The Human Niche

Before I talk about the human niche and how it might clarify what biocultural evolution actually is, I have to address something else that’s important. This has to do with the ecological concept of niche itself. Biological anthropologists have never managed to sustain a serious academic dialogue about niche and how it applies to human evolutionary history. Although there are signs things are changing (Hill et al. 2009; Kaplan et al. 2010; O’Brien & Laland 2012; Pinker 2010; Riel-Salvatore 2010; Wells & Stock 2007), there’s surprisingly little discussion about what the human niche is in general. This is a problem with how we use evolutionary theory to explain our place in nature. Our species, Homo sapiens, has recently succeeded in altering, disrupting, or destroying the ecological niches of seemingly countless other species, mainly over the past 200 years. Given that ecosystems are complex interconnected evolving natural systems, two obvious questions follow. First, might our own niche have something to do with our disruptive effect on other species’ niches? Second, if our role in Earth’s biosphere today is as a “disequilibrium maker,” might knowledge about the long-term evolution of our niche help us better understand our current situation? There are thus applied as well as theoretical reasons for substantively figuring out the human niche. As I discuss below, the human niche can be described in a pretty straightforward way that’s fully in line with broader contemporary definitions and approaches in ecology, and this helps us to apply a highly useful, general approach from Niche Construction Theory (see the NCT website) to clarify the process of niche-adaptation co-evolution in the hominin lineage. In taking the “NCT” approach, we can then better see how biocultural evolution emerged as a unique derived hominin trait–not an adaptive trait per se, but an “extended phenotypic” aspect (á la Dawkins 1982) of hominin niche-adaptation co-evolution.