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Philosophy of Cognition: Topic13

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A Brief Intro[edit]

In the present topic we introduce an alternative way of looking at the evolution of cognition. Our main take is as follows: our incredibly sophisticated talent for culture has evolved along with our abilities to modify our environment so as to boost our chances of survival and reproduction. We will treat more in detail this issue in the next topic. As for now, let's try to better understand the basic elements of this alternative approach called "niche construction" approach to evolution.

Traditionally, the evolution of organisms can be viewed as the result of a selective pressure that renders them well-suited to their environments. Adaptation is therefore considered as a sort of top-down process that goes from the environment to the living creature. In contrast to that, a small fraction of evolutionary biologists have provided an alternative theoretical framework by emphasizing the role of niche construction.

According to this view, the environment is a sort of “global market” that provides living creatures with unlimited possibilities. Indeed, not all the possibilities that the environment offers can be exploited by the human and non-human animals that act on it. For instance, the environment provides organisms with water to swim in, air to fly in, flat surfaces to walk on, and so on. However, no creatures are fully able to take advantage of all of them. Moreover, all organisms try to modify their surroundings in order to better exploit those elements that suit them and eliminate or mitigate the effect of the negative ones.

This process of environmental selection allows living creatures to build and shape the “ecological niches”. In any ecological niche, the selective pressure of the local environment is dras- tically modified by organisms in order to lessen the negative impacts of all those elements which they are not suited to. This new perspective constitutes a radical departure from traditional theory of evolution introducing a second inheritance system called ecological inheritance system. According to this view, acquired characters – discarded for such a long time – can enter evolutionary theories as far as they cause a modification to the environment that can persist and thus can modify the local selective pressure.


Pick an example of ecological niche you are familiar with and analyze it.


What are the main principles of niche construction?

How is the concept of adaptation changed by the idea of niche construction?

Compulsory readings[edit]




Recommended readings[edit]

F.J. Odling-Smee, K.N. Laland & M.F. Feldman. (2003), Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, Princeton University Press.