Table of Contents


Creating a Boom Species

A boom species develops a positive feedback loop with its environment—the more there are of the species, the more the local environment changes to promote its growth. In the process the boom species crowds out other species competing for the same resources.

The opposite is more common. When a species faces an environment of diminishing returns, the more it thrives the harder it is to find everything it needs to continue thriving. It may run out of easy food or favorable shelter, or it may become host to a disease or predator that thrives as the species becomes more numerous and crowded. Such diminishing returns ultimately cap every species’ growth. But when there is a long positive-feedback spurt before the diminishing returns dominate, the species is a boom species.

Though not routine among living things, being a boom species is a common phenomenon. Some well-known species that are or have been boom species are:

The Human Process

One of Earth’s major boom species is homo sapiens—mankind. People live in thick clusters on six of Earth’s seven continents and control a significant portion of the biomass wherever they are established.

What changes happened 30 millennia ago, give or take 10, that propelled humans from being reasonably successful on at most three continents into overwhelming success?

Three foundational changes to the design of humans are at the root of mankind’s boom: Advanced language skill, self-awareness, and advanced tool-using skill. There are likely a few more that we don’t recognize, but these three are the core that have synergized to create what we now experience as the prosperous human condition.

Let’s look at them in more detail, to see how, since the current Interglacial Warm Period began, these changes have created positive feedback and how evolution has responded.

The Three Root Changes

Tool Use: I Can Improve My Environment in a Big Way

Most species of plant and animal live within a local environment that is pretty close to what it would be without them. They make some changes, such as building a coral reef or a nest, but to make changes on the scale that human beings do requires huge groups of other species, such as the plants that collectively oxygenate Earth’s atmosphere, and the various bacteria that decompose the mountains of cellulose that the plants leave behind.

Mankind dramatically changes its environment to better suit it—living in a house is a huge difference from living in a den or cave or under the sun and stars as savannah herbivores do. This ability to change its environment makes a huge difference in both survivability and in what genes are valuable to pass down to human children.

In the average organism, evolution pays a lot of attention to passing down genes that help the organism adapt better to its environment. But in mankind’s case, evolution pays most of its attention to passing down genes that help mankind use tools better, a very different criterion. Environmental adaptation plays second fiddle to tool use, and whenever evolution faces a tradeoff between them, tool use wins.

For example, let’s watch Mother Nature, Design Engineer, as she ponders providing cold resistance for different organisms: geese, sugar maples, deer, and humans.

With Canadian geese she thinks, “This is easy! Since they fly already, I’ll just have them fly south for the winter—no cold adaptation at all. What I’ll have to add to their gene package is more endurance and good navigating ability, so they know where they are over long distances.”

With sugar maple trees she thinks, “I can’t have them walk out of the cold, can I! Hmm … not only is winter cold where they grow, but the light’s rotten, because the day is short and the sun’s low in the sky … OK, I’ll have the tree shut down for the winter. I’ll add a gene set for it to drop its leaves in the fall and grow new ones in the spring. A side benefit is that it’ll take food away from those pesky leaf-eating caterpillars for many months of the year. That’ll fix their wagon!”

Two surprise results from this change: The caterpillars learn to live quite nicely on just a few months of leaves, and humans learn to tap the first run of the spring sap, on its way to grow leaves, in order to make maple sugar out of it.

With whitetail deer she thinks, “Hibernation’s a tougher package to assemble for them than for trees, and they’re big enough … why don’t I just redesign the circulation system to be cold-resistant, and the digestive system so they can eat bark instead of grass during the winter, and stay active until spring.”

But with mankind Nature thinks, “With enough tool-using skill, they can build fires and sew clothing, and those that go far enough north will select for being compact and fat-layered, and they can be fair-skinned for better vitamin D production. And all of them, even the ones that don’t need clothing for warmth, can use clothes for all kinds of social signaling. Eventually they’ll plant windbreaks, build huts against the cold or heat, and so on. So they won’t need a special temperature-tolerance gene set. So, yeah, tool use is the way to go!”

The moral of this is that humans’ strategy for adapting to the many climates on Earth is using tools to build shelters. In fact, tool use promises to let humans adapt to the many climates in the Solar System. From the point of view of evolutionary success, this root change has been a hugely successful strategy.

Self-Awareness: You Are Different, So I Can Teach You

The human organism has invested heavily in thinking ability, as the size and wrinkliness of the human brain makes clear.

The breakthrough thinking skill that set mankind on the path towards civilization, and to booming as a species, is the ability to understand that “you” and “I” are two different entities. Of the many reasons why this is an important concept, the first is that humans realize that other humans need to be taught—that one human, particularly if younger, does not automatically know what another human does. This strong understanding of the possibility and necessity of teaching is the foundation of culture.

Another important use of self-aware thinking is story-telling. While it famously can be used for teaching, story-telling hinges on a different concept: That one human may not act the same as another human when presented with the same circumstances. Story-telling is about motivation.

Yet another spin-off of self-awareness is the ability to ask many interesting questions. Questioning why the world is like it is forms the foundations for the religion and science skills.

