Catalytic Catastrophes: How Right-Sized Catastrophes Advance the Five Goals
As we’ve said in both this and in Chapter 7, two of the most amazing things about life in our universe are that its information and complexity continually accelerate, and that life at the leading edge always seems to be advancing the Five (I4S) Goals. Our most adaptive systems always seem to be more innovative, intelligent, interdependent, immune, and sustainable. Perhaps just as amazing as these two insights, from a Big Picture perspective, is that periodic catastrophes, as long as they aren’t too big, always seem to accelerate the advancement of one or more of the five goals.
This view makes intuitive sense, when we think of human social history. Catastrophes require us to pull together, becoming at least temporarily more interdependent, and we often need new innovation and better collective intelligence to get us out of our problems. In the process, those groups and societies that survive will become more immune and more sustainable, almost by definition. Thus both evolutionary and developmental goals and processes are served by catastrophes that don’t entirely destroy their ecosystems, because they make make the survivors stronger, in all of these ways. This is a story that science still needs to learn how to tell.
I learned this lesson in dramatic fashion as a teenaged youth, when our family took a long vacation on Huahine, a small Tahitian island. Our hosts told us they wished to rid their private beach of the numerous coconut crabs that came out in large numbers, mainly at night, and ate the fruit from their fruit trees, and even eggs from the nests of the songbirds. One night I took a club and a flashlight went sprinting after the herd, smashing a number and bringing the larger ones home for cooking (they taste like lobster). The next morning I was chagrined to find the extent of the mess I’d made on the beach (and now had to clean up), and the large number of crabs now out in daylight, feasting on the carcasses of the crabs I’d killed. All I’d done, I realized then, had been to cull the slower and larger crabs, and provide food and training (light avoidance) for the faster and smaller crabs, which I’d never be able to catch without some entirely new method. I soon gave up this arms race, after recognizing just how resilient this community was to any outside aggressor, and how my intervention had only make them stronger. By its very structure, life uses catastrophic selection events like these to become more adaptive.
The way right-sized catastrophes accelerate positive change, measurably advancing one or more of the Five Goals, can be called the catalytic catastrophe hypothesis. Like acceleration studies, catastrophe studies is a field that deserves much broader treatment, in a variety of academic domains. Fortunately, scholars in such diverse fields as risk analysis, safety, security, management, health, and the life and physical sciences have all done excellent work in this field. What is needed is a general complexity-oriented approach that ties all this work together, in a way that clarifies the many specific ways that catastrophes help learning systems to become more adaptive, and more specifically, how catastrophes, in living systems, end up being catalysts for I4S processes.
Right-sized catastrophes make us more immune, just like vaccines, or exposure to disease with survival, do for any organism with an immune system. They also make the survivors more innovative, intelligent, interdependent, and sustainable (focused on those things that will allow them to carry on). Calamity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes. Catastrophes breeds both necessity and urgency for change, and they open up space for change in previously change-resistant systems. Advancing one or more of the I4S processes, in turn, is how life reaches a more adaptive solution.
Let’s look at a few examples to see how even our largest past calamities, so far, have had these curious effects. The first several of these are discussed in the five-episode BBC series, Catastrophe (2008). In a rarity for such shows, the science editor for this series realized that many of Earth’s catastrophes have directly catalyzed many of our greatest complexity advances.
Consider these examples:
- Big Bang (13.8 Billion years ago). If we live in a replicating evo devo universe, this “original catastrophe” catalyzed the production of useful new spacetime, energy, and matter (STEM), and its information and complexity, a renewal of the inevitably senescing (aging) universe that preceded it, a universe that must eventually go to its thermodynamic death. It may seem a stretch to call the Big Bang a catastrophe, unless you recognize that, like death itself for living systems, some level of informational and physical destruction accompanies the renewal process. On the bright side, the progeny universe is presumably more adaptive in I4S terms, in the next cycle.
- Supernovas (13 Billion years ago to present). These recurrent galactic catastrophes wreaked havoc on their local surroundings, while successively forging our heavier elements, including carbon, heavy metals, and all the special chemical conditions necessary for life. That’s a pretty amazing upside.
