Niche construction is a core concept in the earthworker world view. Unless you are an evolutionary biologist by trade, you likely haven't heard of it. This blog post will attempt to define the term itself and then relate it to our magical world view.
As humans, we interact with our environment, just like all other organisms on the planet. We take energy and resources from our environment, create artifacts, spread our waste, and die and are committed back to the environment in some form, sometimes with ceremony and other times, without. Through this interaction, we modify the pressures that our environment exerts back on us and on all of the other organisms that live within it. This interplay between us and the environment is called 'niche construction'.
All living creatures, but most especially humans, through their activities and choices create and destroy local environmental niches but do so collectively, so that the scaled up effect of these local changes is in fact global. Niche construction is also easier to empirically observe and prove than the general evolutionary theory and its components.
Through niche construction the flow of energy and matter through earth's ecosystems is partly controlled and when environments are transformed a feedback loop is created between those organisms already in that environment (who are continuously creating or enhancing their niches). These environmental changes, if of sufficient time depth, will then affect descendant populations of not only the human ecosystem engineers but of all the other organisms in their niche and in adjacent niches, etc. Looking at evolution in this way constructs a world view where evolution is not just forced upon us and the rest of the creatures and plants on earth through the largely unconscious model of natural selection, but is instead / also a dynamic activity directly connected to the choices that we make. When we invest our energy in ecosystem engineering we contribute to the trophic patterns already present and have a degree of conscious control over these patterns. As we construct our niche's we are working in direct conjunction with the material and thermodynamic 'webs of connectance' around us. When we invest enough energy into our niches, and our descendants do the same, to a significant level of time depth than we can consider our activity as directly affecting the evolutionary process of ourselves and others.
Okay, sounds plausible Fox, but what does this have to do with magic?
Since we were a diaspora of different proto-human species, it can be argued, that a magical world view has affected all of our decisions up until very recently. Magical thinking, the first kind of creativity, the first type of philosophy, was originally centered on increasing our probabilities of survival in a world where hunting game and gathering wild foods and using natural materials for shelter were the dominant strategies. We would dream of animals, learn from our dreams, speak to the spirits of animals and plants as if they were (and they are) our brothers and sisters, and use the knowledge gained to improve how we related to our environment -- how we constructed niche's to maximize our probability of survival. While it is certainly true that we used instinct and cunning to react to situations as they happened, we used magical thinking to inform the decisions we made that led up to us ending up in those situations, to begin with.
We continued our niche construction activities and our successful adaptations feedback to us, the environment fed us, we grew stronger, we grew smarter, and we dreamt all the more. The feedback loop we created looked something like magical thinking --> niche construction --> optimized survival --> environmental changes as a result of our success --> success reinforced the validity of using magical thinking --> more niche construction.
One of our most successful feedback loops resulted directly from a need to engage with the spirit world more directly. Fermented grains, it was discovered, led to an enhanced ability, a broadband connection to, communicating with the spirit world. Once we discovered that, then we poured more energy into working with these plant spirits (read: agriculture), and then it was off to the races as far as niche construction was concerned as it is well known the massive effect that agriculture, brought about by the desire to have better access to the ethneogen alchohol, had on our environment. This niche has scaled up and through successive generations to the extent that it now (barely) supports billions of modern humans on the planet. A prime and devastating example.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, however. In part two of our discussion on niche construction we will take a deeper dive into the icy waters surrounding this mass of untapped knowledge and explore how human culture became our primary tool for niche construction.