Niche construction: what does it tell us about culture?

Meika recently posted a comment on this site, highlighting the concept of niche construction as a driver of evolution.
I found it fascinating, which, partly is why it’s taken me so long to respond. (The other reason is a total computer melt down). Anyway, I’m intrigued with the niche construction material, which I hadn’t come across. I’d agree with the authors of the book that this area is worthy of greater study, but can’t help wondering whether it really does constitute a new way of looking at evolution…

My concern is really just an uneasiness, but can be summarised like this: Standard evolution supposedly takes the environment as a given, but many species actively change their environment. Well, yes, OK, but for evolution to take place surely it doesn’t matter how environmental change is caused, only the consequences. It’s still effectively a given, whether caused by uncontrollable external events (like rain) or caused by a species’ own behaviour (like a roof). In other words, for most (all?) species, their own behaviour is also a given, and therefore can be characterised as just another part of the environment. It doesn’t really matter that ‘they did it themselves’ – it’s still the environment. We humans like to think we’re different and have free will etc, that our own behavioural choices make a difference to our lives. No doubt this is true experientially at a personal level, but at the evolutionary level, we just do what we do and whether we do it deliberately or not is pretty irrelevant. Yes, niche construction clearly adds an extra feedback loop in the system diagram, but how and to what extent does that change the overall picture?

Organisms may act to effect homeostasis or rheostasis in relation to their environment. This can take place outside the body as well as inside it. A beaver, for instance, maintains a constant temperature in its body and also a constant water level in its dam. But in the end, the organism is still responding to certain givens in the environment.

I’m happy to know that since I have an electric heater I’ll survive the next Ice Age a little longer – but I wonder whether that alters the overall result. The question in all this is whether an approach like this enables us to go on to ask worthwhile, testable questions that we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of asking. To that I think the answer probably has to be yes. I’m just wary of some of the larger claims that niche construction seems to be making, over and above the claims of someone like Richard Lewontin, that there is a complex relationship between gene, organism and environment.

Clearly I have to think/read about this a bit lot more. I don’t think it puts group selection to bed as Meika suggests, although I’m sympathetic to that sentiment. I think it could go either way. But there are probably other reasons for contradicting standard group selection.
Having said all that, there surely is an important and little understood link between the human and the natural sciences to which Cultural Theory may contribute something.  I’m pretty certain it has something reasonably substantial to contribute to what Paul E Griffiths and Karola Stotz call ‘biohumanities‘. My hunch, further, is that grid-group cultural theory might be open to game-theoretical modelling, and that this would then offer something to evolutionary theory, in the way that Axelrod’s evolution of cooperation did. Specifically it might further develop some of the ideas of Brian Skyrms on the Stag Hunt and the evolution of culture.

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