Wednesday, 1 April 2009

860 - Scratching A Niche

Niche construction is the way an animal will create a home for itself within a given environment. A cell builds a protective shell; a beaver builds a dam; we build societies, and so on. Where science has held that one can understand evolution solely in terms of the degree of success with which genes are able to perpetuate themselves, advocates of niche construction argue that the ways in which an animal affects its environment can also impact on the success with which it reproduces.

Here's a good summary from "Niche construction, human behavioural ecology and evolutionary psychology", by Kevin N. Laland, in The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (p.37, OUP, 2007, eds. R.I.M. Dunbar and Louise Barrett):
Organisms gain information that guides their niche construction through processes operating at at least three different levels, including population genetic, ontogenetic and cultural. Niche construction is influenced by all such information stores - not just genes - and all feed back to influence selection.The niche construction of every species is informed by naturally selected genes; for many species it is also informed by complex, information-acquiring ontogenetic processes such as learning or the immune system, whereas human niche construction, and perhaps that of a few other species, is also informed by cultural processes. Genetic processes, ontogenetic processes and cultural processes operate at distinct but interconnected levels (Odling-Smee et al., 2003). Each level interacts with, but is not completely determined by, the others: that is, learning is informed, but only loosely, by genetic information, and cultural transmission may be informed, but not completely specified, by both genetic and developmental processes. Genes may affect information gain at the ontogenetic level, which in turn influences information acquisition at the cultural level. In addition, ontogenetic processes, particularly learning, may be affected by cultural processes, while population genetic processes may be affected by both ontogenetic processes and cultural processes when humans modify their selection pressures.
Ref. - Odling-Smee, F.J., Laland, K.N. and Feldman, M.W. (2003) Niche Construction: the Neglected Process in Evolution. Monographs in Population Biology 37, Princeton University Press.

The niche I'm scratching at is, perhaps not surprisingly given Posts 903, 902, 900, and 862, the Church.

I want to be able to say that the niche the Church occupies should be defined in terms of the love that we grasp at across cultures, a heart, a single core value, which somehow lives itself out in all cultures, all things. That's what I mean when I suggest that love is the greatest abstraction - not so much an abstraction as an intraction.

It becomes plain when a man or woman who should not die does die, but the Love he or she stands for is found to live on. It blows the value of any given culture, national or religious, out of the water, and at the same time affirms it as a way, but not necessarily the only way, of being.

Particular spiritual communities (even communities of one) become exercises in conscious niche construction, the love that motivates the people in them finding expression in the interaction of cultural, developmental and even genetic processes, as stated in the quote. It sounds scary, and indeed the only guard against abuse is, should be, can be, the nature of Love itself never to abuse.

For those with a mind to build new kinds of communities and community, besides remembering that the whole thing is natural, it is probably worth exploring what niche construction says about the way such gatherings operate.

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