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September 20, 2006

The Exact Cost of Diversity

I read this short blurb in Discover Magazine, the September 2006 issue, page 14:

The Exact Cost of Diversity

Life isn't cheap. In evolutionary terms, it's incredibly expensive, says Drew Austin, and ecologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Using a mathematical model, Allen worked out exactly how much it costs to generate a new species. The answer: a staggering 10^23 joules, more energy than is released by all the fossil fuels burned on Earth in a year.

Allen looked specifically at foraminifora - tiny, omnipresent, ocean-dwelling plankton that have been plentiful for millenia. His model took into account both an individual plankton's body size and its metabolism's dependence on temperature to quantify how much energy it takes to fuel all the genetic changes that must occur in order for a new species to emerge. He found that although the amount of energy required is constant, new species form more quickly near the equator because heat speeds up both metabolism and the rate of genetic mutations.

Even Darwin noticed that biodiversity is more plentiful in the tropics. "But the idea that temperature affects speciation rates through its effects on molecular-level processes is brand-new," Allen says.

--Jennifer Barone

Pretty groovy.

Now look up how many species have disappeared over the last 300 years due to human encroachments on their environments (even acid rain far away from human civilization is such an encroachment, as well as any global warming due to the burning of fossil fuels), multiply the number by 10^23, and then multiply by the average cost of a joule of energy, as well as the minimum cost.

Without actually carrying through on that exercise, I suspect that it is very safe to say: Humans are expensive.

Posted by Jeff at September 20, 2006 11:22 AM

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