CO2 and the return of the dinosaurs

The dinosaurs lived during the Mesozoic Era, which was divided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. Many of the iconic dinosaurs that we know and love such as Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops lived at the end of the Cretaceous while others such as Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus) lived 80 or so million years earlier in the Jurassic. I used to picture all the dinosaurs co-existing simultaneously but the time span separating Stegosaurus from T. rex is larger than that between T. rex and the present! Dinosaurs also weren’t the only creatures alive at that time, just the most dominant ones. Technically, the term dinosaur only applies to land-based reptiles with certain features. The avian reptiles, such as Pteranodon, or the marine ones, such as Plesiosaurs, resembled dinosaurs but were not classified as such. Aside from those dinosaur-like animals, there were also invertebrates, fish, sharks, and a class of animals called Synapsids, defined by an opening in the skull behind the eyes, from which all mammals are descended.

Synapsids were small marginal creatures during the Mesozoic but came to dominate the land after the dinosaurs went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous (the KT extinction event). The consensus theory is that a large asteroid or comet strike in the Yucatan set off fire storms, seismic events and a cloud that blocked sunlight for up to a year. This caused plants to die globally, which collapsed the food chain.The only survivors were creatures that could go deep underwater or bury underground and survive long periods with little or no food. Survivors of the KT extinction include some fish, small sharks, small crocodiles and other cold blooded reptiles, small bipedal theropod dinosaurs, of which T-Rex is a member, and small rodent-like synapsids.

If the KT extinction event was a transient perturbation then it is reasonable to expect that whatever it was that allowed dinosaurs to become dominant would remain and the surviving theropods would come to dominate again. But that is not what happened. Theropods did survive to become modern birds but aside from a few exceptions, most are small and almost all are avian. Instead, the Synapsids came to dominate and the largest creature to ever live, namely the Blue Whale, is a Synapsid. Now this could be purely due to random chance and if we played out the KT event over and over there would be some distribution where either Synapsids or dinosaurs become dominant. However, it could also be that global conditions after the Cretaceous changed to favour Synapsids over dinosaurs.

One possible change is the atmospheric level of carbon dioxide. CO2 levels were higher than they are today for much of the past 500 million years, even with the recent rapid increase. The levels were particularly high in the Triassic and Jurassic but began to decline during the Cretaceous (e.g. see here) and have continued to decrease until the industrial revolution when it turned upwards again. Average global temperatures were also higher in the Mesozoic. The only other time that C02 levels and global temperatures have been as low as they are now was in the Permian before the Great Dying. During the Permian, the ancestor to dinosaurs was a small insectivore that had the ability to run on two legs while the dominant creatures were none other than the Synapsids! So, mammal-like creatures were dominant before and after the dinosaurs when CO2 levels and temperatures were low.

Perhaps this is just a coincidence but there is one more interesting fact to this story and that is the amount of stored carbon (i.e. fossil fuels) has been very high twice over the past 500 million years – the Permian and now. It had been believed that the rise in CO2 at the end of the Permian was due to increased volcanism but a paper from 2014, (see here), speculated that a horizontal gene transfer event allowed an archaea microbe to become efficient in exploiting the buried carbon and this led to an exponential increase in methane and CO2 production. The active volcanos provided the necessary nickel to catalyze the reactions. Maybe it was simply a matter of time before some creature would find a way to exploit all the stored energy conveniently buried underground and release the carbon back into the atmosphere. The accompanying rise in temperatures and increased acidification of the oceans may also spell the end of this current reign of Synapsids and start a new era. While the smart (rich?) money seems to be on some sort of trans-human cyborg being the future, I am betting that some insignificant bird out there will be the progenitor of the next dominant age of dinosaurs.

Are humans successful because they are cruel?

According to Wikipedia, the class Mammalia has 29 orders (e.g. Carnivora), 156 families (e.g. Ursidae), 1258 Genera (e.g. Ursus), and nearly 6000 species (e.g. Polar Bear). Some orders like Chiroptera (bats) and Rodentia are very large with many families, genera, and species. Some are really small like Orycteropodidae, which has only one species – the aardvark. Humans are in the order Primates, of which there are quite a few families and genera. Almost all of them live in tropical or subtropical areas and almost all of them have small populations, many of them endangered. The exception of course is humans who is the only species remaining of the genus homo. The other genera in the great ape family hominidae – gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos – are all in big trouble.

