Week 12: Flynn et al (2013) Developmental niche construction

This paper aims to show how niche construction theory is valuable for understanding a range of positions in the human sciences in regards to development. Ostensibly, Flynn and colleagues are trying to respond to a commentary by developmental psychologist Mary Gauvain on Laland and colleagues’ (2000) BBS niche construction paper that we discussed back in week 4. Gauvain makes the point that the important and positive aspects of niche construction will remain under utilised in the human social and psychological sciences “…unless the biological and evolutionary approaches are better integrated with theory and research in human psychological development” (2000, p. 153). As such, the paper can be seen as a sales-pitch and so I think it is fair to judge it on these grounds.

In these regards I think the paper meets this goal in a weak sense but not in a stronger way. After outlining niche construction theory, Flynn and colleagues compare this framework to four positions within the human sciences: natural pedagogy, cultural-historical activity theory, distributed cognition, and situated learning. And I think they successfully show that each of these positions is conducive to niche construction. But they do not go on to show how niche construction is additive to any of these positions – this is what I mean by saying that the paper only satisfies their agenda to a weak extent. I think that a stronger argument could have been made to show how niche construction supplements or gives new insights to these positions. For instance, in the case of distributed cognition there is an extensive debate about how one goes about defining what a distributed cognitive system is (see Kaplan 2012 for a recent useful take on this that attempts to use naturalistic criteria to provide conditions for deciding in this matter). Additionally, there has been much confusion in how to try and understand how cognition can be distributed in time (Hutchins 2001). So it would have been nice to see if niche construction can help in these regards to making either of these issues more precise.

I am perhaps demanding too much in these hopes, and the paper does a good job of surveying the literature and doing a bridge building exercise – this is an incredibly important task in itself, so it is not my intention to denigrate this. But I still think that it is a more interesting project to see how and whether niche construction theory can be synergistic with any of these positions. For instance, in the case of cultural-historical activity theory we can speculate as to how the models of niche construction synthesise with the mediational triangle diagram (shown below). This portrays human agents as embedded within a network including relevant task goals (objects), the tools they use towards these tasks, the normative patterned practices that govern these interactions, and the wider community from which these goals, tools, and norms are acquired and learnt through developmental trajectories. One could potentially see these features as enumerating the components of the cultural-cognitive niche and tracing out their relations. But much more would have to be said about the specifics of what this might mean (see Cole & Engstrom 1993 for an examination of how CHAT and distributed cognition can be useful in regards to medical practices).

mediational triangle

In meeting the moderate goal I would like to reiterate that it is not my intention to be overly critical of the paper. As was emphasised in the group discussion, a common and perhaps unacknowledged implicit position in much of psychology when it comes to the evolution of human cognitive capacities is evolutionary psychology. This view can be characterised briefly as holding that human minds are composed of innate modules that evolved to meet an ancestral environment back in the Early Pleistocene (i.e. Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA). Hence the appearance of statements in popular science or science journalism along the lines of “stone-age minds in modern environments”. There are many problems with this position. For instance, geological findings show that our species evolved in a highly volatile environment (see Potts 2012) and so it is unlikely that any innate modules could have evolved in such hectic and changeable circumstances. Instead, Sterelny (2003) has compelling argued that these selective pressures would have favoured a high degree of plasticity and cooperativeness in our ancestors. And, more pertinently for our present discussion, it would have also favoured niche construction. The reasons for this were made very apparent when we discussed Boyd and colleagues (2011) work on the cultural niche in week 10 where they demonstrated with an array of different evidence (e.g. lost European explorers) that human survival in hostile and variable climates is dependent on downstream accumulative cultural knowledge (as opposed to sheer individual brain power and ingenuity).







Boyd et al (2011) The cultural niche: Why social learning is essential for human adaptation. PNAS 108 (2), 10918–10925. 

Cole & Engström 1993 A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. (pp. 1-46) in Salomon (ed.) Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flynn et al 2013 Developmental niche construction. Developmental Science 16 (2), 296-313.

Gauvain 2000 Niche construction, social co-construction, and the development of the human mind. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23, 153.

Hutchins 2001 Cognition, Distributed. (pp. 2068-2072) in R. A. Wilson & F. C. Keil (Eds.) The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kaplan 2012 How to demarcate the boundaries of cognition. Biology & Philosophy 27, 545-570.

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

Potts 2012 Evolution and Environmental Change in Early Human Prehistory. Annual Review of Anthropology 41, 151–67.

Sterelny 2003 Thought in a Hostile World: The Evolution of Human Cognition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.


Extra Links:

Laland lab has a load of really interesting papers and other material on niche construction.

Also discussed were Robert Sapolsky‘s study on an abnormally peaceful baboon tribe. Here is a video of him discussing this (the bit is at 34-38 mins but I recommend the whole video ).

And we also returned to the discussion on whether cultural learning is dependent on innate modules or whether enculturation can cannibalise domain-general learning mechanisms – see week 6 for more on this.

As an aside, my favourite bonkers evolutionary psychology study involves claiming that girls like pink because they would have been foragers back in the EEA. This wonderfully overlooks the commonly known historical fact that less than 100 years ago boys wore pink and girls wore blue in the US, UK and elsewhere. I recommend Ben Goldacre‘s post over at Bad Science for a more thorough and amusing take down of this paper and this style of doing research into the evolution of cognition.


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