Re·new·al /rəˈn(y)ooəl/ noun
to make like new
Can species stare down extinction? It’s possible. How can species thrive and renew? It’s progression. Let’s travel through time.
Editor's Note: At Outrider, we create in-depth content showcasing climate change impacts on our daily lives. In this Anthropocene series, we untangle the complex relationship between our species and our planet, the only home we have. Featuring a multi-discipline approach that contemplates the lessons of earth’s past and the solutions of earth’s present, we hope you can understand your individual role in our shared future. Here we discuss the innovative adaptations of past species growth so that we may come together to ensure the hopeful future of humanity.
Our planet constantly spins on despite what rages on its surface. It doesn’t matter: fire, ice, water, desert, death, and most compelling life, our planet endures—it always does. Life has evolved to overcome constraints because of extinction events, renewing through the innovation of adaptive traits, reactions to environmental limits, and solutions to natural adversities. These critical responses, seasoned with luck, help pull certain species back and may push certain species forward.
Humanity has directly responded to these challenges as our species have adapted rather than succumbed to the sands of time: wood became the first renewable energy source, agriculture became the first reliable food source, and conservation became an effective method of maintaining biodiversity. All of these strategies link humans from the deep past with the humans of today and led to the establishment of humanity's power over the planet's flora and fauna, called the Anthropocene.
However, these types of renewal practices transcend the human species. In fact, survival practices are tested and perfected by other species through the lengthy and arduous process of advancing life on earth through biodiversification and radiation events. Luckily, we have a geological record that clearly shows the renewals in our earth’s past—let's take a look at these renewals to see if there are further lessons to learn so that the Anthropocene progresses.
How Does Life Press Forward?
Scientists measure the growth of life on earth in two closely linked, but different methods. The first is called the biodiversification event, which takes place over millions of years, but is relatively quick in the 4.6 billion years of Earth’s geologic history. During a biodiversification event, the fossil record shows an explosion of all life on earth. For example, during these times both fish in the sea and life on the earth grow significantly.
Contrasting this overall growth is the second type called a radiation event. Radiation can also take millions of years but is concentrated in specific families or species of life. Essentially during this event, a single ancestral species diversifies into several new forms in response to new environments, new resources, and even new challenges. For example, Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands went from one seed-eating ancestor to 14 new species of finches because their food sources changed. Nonetheless, these two events showcase that life on earth has the capacity of not only rebounding from extinction events but actually adapting and thriving in new and unique conditions. As you can see, life is constantly pressing forward on both the macro and the micro levels and also geologists have a weird definition of an event.
Deep Dive: Darwin's Finches Radiation
What is it?
It is the process by which species evolve into different forms as a solution to the challenge of their environments.
Where is it?
It is happening in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean.
Why did it happen?
A group of seed-eating ground finches migrated to the islands and had to survive. Some finches started eating different food including, insects, cacti seeds, fruits, and even blood.
What was the result?
A single group of same species of finches evolved into 14 different species of finches.
Why is it important?
It shows that life evolves in response to climatic conditions to adapt and thrive. It also serves as an example for humans to come up with solutions to the challenges of climate change.
550 Million Years Ago
Perhaps, the Cambrian Explosion is the most important evolutionary event in our earth's history.
Recorded in the Burgess Shale, the appearance of complex animal fossils with skeletal remains accompanied by previously undiscovered soft-tissue imprints, make this event a seminal marker of life on earth. These skeletal developments show the adaptations of Cambrian life as their new hardened shells provided protection and shelter from an unforgiving marine environment. The Cambrian seas contained chordates, mollusks, and vertebrates of various sizes and shapes living on the seafloor and swimming throughout the empty, but vast water ecology. Life as always was changing and growing through the innovation of adaptive traits in response to environmental limits.
Deep Dive: The Burgess Shale
What is it?
An exceptional collection of fossils that help us study previous climates and predict future climates.
When was it formed?
508 million years ago. During the middle of the Cambrian period and during the Cambrian explosion.
Where is it?
Affixed on an exposed cliffside in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia.
