Tag Archives: arms races

Planet of the apes

The Miocene (23 – 5 million years ago) is a period of extraordinary success for our closest relatives, the apes. Overall there may have been as many as a hundred ape species during the epoch. Proconsul (actually several species) is one of the earliest. We will meet just a few of the others over the course of the Miocene, as some leave Africa for Asia, and some (we think) migrate back.

Sometimes evolution is a story of progress – not necessarily moral progress, but at least progress in the sense of more effective animals replacing less effective. For example, monkeys and apes largely replace other primates (prosimians, relatives of lemurs and lorises) over most of the world after the Eocene, with lemurs flourishing only on isolated Madagascar. This replacement is probably a story of more effective forms outcompeting less effective. And the expansion of brain size that we see among many mammalian lineages throughout the Cenozoic is probably another example of progress resulting from evolutionary arms races.

But measured by the yardstick of evolutionary success, (non-human) apes — some of the brainiest animals on the planet — will turn out not to be all that effective after the Miocene. In our day, we’re down to just about four species of great ape (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans), none of them very successful. Monkeys, with smaller body sizes and more rapid reproductive rates, are doing better. For that matter, the closest living relatives of primates (apart from colugos and tree shrews) are rodents, who are doing better still, mostly by reproducing faster than predators can eat them.

So big brains aren’t quite the ticket to evolutionary success that, say, flight has been for birds. One issue for apes may be that with primate rules for brain growth – double the brain size means double the neurons means double the energy cost – a large-bodied, large brained primate (i.e. an ape) is going to face a serious challenge finding enough food to keep its brain running. It’s not until a later evolutionary period that one lineage of apes really overcomes this problem, with a combination of better physical technology (stone tools, fire) and better social technology (enlisting others to provision mothers and their dependent offspring).

Strange relations and island continents

56.2-53.2 Mya

We’re now in the Cenozoic era – our era. The transition from Paleocene to Eocene epochs in the early Cenozoic (55.9 million years ago) saw a spike in CO2 levels and a sharp rise in temperatures that lasted for several hundred thousand years – perhaps an analog for even more rapid human-caused global warming in our own time. (A recent review is here.)

We’ve seen a great many catastrophes in the history of life, and been reminded of the role of sheer chance in evolution. But the Cenozoic also sees a dramatic adaptive radiation and the steady progress of arms races among survivors of the great dinosaur die-off. Four large scale groupings of placental mammals have already appeared: Afrotheres (aardvarks, hyraxes, elephants, and sea cows), Xenarthrans (anteaters, armadillos, and sloths), Laurasiatheres (shrews, hedgehogs, pangolins, bats, whales, hoofed animals, and carnivores), and Supraprimates (aka Euarchontoglires, including rodents, tree shrews, and primates). This grouping of mammals is anything but obvious – it’s only with DNA sequencing that it has emerged. What’s noticeable is the association with different continents: Afrotheres with Africa, Xenarthrans with South America, and the others with the monster content of Laurasia (Eurasia and North America). Looking beyond placental mammals we see other continental associations: marsupials flourish in South America and Australia, and giant flightless “terror birds” carry on rather like predatory dinosaurs in South America.

There is a pattern here. Evolutionary arms races are most intense in the supercontinent of Laurasia (eventually joined by India and Africa). The island continents of South America and Australia stand apart, and they fare poorly when they start exchanging fauna with the rest of the world. We’ll see a similar pattern – large areas stimulate more competition, and more intense evolution, isolated areas are at a disadvantage – when we start looking at human history. (This is a major theme of Diamond’s deservedly popular Guns, Germs, and Steel.)

Nature red in tooth and claw

You’re trying to live without enemies. That’s all you think about, not having enemies.

Isaac Babel, Red Cavalry

Enemies are the most important agencies of selection.

Geerat Vermeij, Evolution and Escalation

Much of what we’ve been seeing since the onset of the Cambrian, Saturday February 27, is the outcome of evolutionary arms races, leading to steady improvements in teeth, claws, armor, and mobility. It may well be that the onset of predation is what triggered the Cambrian explosion in the first place. The paleontologist Geerat Vermeij argues that arms races and escalation – not adaptation to the physical environment – are the greatest cause of progressive evolution.

