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Dennis Venema
 on August 14, 2012

Death and Rebirth: The Role of Extinction in Evolution

As a Southern Baptist Voices exchange makes clear, many Christians focus on the role of death in evolution—something that can be a stumbling block to seeing it as a means by which a good God creates.


When they imagine evolution, many Christians picture novelty: new species arising over time, or speciation events. But as the most recent Southern Baptist Voices exchange makes clear, many Christians also focus on the role of death in evolution—something that can be a stumbling block to seeing it as a means by which a good God creates. This is especially true when we imagine the death of individual creatures in fierce competition for limited resources, whether such struggle takes place on the savanna or elsewhere.

In his essay for that series, Jeff Schloss addressed the question of whether animal death is a natural evil, but also noted that such theological considerations aside, death does not actually “drive evolution” in the way most people imagine—especially when they think of violence in the natural world. This more complicated sense of death’s role is partially the result of modern evolutionary science recognizing the importance of cooperation and inter-relation among species, rather than just direct competition. But just as important is the knowledge that evolution is significantly shaped not by the deaths of individual creatures, but by extinction, the loss of species over time. In this post, we explore some aspects of how extinction acts as both a destructive and creative force in evolutionary history, including the evolutionary history of mammals.

Sporadic extinction

Extinction is actually a common feature of life on earth when viewed over long (e.g. geological) timescales. By some estimates, over 99% of the species that have ever lived have gone extinct. One factor that promotes extinction is the fact that evolution does not produce species that are optimally adapted to their environment, but only better adapted than their local competitors. Invasive species testify to this fact: local (endemic) species are not always the best-adapted species for their own environment. Examples abound where species from other environments are actually better-suited to out-compete endemic species. Here in my own province, the invasive Himilayan blackberry (Rubis discolor) easily outcompetes many endemic species. If endemic species were optimally adapted to their environment, this would not be possible, as they would outcompete all exotic species. Instead, exotic species, by chance, might be better adapted to an ecosystem they did not evolve in. These exotics may be capable of eliminating endemic species altogether.

Such an extinction event (of a single species, or perhaps a handful of species) alters the environment of other remaining species in an ecosystem. This, in turn, may influence the ability of some of these remaining species to reproduce compared to other species. For example, the extinction of a competitor might allow a species to increase in population size. Conversely, the extinction of a species that provides a benefit (such as a pollinator) may reduce a species in number. As the ecosystem landscape shifts due to loss of species, new biological opportunities, or niches, might arise. These new niches are then available to support new species to fill them.

Extinction, en masse

One way to appreciate how extinction opens up new niches is to examine mass extinction events – geologically brief periods where large numbers of species go extinct at the same time. Over the history of life on our planet there have been several mass extinction events. The largest such event, at the end of the Permian (~250 million years ago) appears to have been caused, at least in part, by intense volcanic activity over several hundred thousand years. This activity likely shifted CO2 levels and eventually led to a “runaway” greenhouse effect that dramatically raised global temperatures and led to anoxic (i.e. oxygen-depleted) oceans, though the exact contributions of these varied factors remains an area of scientific debate. What appears certain is that during this period environmental changes were too rapid for most species to keep evolutionary pace with, and as a result over 90% of the world’s species alive at that time went extinct. Obviously this represents destruction of biodiversity on an unimaginable scale, and the destructive effects of this event are with us to this day.

Speciation, en masse

This destruction, however, is not the whole story. Following on from the Permian mass extinction, we observe a steady increase in new species. These are species previously unknown in the fossil record. In fact, this pattern (a “radiation” of new species following an extinction event) is the rule, not an exception – we see the same effect after every mass extinction in the fossil record. Extinction is a driving force for novelty.

Perhaps the most famous mass extinction event is the Cretaceous – Paleogene (KPg) extinction, and it too follows this standard pattern. This mass extinction took place 65 million years ago when an asteroid ~10 kilometers in diameter struck the Yucatan peninsula. (Note: this event was formerly known as the Cretaceous – Tertiary (K-T) extinction, but that terminology is in decline within the scientific community). This extinction event is famous since it is the one that eliminated the dinosaurs (with the exception of the ancestors of modern birds). As with the Permian extinction, the elimination of so many species shifted the evolutionary landscape for the remaining species, and the result was a burst of speciation that appears rapid when viewed in geological time. Significantly for our own species, following the KPg extinction event is a burst in mammalian speciation, as small mammals that survived the event diverge and fill niches left empty by the dinosaurs. Without this event, the trajectory of mammalian evolution would certainly look very different.

Clearing the deck, and re-filling the niches

One interesting fact to note is that biological features that make a species resistant to usual, sporadic extinction are not necessarily the same features that will be useful during a mass extinction event. While species are continually under selection at the local level, there is no mechanism for (pre) selection to survive a mass extinction. As such, only species that happen to have the right combination of traits will survive, and often spread widely after a mass extinction. These so-called “disaster species” are usually generalists, and will later be displaced by more specialized species as they arise. As such, where sporadic extinction allows for more gradual turnover in species, mass extinction events are major “resets” of evolution that can radically shift what constitutes “well adapted” in a geological eyeblink. For mammals at the KPg boundary, small body size and an omnivorous diet (including the ability to scavenge detritus) were the “winning” combination of traits that allowed them to survive where larger, more specialized animals (think Tyrannosaurus rex) could not. From this rather humble station, mammals would come to dominate the world’s ecosystems over the coming eons – including a lineage that would someday lead to our own species. Far from only a destructive force, extinction is a powerful mechanism to allow evolutionary innovation, and one that was of significant importance to us.

About the author

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema

Dennis Venema is professor of biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. He holds a B.Sc. (with Honors) from the University of British Columbia (1996), and received his Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2003. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signaling using the common fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model organism. Dennis is a gifted thinker and writer on matters of science and faith, but also an award-winning biology teacher—he won the 2008 College Biology Teaching Award from the National Association of Biology Teachers. He and his family enjoy numerous outdoor activities that the Canadian Pacific coast region has to offer.