- Earth-Moon Impact (4.4 Billion years ago). In the giant impact hypothesis, it is presumed that an early collision between Earth and a nearly Mars-sized planet, Theia, also in the stellar habitable zone, created our moon. This catastrophe resulted in massive tides on early Earth, when our moon was far closer. Those strong tides are suspected to have accelerated life’s emergence, by comparison to Earth-like planets that do not have large moons orbiting close to them early in life’s evolutionary development. This alone, without resorting to anything like the transcension hypothesis, might explain why we don’t see signs of other intelligence in our galaxy (the Fermi paradox). We might be the first (statistically however, I would doubt it).
- Great Oxygen Crisis (2.3 Billion years ago). The great oxygenation event tells us that after 200 million years of evolution, one branch of cyanobacteria discovered how to capture solar energy and split water to do photosynthesis. These new organisms excreted oxygen as a byproduct. The oxygen was atmospheric poison to most bacteria, causing a great dieoff, a catastrophe that directly accelerated the emergence of aerobic bacteria that could burn oxygen in an even more energy-dense biochemistry, reducing it via oxidative phosphorylation to produce ATP. These aerobic bacteria became captured as energy producers (mitochondria) by some cells, creating aerobic eukaryotes. That innovation, in turn, may turn out to be the only biochemistry available to DNA-based cells that is powerful enough to support multicellular life. Using the energy of the sun, and then learning to reduce oxygen in oxidative biochemistry, don’t look to me like “lucky accidents” of life, but rather, inevitably-emergent energy-densifying developmental portals, waiting to be discovered everywhere in our universe. Organisms that pass through these catastrophic portals are far more diverse, innovative, intelligent, interdependent, and immune to local environmental disruption as a result.
- Snowball Earth (700 and 635 Million years ago). Snowball Earth, the catastrophic 25 million year freezing of all of the Earth, including the surface of our oceans, apparently at least two separate times, has been hypothesized to be one of the key events that jump-started the Cambrian explosion, the rapid emergence of multicellular life, shocking it out of a 3 billion year long phase of very slow, and perhaps increasingly overregulated, bacterial evolutionary development prior to the catastrophe. See Wikipedia, Effect on early evolution, for the details.
- Permian Extinction (250 Million years ago). We don’t yet know exactly what caused the Permian extinction. Supervolcanic eruption, with methane hydrate release, and other factors may have been involved. What we do know is that 95% of marine life, and 70% of large terrestrial life disappeared. The Permian was also the only known mass extinction of insects. It was perhaps our greatest single reduction of biodiversity in life’s history so far. Yet we also know that this massive dieoff led directly to the most successful large species that has yet emerged on Earth, by biomass and longevity—the dinosaurs. The catastrophe, because it wasn’t so large that it destroyed the conserved core of developmental genes shared by all life, ended up accelerating the emergence of a new developmental portal. Small land mammals also began a massive adaptive radiation after the Permian extinction, starting with the cynodont, a Permian-surviving mammal-like reptile that is the precursor to modern mammals. Life apparently required only ten million years after this extinction to recover its great species diversity. In short, life’s response to the Permian extinction was a profound acceleration of adaptiveness, in the morphology and function of both large and small organisms. That is a true catalytic catastrophe.
- KT Extinction (65 Million years ago). A massive asteroid, impacting to create the Gulf of Mexico 65 mya, killed off about 70% of all land animals, including virtually all dinosaurs, and a great number of ocean species. The mammals were finally able to become dominant after this, creating great new morphological diversity, and restocking species diversity in less than ten million years. As with the Permian, I would expect that none of the “conserved core” of developmental genetic elements was lost in this extinction. Rather, the catastrophe appears to have catalyzed, or selected for, more compact and hardier evolutionary genetic phenotypes. A period of even more rapid morphological experimentation occurred, and one of these new mammalian experimental forms, became the hominids.