I think most people would attribute the incomparable success of humans to their resilience, intelligence, and ingenuity. However, another important factor could be their bottomless capacity for intentional cruelty. Although there seems to be a decline in violence throughout history as documented in Steven Pinker’s recent book, there are still no shortages of examples. Take a listen to this recent Econtalk podcast with Mike Munger on how the South rationalized slavery. It could very well be that what made modern humans dominate earth and wipe out all the other homo species along the way was not that they were more intelligent but that they were more cruel and rapacious. Neanderthals and Denisovans may have been happy sitting around the campfire after a hunt, while humans needed to raid every nearby tribe and kill them.

The blurry line between human and ape

Primate researcher extraordinaire, Frans de Waal, pens an excellent commentary in the New York Times on the recent discovery of Homo Naledi. His thesis that the distinction between human and nonhuman is not clear cut is something I wholeheartedly subscribe to. No matter what we look at, the difference between humans and other species is almost always quantitative and not qualitative.

Here are some excerpts and I recommend you read the whole thing:

The fabulous find, named Homo naledi,has rightly been celebrated for both the number of fossils and their completeness. It has australopithecine-like hips and an ape-size brain, yet its feet and teeth are typical of the genus Homo.

The mixed features of these prehistoric remains upset the received human origin story, according to which bipedalism ushered in technology, dietary change and high intelligence. Part of the new species’ physique lags behind this scenario, while another part is ahead. It is aptly called a mosaic species.

We like the new better than the old, though, and treat every fossil as if it must fit somewhere on a timeline leading to the crown of creation. Chris Stringer, a prominent British paleoanthropologist who was not involved in the study, told BBC News: “What we are seeing is more and more species of creatures that suggests that nature was experimenting with how to evolve humans, thus giving rise to several different types of humanlike creatures originating in parallel in different parts of Africa.”

This represents a shockingly teleological view, as if natural selection is seeking certain outcomes, which it is not. It doesn’t do so any more than a river seeks to reach the ocean.

News reports spoke of a “new ancestor,” even a “new human species,” assuming a ladder heading our way, whereas what we are actually facing when we investigate our ancestry is a tangle of branches. There is no good reason to put Homo naledi on the branch that produced us. Nor does this make the discovery any less interesting…

…The problem is that we keep assuming that there is a point at which we became human. This is about as unlikely as there being a precise wavelength at which the color spectrum turns from orange into red. The typical proposition of how this happened is that of a mental breakthrough — a miraculous spark — that made us radically different. But if we have learned anything from more than 50 years of research on chimpanzees and other intelligent animals, it is that the wall between human and animal cognition is like a Swiss cheese…

… It is an odd coincidence that “naledi” is an anagram of “denial.” We are trying way too hard to deny that we are modified apes. The discovery of these fossils is a major paleontological breakthrough. Why not seize this moment to overcome our anthropocentrism and recognize the fuzziness of the distinctions within our extended family? We are one rich collection of mosaics, not only genetically and anatomically, but also mentally.

Brave New World

Read Steve Hsu’s Nautilus article on Super-Intelligence. If so-called IQ-related genetic variants are truly additive then his estimates are probably correct. His postulated being could possibly understand the fine details of any topic in less than a day or shorter. Instead of taking several years to learn enough differential geometry to develop Einstein’s General Relativity (which is what it took for Einstein), a super-intelligence could perhaps do it in an afternoon or during a coffee break. Personally, I believe that nothing is free and that there will always be tradeoffs. I’m not sure what the cost of super-intelligence will be but there will likely be something. Variability in a population is always good for the population although not so great for each individual. An effective way to make a species go extinct is to remove variability. If pests had no genetic variability then it would be a simple matter to eliminate them with some toxin. Perhaps, humans will be able to innovate fast enough to buffer them against environmental changes. Maybe cognitive variability can compensate for genetic variability. I really don’t know.

Journal Club

Here is the paper I’ll be covering in the Laboratory of Biological Modeling, NIDDK, Journal Club tomorrow

Morphological and population genomic evidence that human faces have evolved to signal individual identity

Michael J. Sheehan & Michael W. Nachman

Abstract: Facial recognition plays a key role in human interactions, and there has been great interest in understanding the evolution of human abilities for individual recognition and tracking social relationships. Individual recognition requires sufficient cognitive abilities and phenotypic diversity within a population for discrimination to be possible. Despite the importance of facial recognition in humans, the evolution of facial identity has received little attention. Here we demonstrate that faces evolved to signal individual identity under negative frequency-dependent selection. Faces show elevated phenotypic variation and lower between-trait correlations compared with other traits. Regions surrounding face-associated single nucleotide polymorphisms show elevated diversity consistent with frequency-dependent selection. Genetic variation maintained by identity signalling tends to be shared across populations and, for some loci, predates the origin of Homo sapiens. Studies of human social evolution tend to emphasize cognitive adaptations, but we show that social evolution has shaped patterns of human phenotypic and genetic diversity as well.