niches in hybrid ecology

April 7, 2008

We had quite a discussion on the niches in hybrid ecology with Anatole Pierre Fuksas. He assumed that novels are ecologically more evolved form of art for enaction than other types of art. In a way this argument puzzled me, because it seems that novel is a niche with more constraints for taking action and triggering emotion freely than for example symbolic art is, which has less sensory-motor action potentialities clearly defined.

One example indicating, that people like such forms that have seemingly more constraints is the learning course design – students always seem to prefer more constrained tutor-defined settings rather than free ones for self-directing their learning. In the beginning this idea did not make sense to me: why would the more constrained environment be ecologically preferred, since we know what happens with the over-specialized organisms in very specific niches – they die out as soon as something changes slightly.

Then we came to the idea that all man-made ecological niches, what novels, art or learning environments are, can be described on the axis of entanglement of emotional and action clues: symbolic art or music entangles both type of clues in one, while novels do separate emotional and action clues more clearly, as words and expressions in the narrative. So it seems we as humans rather prefer those niches, where the emotional and action clues are easily separable to be enacted.

This niche description triggered me to seek for more information of the niche concept. It seem that the feedback type of interaction of organisms with their environment creates niches both for themselves and the other organisms in the niches.

The basis of this feedback can be explained with the emergence of affordances in the interaction between the organism and the environment – the situated doing and being, as Heft (2003) explains it. Constructed embodiments (Heft calls it ecological knowledge) may be left as traces to the environment including tools, artefacts, representations, social patterns of actions, and institutions. This is how people shape their surrounding environment as an ecological niche.

The less entangled potential triggers for action and emotion there are in the niche (like in novels), the easier it is to enact in this niche, and the more probable it is that the result of these actions and emotions will be reshaping ecologically this niche through the feedback. Thus, such systems may become more evolving.

I found the book:

Niche Construction:The Neglected Process in Evolution
F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, & Marcus W. Feldman

All living creatures, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, partly create and partly destroy their own niches.

Organisms interact with environments, take energy and resources from environments, make micro- and macrohabitat choices with respect to environments, construct artifacts, emit detritus and die in environments, and by doing all these things, modify at least some of the natural selection pressures present in their own, and in each other’s, local environments. This role for phenotypes in evolution is called niche construction (Odling-Smee, 1988).

Niche construction should be regarded, after natural selection, as a second major participant in evolution. Niche construction is a potent evolutionary agent because it introduces FEEDBACK into the evolutionary dynamic.

Ecosystem control is one major new idea associated with the ecological effects of niche construction. It stems from the capacity of niche-constructing organisms to modify not only their own environments but also the environments of other organisms in the context of shared ecosystems.

In order for niche construction to be a significant evolutionary process, it is not sufficient for niche-constructing organisms to modify one or more natural selection pressures in their local environments temporarily, because whatever selection pressures they do modify must also persist in their modified form for long enough, and with enough local consistency, to be able to have an evolutionary effect. Where niche construction affects multiple generations, it introduces a second general inheritance system in evolution – an ecological inheritance (Odling-Smee 1988; Odling-Smee et al. 1996) – one that works via environments.

Genetic inheritance depends on the capacity of reproducing parent organisms to pass on replicas of their genes to their offspring. Ecological inheritance, however, does not depend on the presence of any environmental replicators, but merely on the persistence, between generations, of whatever physical changes are caused by ancestral organisms in the local selective environments of their descendants. Thus, ecological inheritance more closely resembles the inheritance of territory or property than it does the inheritance of genes.

Ecological inheritance also has a lot in common with the more familiar concept of ecological succession, except that it has evolutionary, as well as ecological consequences because it involves the inheritance by populations of modified natural selection pressures, via a succession of environmental states,which may then drive further evolutionary changes in those populations.

Any organism’s selective environment is potentially modifiable by any other organism that happens to be a neighbor or that shares, or that has previously shared, some common physical aspect of a mutual environment or that is capable of exerting an indirect influence by affecting the flow of energy or materials through that environment. All such neighbors are ecologically related but they need not be genetically related.

If organisms evolve in response to selection pressures modified by themselves and their ancestors, there is feedback in the system.

The niche-construction perspective stresses two legacies that organisms inherit from their ancestors, genes and a modified environment with its associated selection pressures. Ecological and genetic ancestors are not necessarily identical.

When phenotypes construct niches, they become more than simply “vehicles” for their genes (Dawkins 1989). Animal niche construction may depend on learning and other experiential factors, and in humans it may depend on cultural processes.

Niche-constructing organisms influence the evolution of their own and other populations, often indirectly via intermediate abiotic components. Some organisms create new niches for themselves, for example, through technological innovation or relocation to a novel environment, which again can influence the dynamics of their ecosystems.

When niche construction is incorporated, information can be seen to flow through ecosystems, and evolutionary control webs begin to emerge. Human cultural activities may influence or may actually be human adaptations, or be the result of other human adaptations, cultural processes may also influence human fitness. Cultural processes are not just a product of human genetic evolution, but also a cause of human genetic evolution.

This niche conception can be related with the affordance ideas:

Chemero (2000) suggests that events are changes in the layout of affordances in the animal-environment system.

Heft (2003) writes: We engage a meaningful environment of affordances and refashion some aspects of them…These latter constructed embodiments of what is known—which include tools, artefacts, representations, social patterns of actions, and institutions—can be called ecological knowledge. Perceiving the affordances of our environment is the first order experience that is manifested in the flow of our ongoing perceiving and acting. By first order experience Heft means experience that is direct and unmediated. We are simply immersed into situated doing and being.



  1. […] kaipata added an interesting post today (niches in hybrid ecology).Here’s a little bit of it:When phenotypes construct niches, they become more than simply “vehicles” for their genes (Dawkins 1989). Animal niche construction may depend on learning and other experiential factors, and in humans it may depend on cultural processes … […]

  2. […] provide network communications …http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2008/03/31/daily31.htmlniches in hybrid ecology We had quite a discussion on the niches in hybrid ecology with Anatole Pierre Fuksas. He assumed […]

  3. […] ecological niche idea is […]

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