Why is it important?
Contains fossils from one of the most important evolutionary events in life history, the Cambrian Explosion.
What species were found?
Ancient marine species including early mollusks, chordates, and vertebrates from which humans emerged.
Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event
500 Million Years Ago
During this very important event, there was a sustained increase in marine biodiversity of all shapes and sizes.
The Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event showcased an explosion of new species of small organisms in the ocean. These tiny organisms fed on nutrients possibly provided by volcanic eruptions. This recipe meant that the ocean was no longer almost lifeless expanses of water, being filled now with blooms of these tiny organisms. These tiny organisms served as the foundation of the food chain, which led to biodiversity growth up the food chain and throughout the water column. Life was evolving in response to new opportunities presented by changes in the environment.
Mesozoic-Cenozoic Radiation Event
120 Million Years Ago
The Mesozoic–Cenozoic Radiation is the third event of a major increase in biodiversity.
Cenozoic, which means "new life", is the current geological era and is known as the age of mammals. Furthermore, most modern flora and fauna are direct descendants of Mesozoic-Cenozoic Radiation Event. What makes this event unique is that the diversity appears largely within flowering plants and mammals, including the ancestors of humans. This event showcases how modern plants and animals survived and thrived in response to the famous fall of dinosaurs. Mammals and flowering plants adapted to the new environments and new climates that included extended times of ice, desert, heat, and rain by proliferating into terrestrial, marine and even aerial habitats.
The Rise of Humanity
From the final major radiation event, Homo Sapiens and their ancestors began to impact the planet. About three million years ago, our ancestors, the first genus of humans—not particularly fast, not particularly strong, not particularly big—spread from the African grasslands to all corners of the globe. However, about 200,000 years ago, our ancestors were not the only human species hunting and gathering, as there were other species of humans, including Neanderthals, in close proximity. These other human species, however, went extinct by about 10,000 years ago. Why did the other species die out? We're not exactly sure, but we do know that modern humans, each one of us, carries a sliver of Neanderthal DNA. You read that right. You are part Neanderthal.
What we do know is that Homo Sapiens continued to innovate and adapt to challenges and changes to their dangerous environments by discovering fire for energy, establishing language for communication, developing safeguards for protection and as some scientists argue, cooperating in large groups to find common solutions to press humanity forward. This is explained further in the great work of Yuval Noah Harari here.
One of these landmark solutions, organized agriculture, emerged 12,000 years ago. Humans developed agriculture to make growing food more efficient and sustainable, a battle which interestingly we are still facing today. Yet, isolated and disparate farms still needed cooperation so villages began to spring up with the bounty of the environment as the engine for local economies and thus the agricultural revolution began. But humans, in their quest to renew and advance compelled further revolutions including the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the industrial revolution of the 18th century and the technological revolution of the 19th century. From these revolutions diverse human civilizations have left their positive and indelible mark— here are a few more examples of the amazing and inspiring human civilizations of today.
Our planet has always spun forward into the horizon. We can’t deny this natural law—it is undisputed and undefeated. This reality leaves humanity grappling with the weighty questions of how the age of humanity, the Anthropocene, may also move forward instead of shuffling off this mortal coil. Can we possibly turn the negative consequences of maintaining the carbon-based status quo into positive opportunities that allow for the renewal and growth of our species? Our ancestors exploited their opportunities to begin innovative revolutions, which provided the blueprints to lay the foundation of the Anthropocene.
So, we have determined the solutions, but it is undetermined if we have the time and most importantly, the will, to implement the solutions before it is too late. Quickly deploying global cooperative measures such as wide-scale renewable energy production, extensive land conservation initiatives, and significant food consumption changes will have immediate impacts that will sustain our own species and preserve biodiversity. In addition, we have the unique ability to learn from and understand the consequences of our actions, but we must believe that we are part of the challenge and part of the solution, and that starts with understanding that we are part of the earth. Through innovating and adapting to the profound challenges facing our species, such as nuclear weapons and climate change, we can find the solutions that calibrate the delicate tension of life and death because the fate of our species hangs in the balance.