Language: The “Killer App” for Humans

Tool use and self-awareness are vital parts of the groundwork for humanity becoming a boom species, but language use is even more spectacular. It manifests during most of each human’s waking hours.

The primary function of language in those organisms that have it is as a tool for moving ideas from one organism to another. No other earthly organism has invested anything like the effort that humans have in high language skills, so they are a million-fold more developed than those of any other organism. From evolution’s point of view, the only way such over-investment makes sense is if the payoff is good. In humanity’s case, the payoff has been huge, the killer app for the species.

Fantastic language skill has allowed humans to do many of those things we now consider standard parts of the human condition. It let mankind develop, first, the Stone Age human gene suite, and then work on the yet unfinished Civilized Human gene suite, that have allowed humanity to become a boom species.

One of language’s surprise applications, becoming a high-tech extension of the Living Library of Life, is covered in the “The Evolutionary Information Boom” section below.

Quirky Effects on Evolution

Having these three impressive foundation skills has directly affected human evolution by pushing the gene pool in directions it would not otherwise have gone.

Teeth and Dentistry

Mankind is famous for its particularly bad teeth. Sadly, the reason is one of mankind’s oldest medical practices: Dentistry.

If an animal without dentistry gets bad teeth, that’s life-threatening, which means those animals who get bad teeth won’t contribute as much to the gene pool as those who keep good teeth. When human tool use began intervening in that cycle, dentistry made bad teeth a far less life-threatening problem. Mother Nature responded by saying, “OK, if they want to have bad teeth, let ’em! It frees up resources I can devote to disease resistance, better thinking skills, and even more skilled tool use.”

Promoting Grandchildren

“When are you going to get married?”

This is the most famous question of parents to their post-adolescent children around the world. It is also an example of how talking takes over some of the load from DNA-programmed Instinct. In animals that can’t speak, Instinct must take the full load of deciding when an animal should mate and rear offspring. In mankind, by using language parents can share control with Instinct.

So one of the surprise effects of having language ability is the weakening of the mating Instinct in the human gene pool, with reminders (commonly called nagging by those who don’t want to be reminded) by prospective grandparents making up the difference.

Note that the mating Instinct is not the same as the sex Instinct. The latter has not been noticeably impacted by nagging.

Evolving into a Bust Species

There is a hazardous dark side to being a boom species. The dark side is the threat of becoming a “bust” species and then going extinct.

There are three phases to that process:

A) As it thrives, a species modifies its local environment favorably, creating a positive feedback loop that fuels the species’ boom.

B) Evolution automatically has the species adapt better and better to its boomed environment, the one in which it has been a major factor. Almost as automatically, such adaptation takes away from the species’ ability to thrive in an unboomed environment.

C) After a long period of boom, some disruptive catastrophe occurs—drought, asteroid strike, or other catastrophe creating some form of non-boom environment that drastically reduces the species population. Unless it readapts improbably quickly, the boom species no longer competes well in the new environment and cannot resurge. One or more competitors takes over. Or disease catastrophically reduces the population, and competitors take advantage to the point that the species cannot resurge. In extreme cases, the boom species goes extinct.

Here is a hypothetical example.

In Phase A, the pine trees I mentioned earlier grow well in acid soil and drop needles to further acidify it, until they get established in an area as a thriving boom species.

In Phase B, the young pine trees that grow up in the established pine forest become better and better adapted to growing in acid soil, and poorly adapted to growing in neutral or alkaline soil.

In Phase C, a great fire kills much of the pine forest, and before the young pines can reestablish, the alkaline ash leaching into the soil has let competitors thrive and choke out enough of the pines that they become just one of many trees growing in the forest. They may reestablish dominance if favorable mutations let them thrive again, or if they find an area that is hostile in some way to the newly dominant species where they can build a new acid-soil foothold and spread from it. But if their adaptation to acid soil has gone too far, they go extinct.

An actual example of this boom to bust-into-extinction may be the passenger pigeon of North America. When early European explorers arrived, it was a dominant bird species in eastern North America. By 1900 the population collapsed and the species went essentially extinct. The consensus is that this was due to human-engineered habitat loss and over-hunting. The pigeons’ boom-species strategy had been to be so numerous that no natural predator could make a bad enough dent in the population that breeding couldn’t recover from the reduction. That failed under mechanized slaughter.

Busting is also a possible explanation for the dinosaur collapse at the end of the Cretaceous. If so, the dinosaur family (a whole collection of species) seems to have been a boom family that somehow modified the Earth’s environment to make it more dinosaur-friendly. When the meteor hit, or whatever else it was that upset the dinosaur-friendly environment, the conditions afterwards must have been in some way so different that dinosaurs could not recover their dominant position, and thus were unable to recreate the environment to which they had become well-adapted. Most dinosaur species withered and went extinct, but some evolved into birds, and a few such as alligators and crocodiles survived.

Neolithic Park

The Human Boom

In the short-term it’s great for mankind that by making the world civilized, our species is booming, controlling a larger and larger percentage of the biosphere!