- Humanizing Droughts (4 Million to 2 Million years ago). We’ve argued elsewhere that trees are probably a unique developmental portal for creating predictive brains, complex social language, and grasping hands ideal for tool use. They were also an ideal living environment for Australopithecus afarensis, likely precursors to humans. Australopithecus with their complex warning systems, and ability to get to upper branches away from the big cats, was effectively the dominant predator in the tree niche. Evolutionary biologists commonly argue that a series of extended droughts, perhaps beginning 4 million years ago, forced Australopithecus to increasingly come down out of the trees and walk in increasingly upright posture, scavenging on the savannah for food. Fossils like Lucy tell us that Australopithecus both swung from trees and could walk upright for short distances. Fossil evidence tells us that such animals were easy prey for leopards and other large savannah carnivores, until the emergence of Homo habilis some 2 million years ago. By that time we were using clubs, sharp rocks with which we could crush carnivore skulls up close, and we had evolved shoulder girdles that allowed us to throw rocks accurately at 90 miles an hour toward predators, presumably in unison. This new technology, language, and group imitative behavior gave us the collective (interdependent) ability to defend ourselves, and to increasingly effectively hunt, when moving in groups. Thus both the periodic droughts and the savannah predators were catalytic catastrophes that forced one tool using species, humans, to advance to the point that they could become dominant in all niches. At that point I would argue we achieved competitive exclusion, the ability to deny access to the “human” developmental portal (the ability to be a continuously improving, language-using social tool user). We spread across the planet, hunting many species of megafauna to extinction in the process. Once we were in a niche, any species that showed too much intelligence in our niche, like lions that cleverly hunted humans in Africa, were mercilessly killed off by early human hunters. Killing such near-peer animals was likely a first priority for human hunters.
- Human Self-Domestication (2 Million years ago). Beginning with our invention of fire some two million years ago, the emergence of the juvenile features (high foreheads, unfused cranial plates) of Homo sapiens skulls 300-200Kya, and the 10% loss in average human brain size over the last 40,000 years, humans have been self-domesticating, weeding out (ostracising or killing) the more irrationally violent, individualistic, and sociopathic among us. That has been a particularly beneficial catalytic catastrophe, one we’ve imposed on ourselves to make ourselves substantially more interdependent (prosocial and moral). This ostracizing or killing was certainly not preferred by those affected by it, but as long as it wasn’t done excessively, eliminating too many rulebreakers and different-thinkers, a “right sized” series of small catastrophes of this nature would have resulted in progressively more adaptive groups. Anthropologists like Richard Wrangham argue that this self-domestication had many of the same effects we find in domesticated animals, whose docility and agreeableness goes up as their brain size decreases (an average of 30% loss with domestic vs wild dogs, for example) making them less individualistic and more dependent on the group. As scholars like Kazuo Okanoya (2012) have found, domestication leads to increased linguistic complexity in tame versus wild songbirds, thus self-domestication may have selected for human linguistic complexity as well. The more humans were able to tolerate interacting in close proximity, the faster their language could improve. It is easy to underestimate the power of domestication. It took just six generations in the Silver Fox Experiment to create some tame foxes, and more recent experiments with chickens and other birds have shown it takes just three generations to produce birds that will walk toward rather than away from researchers when approached.
- Toba Supervolcano Eruption (73,000 years ago). The Toba supereruption catastrophe, the largest known explosive event on Earth in the last 25 million years, is believed to have massively reduced the genetic diversity of India, tipping its peoples toward greater genetic similarity, and possibly greater cooperativity. A few scholars speculate that Toba may be one of the reasons India has the world’s largest democracy today. Toba introduced the genetic bottleneck theory, which is the idea that periodic supervolcano eruptions (47 supervolcano sites are known worldwide today, including Yellowstone in the US) and their subsequent massive ashfalls, decimated early hominid populations and greatly reduced human diversity. Several scientists now argue that the apparent very low genetic diversity found in modern humans (less even, according to one geneticist, than we find among single troops of baboons) is due to a series of catastrophes that reduced our total numbers to just 3,000 to 10,000 of us at various times. In addition to self-domestication, this great environmental culling accelerated our relatedness and apparently also our interdependence, our social and moral cohesion, thus allowing new levels of cooperativity and civilization.
