I propose that niche construction has been the principle method humans have not only spread magical practice and enchantment throughout the world but that magical niche construction has likely driven our evolution as a species. Let's look at the quote below through this lens:
"cultural processes [are] the principal way in which we humans do the same thing as other species."
In this sense, the human practice of magic, of contacting the spirit world, the ritual and artifacts and ideologies that accompany this task, is for most of the world the principal way in which humans help to control their own evolution. This is the same process as the choice of forage by deer, for example, that learn to live on new or previously disregarded plants in safer areas in favor of more nutritional or easier to access forage in areas of heavy predation. Magic is one the same level as the choice of an American cougar to extend its range from isolated areas into populated ones. It is the invisible process that drives one frog species to die off due to a change in climate and another species to thrive in its place. Magic is a very literal expression of the planet's very life force.
The reinforcement of maladaptive behavior could explain the surge of 'religious authority' that supplanted the dominant world view of magical reality. One could argue that prayer feels good, that conformity to the Church brings success, but where does that success really come from? Is it the behavior of the individuals conformed to the religious non-magical (read: human) authority? Or is it the increased probability that those from the in-group will assist others that also conform to that group? Through the conscious choice of living a 'magical life' and tuning in stacking improbabilities, symbolic communication and literal contact from the spirit world - the earthworker is at once establishing a culturally defined niche AND placing themselves in direct opposition of the conscious spread of a monocultural entity. The religious AND secular monocultures are the tractors plowing under the Indian mounds in favor of growing their own massive crop. The monoculture reinforces itself while magical niche construction reinforces the natural diversity of a universal reality. Magic is the most natural way that humans can interact with and change their environment towards successful outcomes. It also enables the unique success of innumerable individuals without forcing them all to conform to one method of cultural niche construction.
The idea here is that humans got it right first and then proceeded to screw things up through the advent of maladaptive behavior brought about by an accretion of social pressures or the will of authoritative individuals. Looking back to a time before we began to get in our own way we can view a time through our new lens when cultrual niche construction had immediate benefit in response to new challenges from the environment and lasting effects for the generations that came after these successful individuals and groups. One marker of this innate foundational success through holding a magical worldview would be cultural niches that brought about physiological / genetic changes in the absence of technology that accelerated the process.
"Where a culturally transmitted response is not possible, perhaps because the population lacks the requisite knowledge or technology, then a genetic response may occur."
his would have been the norm in Neolithic societies where magic was the normative culture but the innovations brought about by the need for spirit contact and the act of spirit worship would have outdistanced their existing tool kit. It is evident that these world views persisted long enough through time-depth that the probability of magic being the initiator of genetic changes in modern humans is very high.
I want to close this post with one final quote from Niche Construction that I think really drives home my point.
"Niche construction that is based on either learned or culturally transmitted information may be expressed 'intentionally' relative to a specific goal... the scientific process, clearly reflects this goal-directed, intention quality. Individual scientists build on established knowledge stores in the scientific community and derive better explanations and superior solutions to problems in a highly directed manner."
Now, let's replace 'scientist' with 'magician'.
Niche construction that is based on either learned or culturally transmitted information may be expressed 'intentionally' relative to a specific goal... the magical process, clearly reflects this goal-directed, intention quality. Individual magicians build on established knowledge stores in the occult community and derive better explanations and superior solutions to problems in a highly directed manner.
We will return to the concept / activity of niche construction quite a bit throughout the blog, but this introduction should give you a bit to think about. I've enabled comments on this one entry and am happy to discuss!
Odling-Smee F J, Laland K N and Feldman M W. (2003) Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Monographs in Population Biology. Princeton University Press.