Complex Ecosystems and the End of the Dinosaurs
I have a theory about why the dinosaurs disappeared: basically, it’s because they were too successful for too long. I know a big comet or an asteroid or something hit near the Yucatan and led to drastic climate change for a while, and that was probably the proximate cause of the extinctions which opened up a bunch of pretty big niches for mammals and eventually us. But the root cause was success.
In fact, the history of life on earth is punctuated by mass extinctions at more or less even intervals of 65 million years or so. Each of these almost certainly has a proximate cause. My theory seeks to explain the periodicity. The intervals look too regular to be explained by galactic catastrophes which one would expect to be unevenly spaced or even to cluster. By the way, there is nothing in either my education or experience that qualifies me to have a theory about extinctions – I just like to think about evolution. Later in this post, I’ll even draw a business conclusion from my unqualified speculation.
Let’s suppose we’re at the time just after a mass extinction which followed some catastrophe. By definition, there aren’t a lot of species around compared to the good old days. Each of the few remaining species was lucky: it had some accidental attributes which lent themselves to survival when the stuff hit the fan. Maybe the species was in the second year of a seventeen-year hibernation; maybe it lives around vents in the sea floor; maybe it is a cockroach.
These surviving species probably were marginal players in the epoch which just ended. If they had been at the top of the food chain; they would have disappeared because the food chain has been disrupted. If they were an important part of a complex ecosystem, they’d be toast because complexity doesn’t survive comets. So they were probably pretty much loners living in some isolated niche with few dependencies on other species. They weren’t dependent on warmth and sunshine and all the things that the species in good neighborhoods depend on because all of that is gone. If they lived in a tough neighborhood with a simple ecosystem like a sea vent or under an ice cap, they may not have even noticed how lousy the weather got.
But now all the niches are open and the climate starts to get better. The survivors are free to fill every niche and move into the good neighborhoods. Next thing you know, they are not only reproducing prodigiously, they are also evolving. And, because there are so many open niches and, initially, so few species, a relatively large number of these mutations result in new species better adapted for a particular niche than their ancestors. We move over ten million years or so from a relative paucity of species to an abundance of them. (That’s a fact. I read it in a book.)
So the total amount of specialization is increasing – generalists are out! Now surrounding species rather than surrounding terrain or raw minerals or sunshine become the environment which species must adapt to. The earth is getting pretty full again so there are lots of plants to eat if that’s your thing and there are lots of other species that want to eat you. In localities, despite chaotic swings through cycles of feat and famine, rough balances of populations develop which, as entire ecosystems, are well-adapted to exploiting the local resources. Almost no species is an island. A complex interdependency evolves because it is efficient during periods of relative stability. Now we have a lot of species which are specialists in ecosystem living. They are highly interdependent.
But, the more complex the ecosystem, the more dependent it is on relative stability. The amount of disruption required to upset the apple cart gets to be smaller and smaller. Since large or small potential disruptions from voracious viruses to sun spots to galactic clouds to chaotic changes in sea currents and even comets are always happening, once the ecosystem gets complex enough, it is only a matter of time before it will be disrupted. Bang! There’s another mass extinction of what are now overly specialized and overly-interdependent species.
And the cycle starts again. Evolution doesn’t read history books and whatever works today works so the few surviving species that used to be loners start the 65 million year evolution towards a vulnerably complex and fragile ecosystem.
It has become fashionable to talk about business in terms of ecosystems. Frankly, the parallels are frightening. In periods of relative stability, complex business ecosystems evolve. They evolve because they are efficient for the time. They evolve because they work. Some of these ecosystem used to be almost self-contained (except for some customers somewhere) in giant vertically integrated companies. But the ecosystems can and usually are made up of lots of companies.
Now along comes a disruptive something – often a technology. The more complex and perfectly adapted the ecosystem was to the former environment, the more difficult it will be for it to adapt to the new environment. It isn’t just individual businesses that were threatened by steam power, by the railroads, by the automobile, the semiconductor, software, the Internet, whatever – it’s entire business ecosystems!
It happened to the hand-loom ecosystem, to the horse ecosystem, to the monolithic computer ecosystem, and to the old telecommunications ecosystem. It wasn’t just phone companies which defaulted on massive amounts of debt, laid off hundreds of thousands of workers, and erased zillions in stock market value; the same thing happened to the manufacturers who supplied the service companies. The unions which supplied the workers are shadow of their former powerful selves.
This isn’t a moral judgment. It’s not even a cautionary tale. If you’re building a successful business, you MUST adapt to the ecosystem which exists – or is forming – at the time. You can’t build a business for an environment that doesn’t exist yet (I’ve tried that; I know). Just to make things more frightening, the pace of technological change – unlike the frequency of comet crashes – is increasing exponentially. Disruptive technologies like steam or the printing press used to happen every couple of centuries. Now they happen every couple of years. And the only thing which is predictable is the certainty that there WILL be a technology that disrupts whatever you earn your living at. You can predict that something will happen but you can’t predict what.
The only guidance I can give is the gamblers adage “you gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.” It also turns out that some generalized skills like curiosity, perseverance, and the ability to work hard are useful in moving from one ecosystem to its successor.