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02-Aug-2006
Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? by David M. Raup, reviewed by Victor Niederhoffer

This book by David M. Raup, a biologist at the University of Chicago, of the Stephen Jay Gould genre, identifies everything about extinction that we thought was true but is not. The author's main thesis is that extinction is a mostly random event; due to catastrophes and bad luck, and not related to the process of evolution that is part and parcel of the Darwinian idea. The author believes that the most likely explanation for the major extinctions that we have had is not competition, nature, or physical causes, but meteorites of colossal energy that fell on the earth regularly some 18 million years ago and still threaten us today.

In the process of debunking everything that we have been taught about extinction the author comes to six conclusions that are of great explanatory value for all species, all companies, and all investment styles:

  1. Species are temporary. Almost all species die out, and almost all lifetimes are very small relative to the age of the earth.
  2. Species with small populations are easy to kill. This is a consequence of gambler's ruin, that if you let random events run for a long enough time you are bound to hit the zero point, unless the probability of success is inordinately high. This is something that all traders with fixed systems, and all companies with specialized technological innovations and unique niches should contemplate.
  3. Widely spread species are harder to kill. Geographic diversity, and niche diversity are very important in precluding narrow events from causing a species' extinction.
  4. It is much easier to kill a species if you get a substantial number with the first strike. The importance of not losing too much in one fell swoop is paramount in any field.
  5. Extinction is most often caused by new stresses that the organism is not accustomed to. Long-lived species have usually developed mechanisms to cope with everything that has occurred to them in the past, so the thing they must fear the most is the meteor ... or the spacemen!
  6. Mass extinctions require stresses that cut across all biological boundaries. In the market this would be such a thing as a big war or a global rise in interest rates.

There have been five major extinctions in the history of the earth. They are usually classified as Ordovician-Silurian, 440 million years before present, Late Devonian, 365 b.p., Permian-Triassic 250 b.p., End Triassic 200 b.p., and Cretaceous-Tertiary, 65 b.p., and a high percentage of species and genera were killed off in the years surrounding each of these markers. The author has developed some nice graphs to show what the likely number of species that died are, given the number of genera that were killed in each cataclysm.

There is an interesting but naive chapter in the book on the relation of extinction to industries. Raup argues that most of the companies around today were not in existence 50 years ago, and the cause of their disappearance, merger or bankruptcy corresponds to the causes of species disappearance or phyletic transformation. The author draws parallels between such things as that the total number of companies names was lower 50 years ago, just as biodiversity was less, and that certain industries wax and wane just as species do:

Above all, stock prices as well as the composition of the entire market, are virtually unpredictable from... decade to decade. And so it was with biological evolution in... the most recent 500 million years.

There is an excellent chapter in this book on the history of life, some nice methods of graphing durations and the branching of species, and some good anecdotes about all the famous species like the trilobites and the dinosaurs that did disappear with a debunking of the common explanations.

The book focuses on an extremely important part of the process of life, and shows some interesting methods for sorting fact from fiction.