During the Cambrian Explosion, an ecosystem developed in which life on the sea floor, surface, and water column all interacted for the first time. All but one of were energy dynamics, as the environment provided either too much or too little energy, and the nutrient hypothesis () will be revisited numerous times in this essay. A lack of nutrients, mineral and otherwise, always meant that the energy-driven dynamics that delivered the nutrients were curtailed. If enough energy is properly applied, all nutrients can be abundant.
Wrangham’s hypothesis is more robust and subtle than this essay can do justice to, but I will survey some of the findings, implications, and controversy. Raw food has various nutritional properties that are superior to cooked food, such as vitamins, but because cooked food provides more digestible calories for humans than raw food, it represented an evolutionary advantage. Meat, starches, and seeds are far more digestible when cooked, and are much easier to chew. Today, chimps in will not eat raw seeds of trees, but when a fire passes through the savanna, they search the ground below the trees and eat their cooked seeds.
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Since the most dramatic instances of speciation seem to have happened in the aftermath of mass extinctions, this essay will survey extinction first. A corollary to is that if any critical nutrient falls low enough, the nutrient deficiency will not only limit growth, but the organism will be stressed. If the nutrient level falls far enough, the organism will die. A human can generally survive between one and two months without food, ten days without water, and about three minutes without oxygen. For nearly all animals, all the food and water in the world are meaningless without oxygen. Some microbes can switch between aerobic respiration and fermentation, depending on the environment (which might be a very old talent), but complex life generally does not have that ability; nearly all aerobic complex life is oxygen dependent. The only exceptions are marine life which has adapted to . Birds can go where mammals cannot, , for instance, or being , due to their . If oxygen levels rise or fall very fast, many organisms will not be able to adapt, and will die.
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Energy is the master resource of all organisms, all ecosystems, and all economies. When a civilization centralizes its energy consumption, which were food and wood in preindustrial civilizations, to a central city, and it has to keep expanding farther and farther from that city to obtain that energy, the is going to reduce the EROI of those increasingly distant energy resources, and hence reduce the . Also, the practices of and agriculture provide short-term agricultural yields, but the wood would be almost instantly used (about 90% of the wood imported to Rome was burned, which was the typical ratio for ancient cities). The soils became eroded, depleted, and often abandoned as the land could no longer support farming, partly because the entire process made the land more arid. If they could import water to irrigate (usually a rare situation), that could help ameliorate the process, but it took more time and effort and made it more difficult. There were no accountants, scientists, or engineers monitoring and measuring the process, but all of those dynamics would reduce the system’s EROI and surplus energy and make it less resilient, so it was vulnerable to disruptive shocks.