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Philosophy of Cognition: Topic14

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A Brief Intro[edit]

The theory of niche construction is supposed to provide an alternative look into the evolution of cognition. As a matter of fact, humans have a unique talent for transforming any place they happened to live in into something suitable for their needs. Just look around you and you’ll see that the environment - any environment - has been domesticated so as to favor our survival and reproduction.

Such a talent had had an incredible effect on the evolution of cognition - our ability to solve problems. That is, through the process of niche creation humans had managed to extend their minds into the material world, exploiting various external resources and building up more and more sophisticated cognitive niches. In this sense, a cognitive niche is a kind of cognitive repository, which can be exploited for solving problems and making decisions.

Cognitive niche cannot be treated as a unit of evolution. However, once a cognitive niche persists in time, it becomes part of what is called the ecological inheritance system. cological inheritance system is different from the genetic one in the following way:

1) genetic materials can be inherited only from parents or relatives. Conversely, modifications on the environment can affect everyone, no matter who he/she is. It may regard unrelated organisms also belonging to other species.

2) genes transmission is a one way transmission flow, from parents to offspring, whereas environmental information can travel backward affecting several generations. Pollution, for instance, affects young as well as old people;

3) genetic inheritance can happen once during one’s life, at the time of reproductive phase. In contrast, ecological information can be transferred during the entire duration of life. Indeed, it depends on the eco-engineering capacities at play;

4) genetic inheritance system leans on the presence of replicators, whereas the eco- logical inheritance system leans on the persistence of whatsoever changes made upon the environment.

Indeed, natural selection is somehow not halted by niche construction. Rather, this means adaptation cannot be only considered by referring to the agency of the environment, but also to that of the organism acting on it.


Watch one of Steve Jobs' keynote presentations and analyze the way he builts up his cognitive niche. (Jobs' presentations are available here: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_type=search_playlists&search_query=keynote++steve++jobs&uni=3 )


What is a cognitive niche?

What does the notion of cognitive niche explain that other theories don't explain?

Compulsory readings[edit]

E. Bardone, Moving the Bonds: Distributing Cognition through Cognitive Niche Construction, in Id. Seeking Chances, Springer, Heidelberg.

Recommended readings[edit]

Steven Pinker, The cognitive niche: Coevolution of intelligence, sociality, and language. Available here: http://www.pnas.org/content/107/suppl.2/8993.full.pdf+html