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The Beatles and the Cambrian Explosion

January 18, 2010

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

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve Kukla permalink
    January 19, 2010 10:25 am

    So how would you analyze specimen type “Bob Dylan”, who appears to evolve-devolve-evolve-devolve?

    • Graham permalink*
      January 19, 2010 10:31 am

      Great question, Steve! Last night, our daughter read the Beatles piece, and she told me that my entire blog should be on that sort of theme. So maybe I will have to think about Mr. Zimmerman.

  2. Sean Robson permalink
    January 19, 2010 3:46 pm

    Brilliant! I particularly like the AC/DC analogy. I think it might also be possible to consider certain bands to be symbiotic associations, and when members split off and go solo they never seem to thrive quite so well without their symbionts. In my opinion, Paul Simon without Art Garfunkel is like a coral without Zooxanthellae.

    • Graham permalink*
      January 19, 2010 3:55 pm

      Sean, I love that symbiont idea. But you shouldn’t have written it here because I might steal it! It deserves a full exposition.

      The downside of that Simon and Garfunkel analogy is that Simon without Garfunkel might be the coral without zooxanthellae, but Garfunkel without Simon is then zooxanthellae without the coral. Which might help to explain the relative success of his solo career.

      • Sean Robson permalink
        January 19, 2010 6:34 pm

        Yeah, there’s no doubt that Paul did all the heavy lifting in that partnership, but as good a song-writer as Paul is, his singing isn’t nearly as good without the harmony that Art provided. This leads me down another avenue of thought. Some bands could be infested with parasites, and the one talented member will never grow with the others sucking his lifeblood.
        P.S. Steal away! When it comes to music and pop-culture, I’m not erudite enough to do more than toss out a few ideas. You could expound upon them far better than I.

  3. February 8, 2010 5:13 am

    And how do you compare your cambrian explotion with Duran Duran who were popular in the mid 80s and suddenly silent, until they reemerged in the mid 90s

    • Graham permalink*
      February 8, 2010 7:14 am

      Ah, they would be a Lazarus Taxon, that apparently disappears from the fossil record, then later re-appears. Incidentally, in addition to Lazarus Taxa, there are also Elvis Taxa, that are appear to be still around, but but are in fact extinct.

  4. February 10, 2010 6:12 am

    oh yes, and now we have the Mike Taxa, an artificial taxa though, there become more of them (fans trying to immitate)after an extinction event, like the case of the dicynodons from the end Permian to the Triassic.

  5. BrianSJ permalink
    April 10, 2011 3:31 am

    Interesting light on a mystery. The Rolling Stones lived in a rich ecology of Blues, but the ecology of the Cavern was largely self-generated it seems (with Cilla Black listening to new US records and covering them the same night). The main change in their ecology was chemical perhaps?

  6. Mike permalink
    April 10, 2011 9:04 am

    I think this works for all of popular music. The environmental change needed was the baby boom, which provided many resources. The Beatles make a good marker for the change from a few, simple bands to a great diversity of complex bands. Some families of styles bloom and fade, while others thrive in very specific niches.

  7. Graham permalink*
    April 10, 2011 3:49 pm

    Great suggestions! Thank you. Maybe this idea requires further exploration …

  8. September 8, 2011 9:04 pm

    Don’t forget the Moody Blues! They went from “Go Now” (’65?) heart throb pop to “Days Of Future Passed” to “In Search Of The Lost Chord” in, what, three years?

    • Graham permalink*
      September 10, 2011 11:10 am

      Good point. There are so many stories to be written!

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