Week 4: Laland et al (2000) Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change.

In previous weeks a common recurring theme was the notion of culture as a niche – both physically as the altered environment, but also epistemically as the altered state of the constraints and affordances for human cognitive systems that inhabit them. As such, we turned to the original BBS paper to try and get a bit clearer on this notion and whether it related to the idea of culture as “patterned practices” that was discussed in previous weeks. Alongside the notion of pattern practices, I think the idea of cultural-cognitive niches is one of the most interesting that we have discussed so far, and it often crops up. But I also think that there are several takes on what this is or could be. So here I thought I’d give my take on the idea and then see how this compares to other people’s ideas.

Following both the work of Kim Sterelny (2003, 2012) and Richard Menary (2013a, 2013b, 2014), I would describe a cultural-cognitive niche is a physical, social, and epistemic environment that has been constructed and maintained and altered over generations in an accumulative fashion. Humans are born into these cultural-cognitive niches and learn to manipulate a range of public resources (“cognitive capital”) for everyday cognitive goals. These resources are a combination of both mental and physical tools which are accompanied by sets of “normative patterned practices” (Menary 2016) which are both the medium of cognitive processing and also orchestrate and shape cognitive activities. They are normative insofar as there are right and wrong ways in which agents can manipulate cognitive artefacts and other environmental resources in order to complete cognitive tasks.


For instance, in algebra FOIL is the rule for how to do quadratic equations in algebra: first, outer, inner last: (a+b) (c+d) = ac + ad + bc + bd (Menary & Gillett 2017). The above diagram shows an experiment by Landy and colleagues (2014) that used perceptual groupings to manipulate the deployment of this rule. Another example is the ordered physical manipulations of stones in knapping practices in order to make various stone tools (Stout et al 2008). Or the order that one chops vegetables and other ingredients and adds them to a saucepan in cooking (Kirsh 1995).

Sterelny (2003, 2012), Tomasello (1999) and Boyd and colleagues (2011) all stress the importance of the accumulative aspect of cultural-cognitive niches. And that it is downstream accumulative niche construction with high fidelity transmission of information both horizontally and vertically that enables for the refinement and retention of skills (what Tomasello refers to as the “ratchet effect” and “virtual collaboration”) by which our species is able to tackle cognitive problems which would otherwise be impossible because they require intergenerational cooperation.

One example of this is what I shall refer to as the cultural-cognitive niche of “western navigational practices”. Modern navigation is remarkably easy, but only because it is built on the collective cognitive labour of hundreds of generations. For instance, we now have digital and discreet measurements of space and time that use systems that go back as far as the ancient Babylonians (Hutchins 1995). For instance, the Mercator projection. These drastically constrain and enable how we tackle cognitive tasks involving spatial reasoning (such as “where am I?” and “given that I am X how do I get to Y?”). Hutchins points out that large sections of the problem space for these questions have been partially-solved and instead the problem space is altered into one which instead focuses on learning how to use the available cognitive tools and techniques (p. 21). And Hutchins makes this especially clear by comparing this to traditional Micronesian navigation which involves a radically different set of normative patterned practices. Traditional Micronesian sailors are able to achieve long distance sea journeys without recourse to maps, compasses, or time-pieces. Indeed even their conceptual representations seem entirely different – they do not use a discreet measurement of time or distance. And once beyond the sight of land rely on an inventive analogue representational schema that involves the fictive motion of an imaginary island beyond view and the movement of constellations as a sidereal compass in the night sky whilst they conceive their vessel to be stationary. Using these techniques and naturefacts they are able to successfully complete journeys of several hundred kilometres with a high degree of success. I have summarised these differences in the table below:








Boyd et al 2011 The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS 108, 10918–10925. 

Hutchins 1995 Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kirsh 1995 The intelligent use of space. Artificial Intelligence, 73, 31-68. 

Laland et al 2000 Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 131-175.

Landy, D., Allen, C., & Zednik, C. (2014) A perceptual account of symbolic reasoning. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-10.

Menary 2013a Cognitive integration, enculturated cognition and the socially extended mind. Cognitive Systems Research, 25-26, 26-34.

Menary 2013b The enculturated hand. (pp. 349-368) in Radman, Z. (ed.) The Hand, an Organ of the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Menary 2014 Neural Plasticity, Neuronal Recycling and Niche Construction. Mind and Language, 29(3), 286-303.

Menary 2016 Pragmatism and the Pragmatic Turn in Cognitive Science. (pp. 217-237) in A. K. Engel, K. J. Friston and D. Kragic (Eds.), The Pragmatic Turn: Toward Action-Oriented Views in Cognitive Science. Strüngmann Forum Reports (Vol. 18). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Menary & Gillett 2017 Embodying Culture: Integrated Cognitive Systems and Cultural Evolution. (pp. 72-87) in J. Kiverstein, J. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the Social Mind. New York: Routledge.

Tomasello 1999 The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. London: Harvard University Press.



Additional interesting links:

Kevin Laland’s lab at St Andrew’s University which contains an interesting range of work on theoretical biology and an extensive list of publications on niche construction in general.

Here is a video of a lecture Kevin Laland gave a few years ago discussing many of the core ideas of this paper.


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