The Beatles and the Cambrian Explosion
Among the items I received for Christmas was the newly remastered CD of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Listening through headphones the other evening, I began to think about the Beatles as a “type specimen” of group genius, and about the synergies that can allow groups of people to achieve feats far beyond the abilities of any individual group member.
People who study such things like to make comparisons between human groups and groups in the natural world. So we hear about corporations, youth gangs, or crews of Arctic explorers being compared to packs of wolves, bands of gorillas, or colonies of ants or naked mole rats. I don’t know enough about most kinds of human groups to comment on such analogies, but I have spent (or wasted?) enough time playing in bands that I think I can make a stab at considering how they work and develop.
As I listened, and the mediocre depths of Flying and Blue Jay Way gave way to the sublime heights of I am the Walrus and Strawberry Fields Forever, I wondered how the Beatles had managed to travel from Love Me Do to all of this in only five short years.
Then it struck me. There is a good natural analogue for the Beatles’ story, but it is not in within-species groups. Rather, the closest similarity I can see is in the development of communities and ecosystems, in particular in the burst of evolutionary activity about 530 million years ago known as the Cambrian Explosion, and the events that followed, culminating in the first mass extinction of complex life at the end of the Ordovician Period about 444 million years ago.
The diversification of life in the Cambrian included the origins of most major groups of animals we recognize today. It was geologically very rapid, and seems to have been driven in part by competition (an evolutionary arms race, if you will) and by synergies that pushed the emergence of new ecological niches.
If we look far into the geological past, we can see that microbial mats (stromatolites) have roots deep in the Precambrian, just as rock and roll had its roots deep in the blues of the 1930s. As life evolved and became more complex in the Ediacaran Period, 630 to 542 million years ago, the organisms that developed seem very weird to modern eyes. These are apparently based on a simple theme of repeated patterns, with little evidence of further innovation at the underlying structural level. Similarly, the music of Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and the 1950s Elvis, is essentially a series of variations on basic blues and other “traditional” structures, even if approaches and abilities were hugely varied. The Beatles may have also started off by riffing on those 50s themes, but they rapidly diverged from them. Even in their earliest recordings they were clearly pushing in new directions.
The Cambrian Explosion seemed to initially come almost out of nowhere, though there are inklings that something was going on. We see early evidence of small shelly fossils and development of seafloor burrows, but then the trilobites appeared fully formed. They must have come from somewhere, but the location of that somewhere is still not known, and it was perhaps the development of a hard skeleton on an already existing form that allowed them to begin to appear in the fossil record.
The crucible for the Beatles’ development, in clubs along the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, was also cryptic, hidden from the eyes of the English-speaking entertainment business. They put in their time, evolved their craft, but their skeletonization event, the development of the distinct Beatles haircuts and suits, came only with their signing by Brian Epstein. Following that event, the Beatles became visible in the rock record, beginning with their conquest of the British market.
Early in the Beatles’ Explosion, events were often breathtaking in their rapidity. Most of the Please Please Me album was cranked out in a single day of studio time. The Beatles biota underwent early changes, as some taxa became extinct (Pete Best, Stu Sutcliffe) and were replaced by new, better adapted organisms (Ringo Starr, the bass-playing variant of Paul McCartney). The Beatles biota expanded its range, invading new environments: first the United States, then the rest of the world, then movies.
Much of the rapid evolution observed for the Beatles Explosion was the result of competition. The famous Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership often seems to have been more of a Lennon vs McCartney songwriting contest, and there can be little doubt that the Beatles’ songcraft evolved quickly as a result. The evolution of George Harrison’s songwriting may also have been an outcome of this competition, though data are lacking since very few early specimens are known.
Getting back to the genuine fossil record, the Cambrian Period was followed by the Ordovician. Here, life continued to evolve and became substantially more diverse. In a sense, this is an interval of increasingly baroque forms, as coral and sponge reefs developed, organisms discovered how to burrow more deeply into seafloor sediments, and trilobites evolved marvellous adaptations such as monstrous wrap-around eyes. In the evolution of Beatles, this is paralleled by the rococo splendours of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The appearance of new organisms caused ecosystems to undergo massive change. In Ordovician seas, cephalopods became the new top predators. In Beatles world, the community change caused by the emergence of Yoko Ono cannot be understated, though other faunal elements such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi should also not be ignored.
In both worlds, this period of diversification was followed by a huge mass extinction. A chilling of the climate caused ecosystem collapse on an unprecedented scale, and things would never be the same again. In the case of the Beatles, this was of course evidenced by a long interval dominated by hostility, lawyers, and litigation. End-Ordovician events, associated with a glaciation on what is now the Sahara Desert, seem almost tame by comparison.
With time, the extinctions were followed by post-extinction recovery. New forms evolved, but in some ways they were just a pale imitation of what had come before. Many of these endured for a very long time, but with less and less innovation. Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles career reminds me of the fossil coral Syringopora, which appeared after the Ordovician extinction. Although Syringopora can be found in rocks spanning more than 100 million years all the way up to the Permian, it never did anything really novel after its initial appearance as a distinct entity.
Such analogies are, of course, somewhat facile. And parallel events tell us nothing about underlying causes. But I am intrigued by the extent of these parallels. It may be that systems show a natural tendency toward increased variability over time, and that complex systems may be prone to disastrous collapse. This has certainly been the case for many ecosystems and many human group endeavours. I’m sure that one could find parallels in comparing, say, the evolution of a fetid bog to the history of Enron.
In contrast, some systems that refuse to become more complex may share the quality of resilience, an ability to avoid collapse. Both algal mats and AC/DC have shown remarkable stasis through geological time. It is no accident that AC/DC are still writing songs virtually identical to ones they were performing for Neanderthals back in the Pleistocene, and that they still attract much the same audience.
© Graham Young, 2010