We’ll see when we start getting into human evolution, biological and social, that enemies – other people especially – and arms races go on being a major motor of change. But arms races and escalation are going to look different in human evolution than they do in most non-human evolution. People are super-cooperators, and violent competition in humans tends to involve more group-against-group competition, with rival groups monopolizing and competing over territory. And in the human analog of predation – the formation of stratified societies, where elites live off the mass of the population – the human “predators” commonly band together under the aegis of the state to regulate their competition. At their best, human elites are more like sheepdogs and less like wolves.

Yet it’s sometimes among refugees from arms races that the greatest evolutionary advances arise: fish moving onto land may have been doing it partly to get to someplace where enemies were weak or scarce. Human analogs might be the early Ionian Greeks fleeing the Dorian invasions, the settlers of Polynesia getting out from under a social order of ranked lineages, or the New England Pilgrims fleeing an un-Godly England. Or Vermeij himself – he is competitively handicapped, having lost his sight at three years old, but has made a distinguished career studying shelled invertebrates by touch.

Empires and barbarians

940-998

The fall of Rome involved the disintegration of the Roman state; the collapse of long-distance trade; the disappearance of mass-produced pottery, coinage, and monumental architecture over large areas; declining literacy among commoners and elites; great insecurity of life and property, and demographic collapse. The process was drawn out and played out differently in different regions. In the Middle East, central government supported by taxation continued; in the West it disappeared. The nadir in the West was perhaps the tenth century. We might set the turning point at the battle of Lechfeld (955): a last set of invaders off the steppes, the Magyars, was defeated by the Emperor Otto, and then adopted Christianity, gave up nomadic marauding, and settled down as feudal lords in Hungary.

The fall of Rome illustrates a general lesson. The overall trend of history is for more complex societies to replace less complex. (Important note: “more complex” is not the same as “nicer.”) But the process is an uneven one, in part because military effectiveness is only loosely coupled with social complexity. Tribal peoples with states next door often react by developing states of their own, partly to defend against their civilized neighbors, partly to prey on them. The resulting societies – no longer tribal, not really civilized, but barbarian – have sometimes been more than a match militarily for their more complex neighbors. In Europe, the result over nearly a millennium was a great leveling process. Rome declined under barbarian assault, while state organization, class stratification, and Christianity spread eventually as far as the Slavic East and the Scandinavian North. (See Peter Heather’s Empires and Barbarians.)

By the end of the first millennium, Western Christendom had some consciousness of itself as distinct from the Islamic world; this would later help motivate the Crusades, but it would never be enough to spur unification. Much later, in the twentieth century, Europe would be divided by a different set of meta-ethnic frontiers, centered on the clash of ideologies, rather than civilization versus barbarism. But that’s a story for later.

Plagues and peoples

222-320

Every day on Logarithmic History we cover an interval 5.46% shorter than the preceding day. From covering the first 754 million years after the Big Bang on January 1, we’re down to just under one century worth of history today.

And it’s a bad century for both Rome and China. Rome goes through an economic crisis, with a huge currency devaluation. Political life goes to hell too. From 235-284 there are 20 Emperors; 18 of them die violently. The Roman Empire experiences multiple, destructive invasions by barbarians. It recovers toward the end of the century, but in a heavily militarized and authoritarian form. And in China the Han dynasty disappears entirely after 220, to be replaced by three kingdoms of barbarian origin.

This coincidence of catastrophes may be more than just bad luck. Put it this way: If we look at the Big Picture, going way back on our calendar, and turning for a moment from human history to the evolution of life, we can summarize biological evolution since the Cambrian as:

but …

  • Now and then, a physical catastrophe punctuates the history of life, causing mass extinctions, from which living things slowly recover.

