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connectivity through (digital)ecosystem engineering that influences niche construction of communities

October 7, 2010

I found a nice paper in which Kevin Laland, the author of influential book Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (2003) has co-written the paper of human niche construction from the archeological perspective. Thanks to Emanuele Bardone from Pavia Computational Philosophy Lab i got the file in the morning!

It is interesting from the point of view of explaining the niche construction effects of humans using the long-lasting and cultural “traits” that humans transfer to the next generations as mediators or carriers which have the indirect accumulative modification pressure on environments and thereby on the other organisms that can affect human life and human gene evolution.
He highlights the indirect interactions between species and the organism connectivity by the engineering web and not by the food web:

The ecosystem engineers can regulate energy flows, mass flows, and trophic patterns in ecosystems to generate an “engineering web”—a mosaic of connectivity comprising the engineering interactions of diverse species.

On my opinion, this is exactly what happens in human-artifact networks that represent this kind of connectivity in engineering web.

Basically the process is:
Human cultural traits = human behaviour as ecosystem engineering for increasing their fitness to the niche
-> changing the niche for other organisms associated with humans
-> evolutionary response of other organisms to the changing niche
-> evolutionary changes in humans in response to other organisms
-> human behaviour changes or consistency = modifying or strenghtening certain cultural traits

A meme (Dawkins, 1976) is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.
Memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts.

And possibly by niche generation as well!
Dawkins noted it as a condition which must exist for evolution to occur: differential “fitness”, or the opportunity for one element to be more or less suited to the environment than another

In order to use ecology principles for explaining interactions of humans and human communities with social software systems the following analogy may be used:

specimen of one species = human

species with certain gene frequency = specimen with similar range of identity perception, a community (note that identity is based on shared meanings or actions / /memes??/cultural traits??/)

niche as a range of environmental factors that allow fitness to the species = niche as a range of affordances perceived and frequently used in actions by certain community in their interactions with each other and with their environments (virtual or real) that allow their semiotic or cultural fitness

The semiotic fitness, should ideally measure the semiotic competence or success of natural systems in managing the genotype-envirotype translation processes (Hoffmeyer, 1998).
Semetic interactions refer to interactions in which regularities (habits) developed by one species (or individual) successively become used (interpreted) as signs by the individuals of the same or another species, thereby eliciting new habits in this species eventually to become – sooner or later – signs for other individuals, and so on in a branching and unending web integrating the ecosystems of the planet into a global semiosphere (Hoffmeyer, 1993).
The semiotic adaptability is a process, in the course of which the subject
correlates self-related and environment-related information, thereby localising
itself in the environment (Maran, 2005).

community (a number of species) in certain environmental locations = several human communities who coexist in certain virtual social software or hybrid environments

co-adaptive niches apply for such communities which consist of a number of species who may be connected by food-webs or by engineering webs= several human communities connected mainly by engineering webs create co-adaptive niches for each other and may influence each other

Ecosystem ecology that studies how matter and energy circulates in ecosystems,should also consider how ecosystem (entropy, succession, networks, communities, interactions) is influenced by the ecosystem engineering done by co-existing species in this ecosystem as part of connectivity comprising the engineering interactions of diverse species. The same applies for communities in this digital or hybrid ecosystem.

Can such co-existing human communities in social software environments or hybrid environments engineer their niches so that this niche starts to constrain or facilitate other community?
Can such pressure influence some ways the individuals in each community to perceive certain affordances as useful for their cultural or semiotic fitness in the niche and influence the community identity?

For example if we take the long tail phenomenon, which reveals little niche artifacts, meanings, conceptions of certain communities. Can interaction in the same social software ecosystem (eg. shelfari for choosing books; delicious for choosing resources by tags) influence some communities to become more fit to their environment by broadening or narrowing their activity choices as a result of other community’s actions and niche construction (eg. choosing particular books or resources introduced by other community)

——————————————-

Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology
Kevin N. Laland & Michael J. O’Brien
J Archaeol Method Theory
DOI 10.1007/s10816-010-9096-6

Their basic idea is:
Niche construction is “the process whereby organisms, through their metabolism, their activities and their choices, modify their own and/or each other’s niches” (Odling-Smee et al. 2003, p. 419). The conceptual leap that niche construction theorists embrace is to regard niche construction as an evolutionary process in its own right. Some organism-driven changes in environments persist as a legacy to modify selection on subsequent generations, which Odling-Smee (1988) called an “ecological inheritance.”
Niche Construction Theory is sometimes referred to as “triple-inheritance theory” (genetic, cultural, and ecological inheritance; e.g., Odling-Smee et al. 1996, 2003; Laland et al. 1999, 2000, 2001; Day et al. 2003; Shennan 2006).
Rather than slipping into the assumption that the external environment (e.g., climate change) triggers an evolutionary or cultural response, NCT enthusiasts are from the outset inclined to consider those additional hypotheses stressing self-constructed (and other organism-constructed) conditions that instigate change.

Jones et al. (1994, 1997) uses concept of “ecosystem engineering,” as a relevant synonym for niche construction to describe the focus on organisms’ modification of environments.

Jones and his collaborators point out that many species of ecosystem engineers can regulate energy flows, mass flows, and trophic patterns in ecosystems to generate an “engineering web”—a mosaic of connectivity comprising the engineering interactions of diverse species, which regulates ecosystem functioning in conjunction with the well-studied webs of trophic interactions (Wilby 2002).

