By Adriana Alves
In a new study, AI tools were used to rethink consolidated theories
In a paper published in Nature magazine in late 2020, Japanese and European scientists combined artificial intelligence and fossil records to challenge one of the most widely accepted theories in science: the evolution of species. It is worth remembering that this concept, Darwinism, posits that life changes in response to environmental changes and / or evolutionary advantages.
The appearance of life visible on earth about 540 million years ago favored the fossil preservation of various species. It was the study of this record that made it possible to identify five major extinctions as well as countless periods of accelerated evolution of the species called macroevolution. Interestingly, macroevolution appeared to be due to events of mass extinction and the unhindered development of surviving species.
Until last year, confirmations of this theory, or hypotheses that challenged it, were based on qualitative studies, some of which have been criticized for the spatially and temporally irregular nature of the fossil record. However, the results of the new study suggest that there is no temporal relationship between diversification of life and previous catastrophic events. More than that: Macroevolution seems to be just as destructive as mass extinction.
The artificial intelligence tools used in the study made it possible to decipher the hidden patterns in a paleontological database that has collected just over 1.2 million records relating to more than 170,000 species. For the first time in the last 540 million years, the periods of explosion of life, mass extinction, and the intense emergence of new species triggered by biological crises have been visualized.
Translated into diagrams, the results of the new study make it possible to identify not only the five mass extinctions, but also seven other extinction events of smaller size and fifteen events with extremely high occurrence rates of new species (macroevolution). In addition, for the first time ever, two events are clearly shown where extinction and species diversification went hand in hand.
The patterns show a balance between periods of mass extinction and increasing species diversification, with a continuum of events separating these two extremes. Surprisingly, the results of the work show that the events of accelerated evolution of life (those with increased rates of adaptive change or the emergence of new species) have no temporal relationship with most of the mass extinctions that preceded them.
On the contrary, the patterns identified indicate that macroevolution can have devastating effects similar to those of large mass extinctions. Contrary to what is observed in the macroevolution / extinction double, the role of life diversification in species destruction is to encourage greater competition, leading to the disappearance of less adapted species.
How disruptive the new study will actually be is yet to be determined, as these conclusions will certainly be subject to scrutiny by scientists. Most importantly, it combines two trends that can persist and fuel unprecedented scientific advances: on the one hand, the unlimited cognitive resources of artificial intelligence; On the other hand, the adversary forces us to rethink already consolidated theories.
Adriana Alves is a geologist and professor at the USP.
Sign up for Serrapilheira’s newsletter to receive more news from the institute and the Ciência Fundamental blog. Do you have an agenda? Here’s how you can work together.