbi.n...19747114
JVK
1 / 5 (2) Aug 13, 2015
Can anyone who is not a biologist explain a link from mutations to sex differences in the immune systems of species from yeasts to humans compared to explanations of how microRNAs link octopuses, crustaceans, insects, and all vertebrates in the context of their nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled physiology of reproduction? http://rspb.royal...20142983
jsdarkdestruction
5 / 5 (1) Aug 15, 2015
The current sediment layers we see are because of the great flood laying them as it ended. Right verkle?
For the level of disturbance in the sediment then available how did any plants survive? All the plants should of been uprooted and buried in the sediment layers left by the flood. Seeds would be the only hope and its a slim one as most of the seeds would be buried too deep. So while those surviving seeds are becoming plants what are the herbivores eating? How many generations would be required to support any herbivores surviving off the plants without the herbivores stopping the plants population expanding and growing? More than 1 or two...
I've got a bunch more but you get my point I hope.
viko_mx
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2015
When computer scientists began to understand micro biology and genetics? Some people still trying to invent the world.
JVK
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2015
See also: http://www.pnas.o...144.full "Cell-fate determinations in all of these examples involve changes in expression of various transcription factors (TFs) and microRNAs (miRNAs) that regulate cascades of regulatory networks, ultimately generating genome-wide gene-expression patterns and concomitant protein levels corresponding to a particular cell lineage (fate)."

Given what is currently known to serious scientists about biologically based cause and effect, the determination of all cell fates follows the same biophysically constrained pathways the link RNA-mediated amino acid substitutions to "re-evolution" of the bacterial flagellum in 4 days. See also: Evolutionary resurrection of flagellar motility via rewiring of the nitrogen regulation system http://www.scienc...abstract reported as: http://www.the-sc...ewiring/
Vietvet
5 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2015
@jsdarkdestruction

It's futile arguing with someone like verkle. He believes every word of the bible is directly from the mouth of god. That belief trumps logic, evidence and biblical scholarship.

JVK is more sophisticated than verkle but they are two peas in a pod.
JVK
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2015
"...the macroclimate and the geology are the same on both slopes of the canyon, and yet, if you look into the African slope, the south facing slope, which gets up to 800% more solar radiation than the European north facing slope -- you see dramatic differences in the biodiversity between the savannoid African and forested European slopes. . . . This represents a cradle of sympatric speciation, i.e., the origination of new biological species within freely inbreeding populations of abutting slopes. . . . "
http://www.huffin...764.html

Schrodinger (1943) "What is Life" linked the sun's biological energy from quantum mechanics to sympatric speciation in the context of what Eibi Nevo portrayed in a ridiculous misrepresentation of biologically-based cause and effect that was automagically placed into the context of ridiculous theories. What kind of biologically uninformed evolutionary biologist ignores quantum biology?
rebelclause
not rated yet Aug 15, 2015
Wow.
JVK
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2015
How much accumulated ignorance of biologically-based cause and effect has continued to lead others to dismiss everything that serious scientists know about physics, chemistry, biology and molecular epigenetics because they were taught to believe in the pseudoscentific nonsense of neo-Darwinian theory?

Origin of Life: First Cells May Have Been Glued Together http://www.scient...ogether/

"...peptides just seven amino acids long or fewer can localise RNA to a basic cell membrane."

My comment: Not without an energy source.

Origin of the Eukaryotic cell: Part II - Cytoskeleton, membranes, and beyond
http://phys.org/n...ton.html

"...the original bacterial "cenancestor" (and all later Eukaryotes) have largely employed bilayer membranes constructed with fatty acid chains linked through ester bonds to a glycerol 3 phosphate backbone."

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