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When the total continental land mass was small or combined into a supercontinent, there was no land to divert that diffusion of warm water toward the poles, which results in currents. During those times, the global ocean became one big, calm lake, with no currents of significance. Those oceans are called today, and they would have been anoxic; the oxygenated surface waters would not have been drawn by currents to the ocean floor, and the oceans were certainly anoxic before the GOE. The interplay of those can be incredibly complex and lead to the multitude of hypotheses posited to explain those ancient events, but a leading hypothesis today is that a combination of factors, including supercontinents, variations in volcanic output, Canfield Oceans, and ice ages prevented life from gaining ecosystem dominance until the waning of the second Snowball Earth event, which was the greatest series of glaciations that Earth has yet experienced. It is known today as the , which ended about 635 mya. The study of the Cryogenian Period, which is the subject of , resulted in the term “.”

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After the mid-Permian extinction, marine life recovered and there were many radiations to fill empty niches, but coral reefs did not recover. Between the two big extinction events, extinction levels were highly elevated, which suggests that some of those aforementioned dynamics were still wreaking havoc, with possible . Critics of extinction hypotheses often say: “Correlation is not necessarily causation.” While there can be great merit to that position, it seems to be overused by various critics. When the guns are as smoking as volcanic events were, and they often “correlate” with mass extinctions, they are increasingly hard to deny as being at least immediately causative.


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A has challenged The Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis, at least as far as robbing energy from the digestive system to fuel the brain. The study compared brain and intestinal size in mammals and found no strong correlation, but there was an inverse correlation between brain size and body fat. But since human fat does not impede our locomotion much, humans have combined both strategies for reducing the risk of starvation. Whales have bucked the trend, also because being fatter does not impede their locomotion and provides energy-conserving insulation. A human infant’s brain uses about 75% of its energy, and baby fat seems to be brain protection, so that it does not easily run out of fuel. However, the rapid evolutionary growth of an energy-demanding organ like the human brain seems unique or nearly so in the history of life on Earth, and comparative anatomy studies may have limited explanatory utility. There are great debates today on how fast the human brain grew, what coevolutionary constraints may have limited the brain’s development (, , ), and scientific investigations are in their early days.


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But the branch of the that readers might find most interesting led to humans. Humans are in the phylum, and the last common ancestor that founded the Chordata phylum is still a mystery and understandably a source of controversy. Was our ancestor a ? A ? Peter Ward made the case, as have others for a long time, that it was the sea squirt, also called a tunicate, which in its larval stage resembles a fish. The nerve cord in most bilaterally symmetric animals runs below the belly, not above it, and a sea squirt that never grew up may have been our direct ancestor. Adult tunicates are also highly adapted to extracting oxygen from water, even too much so, with only about 10% of today’s available oxygen extracted in tunicate respiration. It may mean that tunicates adapted to low oxygen conditions early on. Ward’s respiration hypothesis, which makes the case that adapting to low oxygen conditions was an evolutionary spur for animals, will repeatedly reappear in this essay, as will . Ward’s hypothesis may be proven wrong or will not have the key influence that he attributes to it, but it also has plenty going for it. The idea that fluctuating oxygen levels impacted animal evolution has been gaining support in recent years, particularly in light of recent reconstructions of oxygen levels in the eon of complex life, called and , which have yielded broadly similar results, but their variances mean that much more work needs to be performed before on the can be done, if it ever can be. Ward’s basic hypotheses is that when oxygen levels are high, ecosystems are diverse and life is an easy proposition; when oxygen levels are low, animals adapted to high oxygen levels go extinct and the survivors are adapted to low oxygen with body plan changes, and their adaptations helped them dominate after the extinctions. The has a pretty wide range of potential error, particularly in the early years, and it also tracked atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The challenges to the validity of a model based on data with such a wide range of error are understandable. But some broad trends are unmistakable, as it is with other models, some of which are generally declining carbon dioxide levels, some huge oxygen spikes, and the generally relationship between oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which a geochemist would expect. The high carbon dioxide level during the Cambrian, of at least 4,000 PPM (the "RCO2" in the below graphic is a ratio of the calculated CO2 levels to today's levels), is what scientists think made the times so hot. (Permission: Peter Ward, June 2014)