- Last Glacial Maximum (Ice Age) (21,000-10,000 years ago). Just one of the most recent of many ice ages, the Last Glacial Maximum apparently pushed hardy humans down out of Europe, and across the planet. As the ice advanced, it spurred us to develop bone needles for stitched clothing, far better hunting technology, and much tighter communities to ensure survival. A number of scholars have pointed to this period, the end of the Paleolithic, as a catalyst (accelerator) of hardier and craftier Homo sapiens. After this hardship, as the last Ice Age retreated around 12,000 BCE, the new wetness and ideal conditions it created allowed these newly crafty and more communal hunter-gatherers to settle down into domestication of plants and animals in the Neolithic revolution, starting another great growth in dematerialization and densification. More specifically, the I4S processes of innovation, intelligence, interdependence, immunity, and sustainability can all be argued to have made great advances subsequent to both “ice” and “dry” ages. For more on how climate change “catastrophes” have coincided with human brain size increases and levels of organization over the last 2.5 million years, see William H. Calvin’s A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change (2002).
- Organized Warfare (10,000 years ago to WWII). Systems theorist Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (2015) offers the fascinating thesis that large-scale warfare itself has been the central catalyst for learning our way out of mass violence. Europe, for example, is so postmilitary that they have suffered from it, being too vulnerable to opportunists like Serbia’s Milosovec and Russia’s Putin. Warfare also allowed us to learn our way out of the vast sociopolitical inequalities of the era of what Turchin calls “God-Kings,” though the periodic emergence of new technology has created new socioeconomic inequalities, in waves. Fortunately those are regularly mediated via a Kuznets process as social wealth grows. Kuznets inequalities are themselves catalytic catastrophes, which we learn our way out of over time.
- Black Death (1300s Europe). The Black Death, and all major human pandemics, directly catalyzed immunity in the survivors, because of the way human immune systems work. All bacteria and viruses have only simple strategies for infecting complex organisms like humans. There are only on the order of 50 genes in a virus, and 300 in a bacterium, versus 20,000 in a human, with thousands being immune related. In order to survive in human hosts, infectious diseases must continually mutate. Because we naturally quarantine as infections spread, there is preferential passing of less lethal variants within the host population. Over time, these less lethal variants immunize the population against the more lethal ones. This is one of several reasons that over time, all pandemics, including really clever ones like AIDS, which attack the immune system itself, eventually burn themselves out, leaving the surviving population with superimmmunity against that pathogen. Pandemics are a canonical example of a catalytic catastrophe. All plagues that have affected humans have actually not been the pathogen’s “fault”, but rather the way pathogen-host relationships have grown differentially, in isolation, followed by contact between previously isolated groups of humans. In the Black Plague example, Chinese, living in close quarters with their animals, developed superimmunity, and their pathogens (Yersinia pestis, in this case) developed superpathogenic traits to try to get past that superimmunity. When the Silk Road brought these superpathogens to Europe, the immunologically naive Europeans were easy victimss. The Spaniards infecting the Aztecs, the Europeans infecting American Indians had the same dynamics. When those newly superimmune peoples make initial contact with less immunologically privileged peoples, massive damage is done to the immunologically naive populations on first contact. As immunity grows, pathogens must get more virulent, just to get into and replicate in their host. But because of the way biological immune systems work, every pathogen that people survive from just makes the survivors stronger, against all pathogens of that general class, and some related classes. But now that the world is one integrated population, the possibility for major pandemics is vastly, vastly less than it was previously, regardless of what any scaremonger might tell you. As our understanding of immune systems and how to empower them grows yearly, we are now just a few decades away from eliminating pandemics as a major threat. For a good example, see DRACO, an immune system adjuvant that makes our biochemistry a hostile environment for replication by a whole class of viruses. Many other such adjuvants exist, we’ve just been too shortsighted as a species to fund looking for them. Pathogens are just too simple, in the end, to be an enduring threat to humanity. No matter what bioterrorists do with them, in another generation or two we’ll know how to immediately create chemical immunity (vaccines, adjuvants) to them. In the second half of the 21st century, it will only be science and technology-using humans acting against other humans, and the misuse and mistraining of intelligent machines, that I think will be the enduring risks to our society.
There are many more examples of catalytic catastrophes that we could give. Consider the way mistakes with feedback (trial and error learning) catalyze the growth of natural intelligence, or that exposure to pathogens, or criminal behavior, catalyze the growth of natural security, both of which we discussed in Chapter 7. Every parent and teacher knows that children raised without appropriate challenges to their brains, bodies, and immune systems will grow up to be less adaptive adults. Raise a kid in an antiseptic environment and they have weaker immune systems and allergies as an adult. The same goes for our organizations, societies, and planet. What’s amazing is that we can see this catalytic effect even on universal and planetary scales. There’s something about the nature of both the universe and life, as systems, that makes them like this, and all our most adaptive and bio-inspired technologies will be both designed, by us, and selected by our environment (often without our knowledge) to have these same advantages.
