I recently discovered an older (2014) article in Nature debating the value of the concept ‘niche construction’. The article nicely offers room for advocates and opponents of this concept.
Niche construction is, briefly said, the notion that the relation between organisms and their environment is a feedback relation: organisms alter their environment through their actions, with the altered environment in turn becoming a factor in the further evolution of the organisms.
From the article:
Volcanic eruptions are idiosyncratic events, independent of organisms’ actions. By contrast, termites construct and regulate their homes in a repeatable, directional manner that is shaped by past selection and that instigates future selection. Similarly, mammals, birds and insects defend, maintain and improve their nests — adaptive responses to nest building that have evolved again and again7. This ‘niche construction’, like developmental bias, means that organisms co-direct their own evolution by systematically changing environments and thereby biasing selection7.
The pro-side argues basically that niche-construction changes in a fundamental way our view on evolution, calling for an ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’.
The con-side thinks this is stretching the evidence, and, moreover, that standard evolutionary theory already acknowledges the processes to which the pro-side points.
For me, this discussion is interesting because I feel niche-construction could be one of the concepts that helps us understand what happens in culture.
What we do in education, for instance, could be understood as actions of cultural niche construction. Through education we transmit existing cultural elements, we enable humans to navigate through a cultural field, we learn humans which cultural elements could be useful in which circumstances, much like a mother bear learns her cubs which plants (not) to eat, where they can find shelter, and when they have to be at which spot to find an abundance of salmon.
But, moreover, through education we learn humans how to be creative, how to come up with new solutions for older problems, or how to recognize new problems and start solving them. We do not only learn children how to read, we learn them how to write. We do not only learn them how to live in a cultural environment, we learn them how to change it.
In that sense, I think niche construction can support a view on humanity as thoroughly natural, as part of the evolutionary history of life, and thus, from a scientific point of view, as nothing special, but at the same time, from a theological point of view, as crucial for the next episode of life’s great drama on Earth. What’s the cliffhanger on which we end our part of that age-old narrative? Which scenario will our children write for the next one? And how will it turn out on stage?