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Niche construction theory as an explanatory framework for human phenomena

Abstract

Niche Construction Theory (NCT) has been gaining acceptance as an explanatory framework for processes in biological and human evolution. Human cultural niche construction, in particular, is suggested as a basis for understanding many phenomena that involve human genetic and cultural evolution. Herein I assess the ability of the cultural niche construction framework to meet this explanatory role by looking into several NCT-inspired accounts that have been offered for two important episodes of human evolution, and by examining the contribution of NCT to the elucidation of two “primary examples” mentioned often in the NCT literature. The result, I claim, is rather disappointing: While NCT may serve as a descriptive framework for these phenomena, it cannot be said to explain them in any substantive sense. Especially disturbing is NCT’s failure to account for differing developments in very similar situations, and to facilitate evaluation and discrimination between divergent and contradictory causal accounts of particular phenomena. I argue that these problems are inherent, and they render NCT unsuitable to serve as an explanatory framework for human phenomena. NCT’s value, at least as related to human phenomena, is therefore descriptive and heuristic rather than explanatory. In conclusion, I discuss and reject comparisons made between NCT and the theory of natural selection, and examine several potential sources of NCT’s explanatory weakness.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The area between the mountains of Lebanon southward to the Negev and northern Sinai, and from the Mediterranean shore eastward to the Trans-Jordanian desert; the central region, encompassing the Galilee, Mt. Carmel and the Judean hills, is often called “the Natufian core area”.

  2. 2.

    From 15,000 to 11,500 years before present. All dates cited here are calibrated radiocarbon dates before present (calBP) from Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen (2011) and Grosman (2013). The time of the Natufian culture marks the terminal stage of the Epipaleolithics and is followed by the beginning of the Neolithic period in the Levant. In terms of geological epochs, this period was the final stage of the Pleistocene, including the humid and mild–temperature Bølling-Allerød interstadial (14,700–12,700 calBP) and the colder and drier Younger Dryas (12,700–11,500 calBP).

  3. 3.

    A minority opinion (Boyd 2006) disputes the full sedentary character of the Natufian culture, suggesting that their sites may have been created in association with the ancestors’ graves (see below). But even as per this view, these sites are assumed to be the locations of “a periodic and persistent return to ‘ancestral’ places in the landscape”, thus fitting well to a niche construction description, featuring both environmental and cultural inheritance.

  4. 4.

    Cf. note 2.The last thousand years of the Late Natufian culture are sometimes set called “Final Natufian”. This sub-division, however, is not generally used.

  5. 5.

    Cf. note 1.

  6. 6.

    The Mushabian 1,500 years, the Geometric Kebaran 1,750 years. (Grosman 2013; Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen 2011)

  7. 7.

    PPNA about 1,200 years, PPNB + PPNC 2,500 years. (ibid)

  8. 8.

    Opinions differ on how strong an effect the Younger Dryas Oscillation had on the Natufian culture (and, incidentally, on the importance of climatic change for understanding human history in general). It is now known (e.g,. Bar-Matthew et al. (1999); Verheyden et al. 2008)) that the severity of the Younger Dryas in the southern Levant was much weaker than in more northern parts of the globe. Note also that the chronology cited here (Goring-Morris and Belfer-Cohen 2011; Grosman 2013) places the onset of the Natufian culture—i.e,. the earliest appearance of the characteristics mentioned earlier—before the beginning of the Bølling-Allerød warm period, and the beginning of the “Late Natufian” period before that of the Younger Dryas. Inasmuch as Rowley-Conwy and Layton postulate the Younger Dryas to have been the initiating cause of the (otherwise stable) Natufian culture’s destabilization, their posited order of events differs from the one suggested by Kuit and Prentiss.

  9. 9.

    If indeed it was so cold and depressed; works cited in footnote 8 above give reasons to question this, at least in the case of the Near East.

  10. 10.

    Woodward (2010, p. 318) suggests that in explanations that have a low degree of specificity and/or are such that the relationship between the causal factors and their effects is unstable, these causal factors can be regarded as enabling (or background) conditions for the latter. Labeling niche construction processes as “background”, however, does not capture their being driven by the niche constructors’ agency, and therefore would not fit.

  11. 11.

    A vast literature discusses natural selection as an explanatory paradigm; see e.g,. Godfrey-Smith (2008) and Hunemann (2012).

  12. 12.

    This raises the interesting question of differentiating between the niche and its resources.

  13. 13.

    Some rare exceptions are McElreath et al. (2003) and Powers et al. (2011), both seeking to explain the creation and sustainment of inter-group cooperative behavior through cultural norms without assuming or suggesting a dependence upon a physical resource or a change in the genetic distribution (the former actually does not make use of the niche construction concept at all).

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Acknowledgments

I wish to thank Leore Grosman and Arnon Levi for many discussions of the ideas and the subject matter included in this paper. I am especially grateful to Arnon Levi for reviewing many versions of this paper and making very useful comments and suggestions. The comments and recommendations of two anonymous reviewers led to important improvements on earlier drafts of this paper. I have also benefited from helpful comments of Yemima Ben-Menahem.

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Wallach, E. Niche construction theory as an explanatory framework for human phenomena. Synthese 193, 2595–2618 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-015-0868-0

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Keywords

  • Niche construction
  • Cultural Niche construction
  • Explanation
  • Natufian
  • Neolithic