11.03.2005We interrupt your normally scheduled programming for this breaking news
From Nature: Evolutionary theory: Personal effects (may need uni proxy)
In the Negev Desert of Israel, small organisms can have a big impact. Take the cyanobacteria that live in the soil. Some species secrete sugary substances that form a crust of sand and soil, protecting the bacterial colonies from the effects of erosion. When the rains come, the crusty patches divert water into pools in which wind-borne seeds can germinate. These plants in turn make the soil more hospitable for other plants. Thanks in part to these bacteria, patches of vegetation can be found where they might not otherwise exist. The action of the bacteria, together with local climate change, could lead to the greening of large parts of the desert.
The Negev cyanobacteria, and organisms like them, are also having an impact on evolutionary biologists these days. Examples of creatures altering their environment abound - from beavers that dam streams and earthworms that enrich the soil to humans who irrigate deserts. But too little attention has been given to the consequences of this, say advocates of niche construction. This emerging view in biology stresses that organisms not only adapt to their environments, but also in part create them. The knock-on effects of this interplay between organism and environment, say niche constructivists, have generally been neglected in evolutionary models. Despite pointed criticism from some prominent biologists, niche construction has been winning converts.
"What we're saying is not only novel, but also slightly disturbing," says Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of St Andrews in Fife, UK, and one of the authors of the idea. "If we're right, it requires rethinking evolution."
The conventional view of evolution sees natural selection as shaping organisms to fit their environment. Niche construction, by contrast, accords the organism a much stronger role in generating a fit by recognizing the innumerable ways in which living things alter their world to suit their needs. From this perspective, the road between organism and environment is very much a two-way street.
Finally, the scientists are catching up to me.
1) Can the distinction between organism and environment be maintained on the niche constructivist view?
2) Notice that machines are clearly examples of niche construction on this view. In this sense, the article agrees with Arendt, in that machines are not merely instrumental: they constitute the furniture of the world, which we have constructed. However, Arendt maintains that machines are not just furniture of the world, but actors (laborers) in their own right. This gives a somewhat different reason to deny my claim that machines can participate in human activities. On the other hand, the complexity of interaction between organism and environment, and the quality of feedback between the two, seems to make this less problematic, or at least raises the question: does the environment participate in our activities, on the niche constructionist view?
3) Don't you hate it when people pronounce 'niche' in the way the title of this post suggests?