Returning to human history, we can summarize social evolution since the adoption of agriculture as:

  • A process of escalation, in which conflicts between rival groups (kin groups, empires, and – we will see – major religions) are drivers of increasing social complexity …

but…

  • Now and then, a biological catastrophe – in the form of an epidemic of some new disease – punctuates human history, causing major population losses, and often political and social collapse as well (i.e. the “germs” in Guns, Germs and Steel).

One such catastrophe contributed to the collapse of New World societies in the face of Old World diseases after 1492. But the Old World too must have had its own earlier catastrophes as the great killer diseases – the diseases of civilization that need a minimum population to keep going – established themselves.

Epidemic disease may have made a major contribution to the fall of Rome and of Han China. Rome suffered two massive epidemics, one from 165-180, another from 251-266. It’s plausible (and someday geneticsts will tell us whether it’s true or not) that these epidemics represent the arrival of smallpox and measles in the West. And we’ll run into bubonic plague in a few days time (October 13). There may be a similar story to tell about China, also stricken by epidemics at this time. The opening of the Silk Road and of trade across the Indian Ocean allowed precious goods and new ideas to travel between civilizations. It also opened the way for lethal microorganisms. (In addition to “Guns, Germs and Steel,” a classic book here is William McNeill’s Plagues and Peoples.)

The Great American Interchange

For most of the last 100 million years, South America was an island continent, like Australia, with its own peculiar mix of species, largely isolated from other continents (although monkeys, and guinea pig relations, rafted across.) By contrast, North America was intermittently connected with Eurasia and exchanged species off and on. South America supported a rich array of marsupials, including a marsupial version of a saber-toothed tiger. It also had predatory flightless “terror birds” that seemed bent on reoccupying the two-legged predatory dinosaur niche.

terror bird

There was also a profusion of notoungulates (probably distantly related to hoofed animals in North America and Eurasia), and liptoterns. (Below is a late surviving liptotern, Macrauchenia, looking like a Dr. Seuss invention.)
macrauchenia

South America was close enough to North America for the two continents to start exchanging species by 14 million years ago, but the really massive exchange began with the establishment of the Isthmus of Panama, and climate changes, about 3 million years ago. 38 genera of land mammals walked north from South America. 47 genera walked south from North America. So the initial exchange was unbalanced; the subsequent evolution was even more so. Only a handful of South American invaders – notably armadillos and (for a while) ground sloths – succeeded in establishing themselves in North America, while North American invaders generated a profusion of new species. Many of the really distinctive South American forms would go extinct over the next millions of years.

Paleontologists dispute the causes of the turnover, but it looks an awful lot like North American species had a competitive edge. This is one instance of a phenomenon we’ve seen already in animal evolution, and will see again in human history, of large land areas generating more competitive forms.

Planet of the apes*

The Miocene (23 – 5 million years ago) is a period of extraordinary success for our closest relatives, the apes. Overall there may have been as many as a hundred ape species during the epoch. Proconsul (actually several species) is one of the earliest. We will meet just a few of the others over the course of the Miocene, as some leave Africa for Asia, and some (we think) migrate back.

Sometimes evolution is a story of progress – not necessarily moral progress, but at least progress in the sense of more effective animals replacing less effective. For example, monkeys and apes largely replace other primates (prosimians, relatives of lemurs and lorises) over most of the world after the Eocene, with lemurs flourishing only on isolated Madagascar. This replacement is probably a story of more effective forms outcompeting less effective. And the expansion of brain size that we see among many mammalian lineages throughout the Cenozoic is probably another example of progress resulting from evolutionary arms races.

But measured by the yardstick of evolutionary success, (non-human) apes — some of the brainiest animals on the planet — will turn out not to be all that effective after the Miocene. In our day, we’re down to just about four species of great ape (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans), none of them very successful. Monkeys, with smaller body sizes and more rapid reproductive rates, are doing better. For that matter, the closest living relatives of primates (apart from colugos and tree shrews) are rodents, who are doing better still, mostly by reproducing faster than predators can eat them.

So big brains aren’t quite the ticket to evolutionary success that, say, flight has been for birds. Why have brains worked out so well for us (so far)?

* I only get to use this once for a blog post title. Hope I don’t regret it.