Are We in Equilibrium with Our Niche? Are We in Equilibrium with the Wider Ecosystem?

by Aaron Jonas Stutz

At the end of a long semester, my wonderful students in the course Anthropology 200Q: Foundations of Behavior tackled a pretty broad but important set of questions:

1) Are human beings today in equilibrium with our niche?

2) Are human beings–and the niche we occupy–in equilibrium with the wider ecosystem?

Castle in the Air. M.C. Escher (1928).

We’ll have to wait for another question that these inevitably beg: what is the human niche, anyway, even if you can define it?

So, hang on a moment.

These questions about equilibrium were important for my beginning undergraduate students to tackle. This is in part because it is important to develop awareness of how–and therefore, why–we’re integrally part of a globally intertwined biosphere. The resilience of the entire biosphere now depends in no small part on the actions that humans take. But even more basically, with these two questions, there are no foregone conclusions. Sure, it’s clear that something’s out of wack with our relationship to the wider planetary system of which we’re part. Yet, it’s not clear exactly when, how, or why the human-environment relationship has gotten out of wack. Nor is it clear what we can do about it. Thus, what I can tell my students is this. There’s substantial evidence pointing toward a wrong answer that many climate-science-deniers cling to. We’re not in the middle of a natural climatic fluctuation, like the so-called Little Ice Age that lasted from the 14th to the 19th Centuries. But I can’t even begin to tell my students what the right answer is, because interdisciplinary scientific inquiry into sustainability and complex-system resilience is still very much maturing.

Thus, my students (I had 53 in my two sections of the Anthro 200Q course, which is the first core course in Emory’s popular Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology major) are partners in evaluating ideas and information, in order to develop hypotheses–that is, hypotheses that are consistent with available evidence but that can then guide new experiments, field data collection, and analyses.

Why Scientific Inquiry is Important for Learning in General

Keeping an eye on the prize is a strong motivation to learn how to get it. Here, we want to gain substantial, verifiable, yet curiosity-inspiring scientific knowledge. This might seem like a pretty geeky prize. But the thing is, when we gain it, it’s ours.

This post is ultimately about my students, but there’s a more general backstory we need to cover first. This section of the post is a prelude about science and engagement in the inquiry and learning process. Because–in the intensity of the semester–my students achieved an awful lot. But what they learned in any of their courses (or other sources of experience, for that matter) … well, that’s only as valuable as how they end up connecting it to their ongoing journey. That’s what the backstory’s about. If we want to make that knowledge an honest part of who we are, it’s necessary to do things right, right from the very beginning, in order to keep our eyes on the prize of staying curious and honest.

And getting down to the geeky practicalities of it, that means remembering how we started. By developing a good hypothesis.

Scientists start to give form to hypotheses even before we refine them into so-called “testable propositions,” which are designed to be checked systematically against relevant data with technically feasible, reproducible observation and analysis methods. This means that, at the earliest stage, from the onset of inquiry, it is important to have the thinking tools, information resources, and motivation to put forward a hypothesis–any hypothesis, as long as it’s in the form of  a sound, well-reasoned, concrete recommendation that keeps the fully engaged, curiosity-driven inquiry going … and hopefully even rejuvenates it.

Forming–and then figuring out how to test–hypotheses are bread-and-butter activities of science. But what scientists do mirrors what we encourage our undergraduate students to do over their academic careers and beyond. What we’re talking about is a particularly rigorous version of developing a mature perspective on being responsible. On being persistently, proactively engaged in our complex world. I mean, especially in this season of commencement speeches, it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it actually takes to “make a difference,” “find your own path,” or “make your mark” with intellectual and ethical integrity.

Here, the role of self-criticism, the logical interrogation of evidence–and of how you got and observed that evidence–is indispensible. The disciplined, reflective, critical, open commitment to practical inquiry is inseparable from actually learning something new and verifiable. In turn, it is as important to appreciate how to start this inquiry process–through developing hypotheses–as it is just to be knowledgeable and engaged enough to appreciate that a particular problem is worth worrying about.