Economist Nick Taleb’s thoughtful Antifragile (2012) is a good introduction to the way we need to design our organizational, technological, and societal systems to be more immune, or resilient to disorder (Taleb doesn’t use the term immunity, but antifragility is primarily an immunity mechanism, in my view). Immune systems can also be damaged, mistrained, or overdeveloped. Management theorist John Hagel offers an excellent piece, Never Under-Estimate the Immune System, EdgePerspectives.com 12.2017, which tells us how an overdeveloped organizational immunity causes large organizations to reject needed change. The same problem occurs in living systems with autoimmune disease, a result of a poorly trained, overactive, or otherwise dysfunctional immune system.
We must also recognize that immunity is never the whole story of how we grow from catastrophe. Sometimes, advancing one or more of the other I4S goals is as or more important a way to gain greater adaptiveness. Consider that if you don’t have enough social intelligence, or interdependence (trust), you won’t learn sufficiently quickly or efficiently from catastrophe. The spendthrift and excessive ways America responded to the 9/11 event, the first major terrorist attack on our soil, was an obvious example of a poorly intelligent, low-trust, inefficient response. Millions were spent on silly things like gas masks and bioterrorism suits. We didn’t empower local communities to come up with their own diverse security solutions. We haven’t even figured out how to clear our low-risk citizens through airports yet, seventeen years after the event, as of this writing.
For a less obvious example, consider Paul Offit’s The Cutter Incident: How America’s First Polio Vaccine Led to the Growing Vaccine Crisis (2005). This book shows how poor government oversight in creating the first polio vaccine, the Salk vaccine, led to an early tragedy during the first US mass vaccination campaign in 1955. One of the smaller labs given the vaccine contract, Cutter Labs, used faulty process in deactivating live virus with formaldehyde, which created 40,000 vaccine-caused causes of polio, 200 children who suffered varying amounts of paralysis, and 10 deaths. The ham-handed response to this tragedy was to move away from the Salk vaccine, which epidemiologists already knew was better, and which had caused no problems from vaccinations prepared by three larger labs that also had the contract. Government regulators and their consulting physicians went low-trust in our response, and reverted to the alternative Sabin vaccine, which we knew was less effective, and which as a result caused six to eight cases of paralysis every year in America until it was retired in the 1990s, at which time we finally trusted our labs enough to return to a modified Salk vaccine, which we use today. This is a good example of how societies learn from catastrophe, but the learning is not necessarily efficient in the early phases of response. We often cross a Kuznets valley where things get worse before they get better post-catastrophe, because we don’t pay sufficient attention to one or more of the I4S goals.
In X-Events (2013), complexity theorist John Casti offers many instructive examples what he calls complexity overload, where our intelligence and regulation systems are insufficient to handle the complexity of an environment, particularly during extreme events, which he calls “X-events”. He notes that system resilience, or more generally what I would call natural security, is most centrally about our ability to adapt in ever-changing and often unpredictable environments. It is particularly helpful that his book focuses on catastrophes, and what we can learn from them.
Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (2011) is a great introduction to the central importance of trial and error in adaptation, and why both experimenting and learning from failure are so important. Any entrepreneur understands how important trial and error and pivoting are to success, and any leader recognizes that building a culture that is permissive to constant trial and error and review is the best way to manage change. The Eight Skills are organized around this perspective, which is why we call them adaptive foresight, an integration of learning, foresight, action, and review.
Much more scholarly and scientific work needs to be done if we are to better understand the universal value of catastrophe to complex systems, under a broad range of conditions. We are still early in understanding catalytic catastrophes, and I expect we’ll learn much more about how to keep our catastrophes right-sized, and appropriately plentiful and instructive, in coming years. In the meantime, keep the catalytic catastrophe hypothesis in mind as you work to help yourself, your family, your teams and your clients to more adaptive futures. Often we don’t need to run from catastrophes, but rather, seek to learn as much as we can from them.