Cognitive Niche Construction and Extragenetic Information: A Sense of Purposefulness in Evolution


My book Abductive Cognition. The Epistemological and Eco-Cognitive Dimensions of Hypothetical Reasoning (2009) basically refers to all kinds of human hypothetical cognition, also of creative kind. During the research related to the preparation of that book I soon had the opportunity to examine the studies regarding the human process of continuous delegation and distribution of cognitive functions to the environment to lessen cognitive limitations, also and especially in the case of what has been called ‘manipulative abduction’. These design activities are closely related to the process of cognitive niche construction, which I will specifically address in this article. Niche construction should be regarded as a second major participant, after natural selection, in evolution. Indeed, by altering their environment and partly controlling some of the energy and matter fluxes in their ecosystems, organisms are capable of changing some of the natural selective pressures in their local environments (also affecting other ones). The question I plan to answer is the following: we need to hypothesize a fundamental role of non-genetic (or extragenetic) information in the evolution, but what kind of evolution could we obtain in this case? I will illustrate that in building various mediating structures, humans transform the environment and create cognitive niches. Thus, humans and other non-human animals become ecological engineers and chance seekers, involved in the processing, the alteration, and even the creation of external structures to reduce or suppress their cognitive limitations. Hence, this article will address a detailed analysis of the role of extragenetic information in evolution and what this process of selection selects for purposeful organisms, so niche-constructing ones.

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  1. 1.

    These aspects of abductive cognition have been illustrated in the recent books (Magnani 2009; 2017).

  2. 2.

    Sterelny (2003) proposed the expression “epistemic engineers”, adopted later on by Andy Clark, to refer to the human construction of cognitive niches in the growth of the so-called “extended” human mind.

  3. 3.

    On the transition in evolutionary epistemology from the adaptationist perspective to the non-adaptationist one see also Gontier (2010; 2018), Facoetti (2019), that illustrate further related non-adaptationist relevant topics such as phenotypic plasticity, developmental systems, epigenetic mechanisms, macroevolution, reticulate evolution through hybridization, symbiosis, symbiogenesis, infectious heredity, hybridization, and lateral gene transfer.

  4. 4.

    Attention was drawn for the first time to the idea of niche construction by famous researchers like Schrödinger, Mayr, Lewontin, Dawkins, and Waddington. Firstly in the field of physics and later on in the area of the theory of evolution itself. Waddington especially emphasized the influence generated by the organism development.

  5. 5.

    More examples, from birds to earthworms, are illustrated in Odling-Smee et al. (2003, Chs. 1–2).

  6. 6.

    Of course, humans have installed in natural environments a lot of cognitive items, but also animal behaviour offers many examples of niche construction activities. Interesting cases of animal cognitive niche construction (Odling-Smee et al. 2003, 60–67) are nests (made by birds, fishes, ants, bees, and termites—ant and termites greatly modify the mineral and organic composition of the surrounding soil and the local hydrology, and also consume a lot of terrestrial litter), shelters or sacs (made by spiders) burrows, pupal cases (made by butterflies), nursery environments for offspring, and detritus. Another final example refers to birds and mammals that damp out natural fluctuations in food availability by hoarding or storing food at appropriate times. Several more examples concerning birds, earthworms, and other organisms are illustrated in Odling-Smee et al. (2003, Chs. 1–2).

  7. 7.

    Gibson also contended that a niche can be seen as a set of affordances: an affordance refers to what the environment offers, provides, or furnishes. For instance, a chair ‘affords’ an opportunity for sitting, air for breathing, water for swimming, stairs for climbing, and so on. The concept of affordance has two positive consequences: first, it depicts the particular kind of relationship between an agent and its environment, and the interdependence between them. Second, this concept is also of help in further describing humans as chance seekers. Indeed, when human beings construct cognitive niches at the same time provide to themselves and to other individuals (and eventually to other non-human animals) interesting affordances (eventually new) that have significant cognitive (and also pragmatic) consequences. The relationships between abduction, affordances, and cognitive niches are illustrated in Magnani and Bardone (2008) and Magnani (2009, Ch. 6).

  8. 8.

    I have to note that in this article the attribute ‘extragenetic’ does not include epigenetic factors.

  9. 9.

    Some controversies are related to the fact that it is not always clear which are the modifications that originate cognitive niches capable of entering the evolutionary mechanisms. Consequently, it is questionable to which extent individual and collective actions can possess ecological outcomes, that is that reveal themselves not merely as aggregate and superficial changes. On this issue, cf. Sterelny (2005) and the criticisms made by Dawkins (2004). Interesting replies to these objections are illustrated in Laland et al. (2005).