Bloom's revised taxonomy of learning processes and knowledge content and organization. Developed from David R. Krathwohl's (2002)
Bloom’s revised taxonomy of learning processes and knowledge content and organization. Developed from David R. Krathwohl’s (2002) “A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy.”

And all of this is very often beyond the scope of what many introductory college courses still challenge students to learn. Consider the (admittedly quite detailed) diagram above. It is a modified version I have developed, following Krathwohl and colleagues’ important recent revision of Benjamin Bloom’s famous taxonomy of learning. My basic point here is that, when you focus on the column headings of the diagram, you should note that much college-level teaching and learning, especially in introductory courses, remains most comfortable in the remember-understand-apply zone. This, even though the learning, recall, and communication skills that will be applied may involve pretty complicated concepts (gender construction or quantum energy levels) or procedures (carrying out a close reading of a text, solving an integration problem, or preparing a chemical sample for chromatography analysis).

But note also that when we ourselves get into the analyze-and-evaluate zone, we can contrast what’s involved with remembering, understanding, and applying with analyzing and evaluating. It becomes clear why we need more of certain early undergraduate learning experiences. What are now called in the trade “high-impact learning experiences” can catalyze more thorough embodied and socially contagious transformations in our students. When students use analysis and evaluation goals and techniques–rather than rote memorization or repetition–they better learn facts, concepts, and procedures. They own their particular unique story of achieving their understanding. In doing so, they develop the motivation and reason to apply emerging knowledge.

Here, a good part of the art of teaching is framing analysis and evaluation tasks–often presented in the form of difficult problem sets or projects in mathematics courses, laboratory activities in introductory science courses, and research papers, essays, or oral presentations in humanities and social science courses. We want to frame these tasks in ways that help students build relevant values or make more general connections, as they (and remember to check out the bottom row of the diagram above) develop a reflective, “metacognitive” story about what they are learning …

In other words, we don’t want to frustrate them with just really hard, inscrutable, detailed, or gratuitously exhausting problems or assignments.

We want to create a different kind of learning context. It is really powerful when students can experience, figure out, and tell a clear story about why their efforts are relevant to their other experiences … or to their success in clarifying values, goals, and general concepts. They get independently closer to becoming more creative, instrumental, but reflective agents. Rather than becoming learning machines to be evaluated, passed or failed.

Now, as the diagram above emphasizes (in the Create column), agency means developing the capacity to modify or use new strategies to cope with or influence the environment. Agency itself also reinforces awareness of how it (agency, that is) may be carried out. What are the concepts, facts, and procedures that are useful instruments of agency? What do agency and creativity cost, entail, and yield for you–or for others? In this particular context? In other courses? In extracurricular activities? Achieving and practicing agency can contribute to more fluency in learning across the board (or the across the new Bloom’s taxonomic system). I want to make this point in order to explain why “inquiry” is such a hot buzzword in education at all levels today. It should be more than a buzzword. Achieving independent inquiry by building up the means to carry it out makes you a better learner and a more aware, more thoughtful person. It gives you an experience-based context to appreciate what you value. But it can also challenge you, reminding you that with humility, you can use your disciplined inquiry skills to face challenges to your values. Instead of stubbornly ignoring the challenge, or perhaps instead of abandoning your values in a reactionary way, you will be better prepared to reason about evidence and its relevance, as you revise, deepen, or reinforce your values.

As part of Oxford College of Emory University’s inquiry program, I sought to facilitate my students’ practicing that agency, building on experiences with analysis and evaluation that they had earlier in the semester, in order to suggest their own new, scientifically relevant questions about our ecological past, present, and future.

OK. Long general prelude is done. Let’s get to what the students dealt with in Anthro 200Q this past Spring.

What “Our Ecological Place in the World” has to do with “What it Means to be Human”

Australopithecus afarensis with rigid, non-opposable big toes. Reconstruction of the female adult australopithecine who made the smaller hominin footprint track at Laetoli, Tanzania, ca. 3.6 mya. From an exhibit at Cosmocaixa, Barcelona, Spain. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Esv.