Organisms do considerably more in ecosystems than compete with each other, eat, and be eaten (trophic interactions). Organisms also produce, modify, and destroy habitat and resources for other living creatures, in the process driving co-evolutionary dynamics.

From the niche construction perspective, the connectivity in ecosystems is massively increased.

Hardesty (1972) stated that culture is the human ecological niche.
There are several examples of culturally induced genetic responses to human agriculture (Odling- Smee et al. 2003),
The best known being the co-evolution of the gene for lactose absorption and dairy farming (Durham 1991);
The Kwa-speaking yam cultivators in Africa who modified the environment and increased the amount of standing water which provided better feeding grounds for mosquitoes and increased the prevalence
of malaria and induced the increase in the frequency of the sickle-cell (HbS) in Kwa-speakers population that provides protection against malaria (Durham 1991).
The evolution of the human amylase gene which is responsible for starch consumption is a feature of agricultural societies and hunter–gatherers in arid environments, whereas other hunter–gatherers and some pastoralists consume much less starch (Perry et al. 2007).

Odling-Smee et al. (2003) describe as inceptive niche construction all cases in which organisms initiate changes in any factor, through either perturbation or relocation. Organisms express inceptive niche construction when by their activities they generate a change in the environment to which they are exposed. Conversely, if an environmental factor is already changing, or has changed, organisms may oppose or cancel out that change, a process labeled counteractive niche construction. They thereby restore a match between their previously evolved features and their environment’s factors. Counteractive niche construction is therefore conservative or stabilizing, and it generally functions to protect organisms from shifts in factors away from states to which they have been adapted.

Niche construction provides a non-Lamarckian route by which acquired characteristics can influence the selection on genes. Whereas the information acquired by individuals through ontogenetic processes clearly cannot be directly (genetically) inherited, processes such as learning can nonetheless still be of considerable importance to subsequent generations because learned knowledge can guide niche construction in ways that
modify natural selection acting on future generations.
This route is considerably enhanced by social learning, which allows animals to learn from each other.
There should be a significant relationship between the pertinent environmental state and the recipient character only when the niche-constructing activity is also present.
The same logic applies at the cultural level, and the same methods can be applied to hominins or to contemporary human populations, where they may shed light on the relationship between different kinds of cultural niche construction and their different consequences.

Laland et al. (2001) concluded that, because cultural processes typically operate faster than natural selection, cultural niche construction probably has more profound consequences than gene-based niche construction.
It also has driven coevolutionary interactions with other species, including domesticated animals and plants, commensal species adapted to human-constructed environments (e.g., rats, mice, and insects), and microbes (Boni and Feldman 2005; Smith 2007a, b).
There are no genes for domesticating dogs, manufacturing cheese, or cultivating rice (using “genes for” in the sense of Williams (1966) and Dawkins (1976) to mean alleles specifically selected for that function), and these activities, while frequently adaptive (increasing fitness in the present), are not adaptations (traits directly fashioned by natural selection).
If human activities have imposed selection on mice, houseflies, or mosquitoes is it because we are their competitors or predators, or even because we are linked in an elaborate food chain. Such co-evolutionary episodes are probably driven by nontrophic and indirect interactions between species—that is, by the engineering web (Jones et al. 1994) and not by the food web.

Cultural niche-constructing processes that contribute to plant domestication include selective collecting of reproductive propagules; transporting and storing of propagules; firing of grasslands, either intentionally or accidentally; cutting of trees; incidental tilling; and creating organically rich dump heaps, all of which are
potent forms of niche construction. Plants that are involved may undergo a series of phenotypic changes such as a general increase in size, an increase in the size of propagules, loss of delayed seed germination, simultaneous ripening of the seed crop, and so on. These changes occur as interaction with human agents increases the fitness of the plant community, which, in turn, increases the yield of the plant community. Increasing yield in turn generates selection favoring those cultural traits that maintain or increase productivity of the plants. This reinforcing mutualistic relation between plant and human populations is one process by which plant domestication, and human coadaptation, evolves.

Because of our habitat degradation as part of our niche construction we destroy the (engineering) control webs that underlie ecosystems.

Wilby, A. (2002). Ecosystem engineering: A trivialized concept? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17, 307.
Jones, C. G., Lawton, G. H., & Shachak, M. (1994). Organisms as ecosystem engineers. Oikos, 69, 373–386.
Jones, C. G., Lawton, G. H., & Shachak, M. (1997). Ecosystem engineering by organisms: Why semantics matters. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 12, 275.

Maran, T. (2005?) ECOSEMIOTIC BASIS OF LOCALITY

Hoffmeyer, J. (1998). The Unfolding Semiosphere. In Gertrudis Van de Vijver, Stanley Salthe and Manuela Delpos (eds.), Evolutionary Systems. Biological and Epistemological Perspectives on Selection and Self-Organization. Dordrecht: Kluwer 1998, pp. 281-293.

One comment

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Antonio Fumero, Fernando Santamaría. Fernando Santamaría said: RT @amfumero: Nichos y comunidades por Kai Pata>> http://is.gd/fPk0P Visión antropológica de nicho / niche […]



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