Mass Extinctions May Accelerate Evolution--At Least with Robots

First Posted: Aug 14, 2015 11:02 AM EDT

Most people don't think mass extinctions are a good thing. Now, though, researchers have found that these extinctions may actually accelerate evolution, unleashing new creativity in adaptations.

In biology, mass extinctions are known for being highly destructive, erasing genetic material from the tree of life. Some researchers, though, believe that extinction events may accelerate evolution by promoting lineages that are the most evolvable.

In order to find out whether or not this was true, the researchers used computer simulations to connect neural networks 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 researchers created many different niches so that a wide range of novel features and abilities would come about.

The scientists found that after hundreds of generations, a wide range of robotic behaviors had evolved to fill these niches. Then, the scientists randomly killed off the robots in 90 percent of the niches to mimic a mass extinction.

So what happened? It turns out that the robots evolved more quickly after the mass extinction, and were more likely to produce new behaviors.

"This is a good example of how evolution produces great things in indirect, meandering ways," said Joel Lehman, one of the researchers, in a news release. "Even destruction can be leveraged for evolutionary creativity."

The findings reveal a bit more about the process of evolution. While the researchers used robotics and computer programs to examine this particular phenomenon, it's likely that the same also holds true for biological organisms.

The findings are published in the journal PLOS One.

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