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Niche Construction and Miles Davis

In Discussion on April 13, 2010 by Joshua Smart

[Looking at Wenwen’s post, I’m not entirely sure mine is sufficiently different to warrant a new thread. If not, sorry.]

I think that several little questions that I had about this weeks readings can be summed up one bigger one: So What? Lewontin and Odling-Smee seem to think that niche construction is a revolutionary idea that will drastically alter the way we understand evolution. But I don’t see it. It shows us that evolution can be more complicated than how we often think about it–which is certainly good and important–but it does seem to entail any large scale upheaval. After all, wouldn’t we expect these constructive behaviors to have some genetic basis if they’re going to spread throughout the species and last for generations?

I see the change as something like the following crude example. Resources are on a high table, out of reach of most or all members of a species. Normally we would expect tallness to be advantageous and lead the population to evolve to be taller. Now, we should realize that evolution will favor members of the species that can build stairs as well. Useful, but not earth shattering.

Am I missing something?

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7 Responses to “Niche Construction and Miles Davis”

  1. After writing this I started reading chapter 10 from O-S, and he brings up pretty much exactly what I say above. But I find his answer completely unsatisfying. The soil did not adapt to earthworms as he suggests; earthworms adapted such that they changed the soil and continued to adapt to the environment they were changing until an equilibrium was reached.

    It may be a useful heuristic to think in interactionist terms, but I do not think that the ability to do so says anything about the accuracy of the externalist description.

  2. Ok, I’ll be the one to ask it: What has all of this got to do with Miles Davis?

  3. *So What*

  4. Ah, Kind of Blue. I get it!

  5. [attempt to post again as I just posted as a guest]

    I would find this earth-shattering if it upheaves the general structure of universal darwinism, instead of supplying modifications to the components of the theory. Thus I agree with you that in this sense it is not earth-shattering at all.

    However, your example is not what I take niche construction to be claiming. The way you put it is a difference in the “solutions” that the organism comes up to meet a “set” challenge given by the environment. However, combining Lewontin’s and Odling-Smee’s constructivist points, there are NO “set” challenges that are imposed upon the organisms. The analogy would be more like, when the organism starts building the stairs, the whole table is bent down by the pressure of the stairs such that the resources start falling off the table. Thus the entire situation becomes unfavorable to the organisms. OR that the beginning of the construction of the stairs cause the whole structure to reconfigure and allow the resources to tumble right into their mouths without them even finishing the stairs, enabling an unpredicted favorable circumstance.

  6. Isn’t it a set challenge to earthworms that soil is not water? That the composition of the atmosphere is as it is? And any other number of constant challenges that only alter over the course of millenia, if ever.

    On the other hand, a maximally descriptive account of an organisms environment is trivially changing moment to moment. The most useful descriptions are going to pick out the relevant aspects of the environment, both static and dynamic.

    It seems that niche construction theorists are primarily noting the importance of the diachronistic and arguing that in many cases feedback loops are key players. I still contend that this is a difference of degree and not type of analysis.

  7. The “externalist” view of environment is analogous to a Newtonian view of “absolute” space. Take away all the objects and you still have space. Gravity is thus an intrinsic property of the objects. However, the constructivist view of the organism/environment relation is more like an “Einsteinian” one. In Relativity, space-time exists only as far as an object with mass exists, gravity is a result of the bending of this space-time.

    When thinking of the earthworm, we tend to think in the Newtonian way: throw the earthworm in an environment, what would it do if it were soil? What would it do if it were water? Whatever properties the earthworm has is thus intrinsic to the earthworm, the adapting of it’s descendants to this independent environment is evolution.

    However, the above view is false. The right place to find the answers is not to look at whether the earthworm and its descendants survive in the “water” and “soil” environment, but look at whether they survive in the “water + influence of behavior, physiology, etc.” and “soil + influence of behavior, physiology, etc.” environment. That is, when you throw the earthworm in soil, it DOES things, it BREATHES, it GETS RID of WASTE, it CREATES A FILM OF SLIME around its body, etc. It is the effects of these along with the soil that is the real niche in which the earthworm either adapts or does not adapt to.

    According to Lewontin, the physical environment is not THE environment in which the organism encounters (and thus consists in selective forces), but the materials of which it is built out of. Each and every earthworm thus has the same niche, the niche that is built out of (1) their own (and others’) behavior, physiology, etc., that are determined by the organism and (2) the physical environment that they find themselves in.

    Therefore, there still are not any SET challenges that exist in the environment independent from what the organism DOES.

    However, you are entirely correct in stating that for an environment to actually become a selective force to a whole line of earthworm descendants, it should be constant. Odling-Smee, et. al. agrees with this. The niche construction they are talking about are constant, they are passed down through genetic and ecological inheritance and are salient aspects of the organisms’ environment.

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