January 18, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Calling the Extinction Game

The Mexico Asteroids pull ahead! But the India Deccans are not down for the count.

How well do evolutionary scientists understand extinctions? Like everything else in Darwinism, truth evolves. The story of the dinosaur extinction, for instance, wobbles between three or four attractors like magnets that move about, creating a random walk for Dinosaur Extinction Theory. The two main attractors have been the Chicxulub Impact theory (in the Yucatan region of Mexico) and the Deccan Traps theory (named for a vast lava field in India). The other attractors, like the Diet Theory, the Parasite Theory and the Cigarette Theory (The Far Side) have less influence these days. For years, the Dinosaur Extinction Theory has been oscillating between the leading goalposts, the Chicxulub Impact and the Deccan Traps. This allows us to view the view the evolving understanding of extinction as a game between two sports teams.

In recent years, the Deccans have owned the field. Now, however, the Asteroids have pulled back ahead, regaining ground they had lost to the Deccans. Sports fans cheer for their favorite team.

  • Dinosaur extinction: ‘Asteroid strike was real culprit’ (BBC News). “This has been a bit of a “to and fro” argument of late, but now a group of scientists has weighed in with what they claim is the definitive answer. ‘It was the asteroid ‘wot dun it’!’ Prof Paul Wilson told the BBC.”
  • New Evidence Points to Asteroid as Cause of Dinosaur Extinction (The Scientist). “A lot of people have wanted to argue that both the impact and the volcanism mattered in the extinction,” says Hull to The New York Times. “And what we’re seeing is, it doesn’t look like it. It’s just the impact.
  • An impact with a dash of volcanism (Science Magazine). “When combined with other lines of evidence, these models support an impact-driven extinction,” writes Brent Grocholski, playing both sides of the field. “However, volcanic gases may have played a role in shaping the rise of different species after the extinction event.”

Who will win this exciting game? Nobody knows. With information from Wits University, Phys.org writes about “An evolving understanding of extinction.” The team from South Africa claims more cred than other teams. It hopes that Evolution will give them favor among the referees, because they have better imaginations.

Few things related to science capture the imagination more than the magic of worlds past. This includes the origins of life, dinosaurs, mass extinctions, meteorite impacts, and the evolution of our species. Understanding the evolution of life is central to the way we view ourselves and others and developing this field is thus critical.

Dinosaur watching asteroid come in. Or is that smoke from a volcano?

But if “understanding evolution” means nothing more than imagining scenarios that just happen, can anybody win? Can any team relying on imagination find the right magic to bring enlightenment? To think so misunderstands the point. The point of the game is not to win. It’s to play and never get anywhere. In Calvinball, the rules evolve, and there is no finish line. That’s the whole reason for the game: to see who has the better imagination in order to beat the opponent’s last rule change, and keep the game going forever. The Mexico Asteroids have the ball right now, but wait; the Deccans will come up with a new rule. A famous paleontologist quoted in The Scientist understands:

I’m sure the debate will rage on, because there are entrenched voices on either side,” vertebrate paleontologist Stephen Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh tells The New York Times. “But it’s getting harder and harder to fathom that the asteroid was innocent.”

New rules gave the Asteroids some yardage, but allows both sides to argue over which scenario killed the dinosaurs more efficiently and was therefore the main cause.

The Blimp Overhead View

AI suggests Earth has had fewer mass extinctions than we thought (New Scientist). Here’s another support for the Evolution of Extinction Theories. For years, young Darwin initiates were told about the Five Major Extinctions and dutifully recorded the answers on tests. Now, the Teacher is changing the rules. Professor Doug Erwin erases the Devonian Extinction from the whiteboard:

“The late Devonian mass extinction isn’t there,” says Doug Erwin at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “There’s a long decrease in diversity during the Devonian, as some people have suggested previously.” ….

“The mid-late Devonian diversity decrease is still very clear, but it is spread through the whole time and not concentrated in a single mass extinction,” says palaeontologist Richard Bambach, now retired, who argued in a 2004 paper that there was no late Devonian mass extinction. “That extends the conclusion I made.”

This means the textbooks and tests have to be re-written. But that’s OK; it’s part of the game. There was another Calvinball Rule Change 16 years ago, the article says, but it got reversed:

There is no formal definition of a mass extinction, so there is plenty of scope for debate. However, most biologists would agree that they involve a big increase in species extinctions over a relatively short time. At the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago, for instance, most species died out in just 63,000 years, this new analysis shows.

In 2004, Bambach also suggested there was no mass extinction at the end of the Triassic, but better evidence for it has since emerged, both he and Erwin say.

“The only issue is about the Devonian, so there would be four rather than five,” says Erwin.

—at least for the time being.

It’s fun watching the Darwin Game evolve. It’s a bit like those magnetic puzzles that keep a pendulum wobbling in all directions endlessly, never coming to a predictable stop. It’s mesmerizing, in a way; enough to hypnotize the viewer and excite the imagination. And that is the point of every branch of Evolutionary Theory: keep playing! Don’t ever say you understand. When truth evolves, there is no such thing as understanding.


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