  10. 10.

    Laland offers an explicative example of protocultural behaviour. It refers to Imo, the celebrated creator of potato- and wheat-washing, as an initiator of macaque culture (or “protoculture”): “In the 1960s, food washing seemed an unlikely natural behavior for monkeys. Hence, these behavior patterns were regarded as novel and intelligent. When the food-washing behavior spread, it was described as ‘preculture’ or ‘protoculture,’ the clear implication being that it could be regarded as an analog, or perhaps even a homolog, of human culture” (Laland and Hoppitt 2003, 154–155). Moreover, experimental studies have demonstrated that food washing is learned relatively quickly by monkeys and can become a ‘social’ widespread behaviour in a collective of animals.

  11. 11.

    This expression directly refers to the cognitive role that some structures built by humans can play. Artifacts such as diagrams, scientific tools typical of the laboratories but also books, buildings, monuments, religious objects, works of art, flags and symbols, essential databases, tools related to medical therapy, financial institutions, written laws, etc. are all constituents of cognitive niches that offer themselves as mediators of cognitive chances that can be adopted by humans that live in them. They mediate cognition: in semiotic terms, we can say that they provide plenty of signs that present potential meanings to the human interpreter. The role of these mediators in science is described in Magnani (2009) and in moral and violent behaviour in Magnani (2007b; 2011).

  12. 12.

    I should report here that what Herbert Simon called docility explains the human inclination to believe and adopt what indicated by ecological resources, which are made available thanks to cognitive niches. Indeed, according to Simon, humans are docile in the sense that their fitness is enhanced by “the tendency to depend on suggestions, recommendations, persuasion, and information obtained through social channels as a major basis for choice” (Simon 1993, 156).

  13. 13.

    The critical case of bacteria and their relationship with the second law of thermodynamics is illustrated in Magnani (2009, Ch. 5, Sect. 5.4.4).

  14. 14.

    Cf. Laland and Brown (2006).

  15. 15.

    It is well-known that contemporary human beings are continually involved in the problem of managing artifactual niches of various kinds: the so-called ‘ethics of technology’ is more or less directly related to the issue. This problem is, for example, treated in the book (Magnani 2007b).

  16. 16.

    The issue is also related to the description of the so-called ‘neural Darwinism’ introduced by Edelman.

  17. 17.

    I agree with the reviewer’s observation regarding the fact in this case random has to be intended in peculiar sense: genetic variation is interpreted during embryogenesis in the context of the environment and constructed niche. Thus, phenotypic variation is the result of gene evolution.

  18. 18.

    Also animals build cognitive niches (see also above footnote 6) that approximate the human ones in the following sense: studies in the field of animal cognition grant to many animals a kind of nonlinguistic cognitive activity we can fundamentally classify as model-based (that is distant from the cognitive functions supplied by human language (cf. Magnani 2009, Ch. 5). Their ecological niches become ‘cognitive’, when, for example, complex animal artifacts such as landmarks of caches for food are built, which are the result of ‘plastic’ and learned thinking activities that go beyond the cognitive endowments granted by innate endowments (cf. Magnani 2007a). It is remarkable to note that Carl Gust Jung intelligently stressed that when we see some animals making artifacts, we can acknowledge their cognitive value as an expression of what he speculatively called “natural culture”: “When the beaver fells trees and dams up a river, this is a performance conditioned by its differentiation. Its differentiation is a product of what one might call ‘natural culture,’ which functions as a transformer of energy” (Jung 1972, 42). Jung’s ideas about cognitive externalizations and artifacts in psychoanalysis are richly illustrated in Magnani (2018).

  19. 19.

    Cf. Zhang (1997), Hutchins (1995), Clark and Chalmers (1998), Wilson (2004), Magnani (2006), Magnani (2007a).

  20. 20.

    Cf. Zhang (1997), Gatti and Magnani (2005), Knuuttila and Honkela (2005). An illustration of the notion of representation proposed by the studies on dynamical systems—substantially antirepresentationalist—is given in Magnani (2009, Ch. 8, Sect. 8.5.2).


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Magnani, L. Cognitive Niche Construction and Extragenetic Information: A Sense of Purposefulness in Evolution. J Gen Philos Sci (2019).

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  • Cognitive niches
  • Extragenetic information
  • Purposefulness in evolution
  • Distributed cognition
  • Incomplete information
  • Loosely Darwinian effects