But because humans are intensive environment modifiers, we are very vulnerable to the boom-bust effect.

Mankind is no longer evolving to be well adapted to a pristine environment. We are, instead, evolving to be well adapted to a mankind-influenced local environment, the civilized environment, which as we become more civilized will drift further and further from a pristine environment.

This means that over time mankind will come to depend more and more upon civilization to survive at all. At some point in the future, say 100 or 200 generations from now (3–5,000 years), if civilization collapses and disappears, mankind will suffer mightily and could go extinct.

One dramatic example of the changes which civilization brings on humanity’s gene pool and vice versa is human head size at birth.

Human infants tend to survive better if they are well developed before they are born. Over many generations, evolution has pushed fetus head size to the point that getting it down the birth canal is risky; in societies with primitive medical care, about one women in two hundred dies because a large-headed baby gets stranded on the way out at birth. Evolution tolerates this risk because the benefits if the bigger baby does make it out successfully are huge.

During the civilized period, big-headed babies have gotten out with less risk, either helped down the birth canal by other humans and our devices, and in a much shorter recent span they are sometimes allowed to bypass the birth canal entirely and come out by C-section. As the capability to offer that operation safely spreads, a serious constraint on baby head size at birth has been removed, and we can expect it to grow even larger over the next generations. Which will mean that unless they have their babies in a civilized environment, many more average human mothers will die in childbirth.

Saving Mankind

This and thousands of other changes are pushing the human gene pool away from being well-adapted to a pristine, uncivilized environment, even as the actual environment moves even farther from that state.

Which means that if our civilization collapses, humans are likely to become a bust species and perhaps go extinct. The threats of terrorist attacks, asteroid strikes, and climate change are kid’s stuff compared to this!

Now, what can we do about it?

Developing Gene Pool Insurance

Science and science fiction writers have given a lot of bandwidth to discussions of being prepared to prevent an asteroid striking Earth, which would require spending an immense amount of money. But asteroid strikes are just one of thousands of ways the Earth’s ecology, and mankind’s civilization, could be disrupted. I propose a Earth-catastrophe insurance program that’s more general purpose in its coverage: Protecting a homo sapiens gene pool that is well adapted to living in uncivilized Earth environments. I call my proposal Neolithic Park.

In one respect, the program will be easy to implement: We already have people living successfully in near-Neolithic conditions in remote parts of the world who would survive handily if civilization collapsed for any reason. They can quite happily continue living that way, without intrusion by the outside world.

In other ways it will be very difficult: It is the emotional impulse of many civilized people to view someone living that way as needing help, which they either feel obliged to give, or obliged to force someone else to give. Frustrating that impulse, dealing with criticism of the Park’s goal of intentionally keeping people living in “barbaric, intolerably dehumanizing” conditions will be the most challenging part of making it work.

Neolithic Park Parameters

Self-sufficiency is the only way to insure that their gene pool and knowledge base is really well matched to their ecological niche. The touchiest part is likely to be that, since we’re preserving survival genes, they survive without external medical care. If they improve their medical care—with “folk” antibiotics or any other means—nothing would require Park administrators to take those away, because they didn’t require civilization to produce. But doctors, nurses, medicines, even medical advice, must be embargoed.

If these people are helped through frost, famine, plague or any other natural disaster, the helping defeats the purpose of keeping a gene pool and knowledge base that is well adapted to the natural environment these people live in.

Perhaps preventing a community from being totally wiped out by an asteroid strike, a tsunami, or the like would be permitted. But anything that would merely winnow the gene pool would have to be tolerated.

These communities are villages, so the population density is not high. The current inhabitants of New Guinea offer a good example. Places such as northern Canada, central Australia, and Mongolia offer the geographic and environmental diversity I’m speaking of. Ironically, these kinds of places will get easier to find as civilization becomes more widespread because civilized people tend to be urban people as well.

Diversity is important because a civilization-collapsing catastrophe will almost by definition be sudden and a surprise, so it’s unlikely there’ll be time or resources to move our insurance people around after it.

This is the same reason that the communities must be real and steadily thriving in non-civilized ecological niches, not merely potential communities from cryogenically preserved people nor potential people to be grown from stored DNA—the workarounds that will be proposed on humanitarian grounds.

Commuting, leaving and returning regularly, would create contamination and distraction and make the environment no longer pristine, as would smuggling.

There could, however, be controlled access: Volunteers could choose to spend their lives in the parks, if they were psychologically capable of not attempting to civilize their fellows. There can be selected sons and daughters of the Park raised outside it, perhaps picked as tribute to the fate-controlling spirits, and such picking would be a subtle way of matching population to resource sustainability. But any such mixing must be limited.

The End of Neolithic Park

The parks will be unnecessary once mankind has thriving, self-sufficient colonies located in enough other parts of the Solar System to offer protection for humanity’s survival when a global catastrophe strikes Earth. (With currently projectable technology, we cannot expect them in other star systems, but all the better if it happens.)

After that, if Park residents wanted, the Park communities could continue as living historical museums.