An undergraduate course on the “evolutionary foundations of behavior” in humans has to support students, as they recursively, progressively analyze and evaluate a series of concepts and examples, so that they can learn, understand, and further apply them. Thus, by April, students had learned about how animal anatomy, physiology, cognition, and life history strategies comprise subsystems that make up a complex overall adaptive system–filled with redundancies and compromises shaped by historically contingent patterns of natural selection on past population variation–that had co-evolved with a similarly complex, multidimensional niche. Exhale. And … they had also learned about how human anatomy, physiology, cognition, and life history strategies comprise subsystems that make up a complex, overall adaptive system that had co-evolved with a similarly complex, multidimensional niche.

That niche emerged over roughly seven million years of hominin evolution. Based on a bullet list of defining features I introduce them to, one of my previous students had ingeniously dubbed our niche the “TOES niche.” Here are the bullet-list features. Our niche emphasizes:

  • Terrestrial habitat
  • Omnivorous foodweb connections
  • Extraction-dependent interactions with food resources and other aspects of the environment, and
  • Socially intense, repeated interactions with many other members of our own species.

(I cannot remember which student it was in Spring 2013, and there were probably multiple students who used the acronym on the same essay exam after they had studied together, but I emphasize that my students deserve credit for the apt name. I made the bullet list, but I didn’t coin the “TOES” acronym. And it is apt, since bipedal locomotion–dependent on a non-opposable, rigid big toe, appearing first in the genus Australopithecus at least 3.6 million years ago–is itself a key adaptive subsystem shaped by natural selection and niche-construction of our TOES niche.)

OK. So the students had a better understanding of what adaptation and niche are, and how they interrelate. They had a better understanding of how adaptive systems shape embodied animal behaviors and animal cognition. And they had a better understanding of the human adaptive system, the long-term evolutionary construction of the TOES niche, and how embodied behavior is a key interface between adaptation and niche. But how to sustain the relevance of this (complex but surely otherwise ephemeral) understanding?

Two recent, very prominent scientific articles helped me with the answer. In March, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin presented a new summary in the widely read journal Nature, documenting global physical and chemical markers of human ecological impacts that will persist in the earth’s lithosphere. They argue that these markers comprise traces of a new human-caused geological era, the Anthropocene. Only a few weeks later, William Ruddiman and colleagues published a subtly dissenting paper in the similarly widely read journal Science, covering evidence for a more gradual, millennial-scale process of humans altering entire ecosystems. Their disagreement with the “Anthropocene proponents” is about whether naming a new human-caused geological era really helps us understand  how we impact our surroundings. So I asked the students in Anthropology 200Q to consider these two articles in answering the following question:

  • Why are fit-to-niche and balance-in-a-wider-ecosystem different ecological phenomena, and what does it mean for humanity’s place in nature, past, present, and future?

Their final major assignment was to create a slide presentation, answering this question–presenting a clear thesis statement in the form of an explanatory claim, followed by a concise argument supported by evidence that is logically sufficient to warrant that the thesis is plausible. (It helps to be explicitly clear about what a thesis, argument, and evidence actually are, and how they fit together.)

What impressed me with their comprehensive, knowledgeable but also creative presentations was that students really did take agency. They figured out a lot on their own. Across the two classes, a pattern was apparent in how they solved the assignment. They either:

  • made a claim that the extractive, niche-constructing aspects of our adaptations to the TOES niche have cumulatively caused a present crisis, to which we must deliberately respond … or
  • asserted that, although we have extensively disrupted ecosystems around the world, our adaptive system supports cultural adaptation and niche construction, positioning us well to adapt further to environmental changes we ourselves have wrought.

Student Karin Chow concisely, clearly made the former case. She included the following bullet points in her concluding slide

  • Present niche construction affects human’s future ability to reach a balance with the ecosystem.
  • Humans may have been able to survive in nature in the past and present, but “to a large extent the future of the only place where life is known to exist is being determined by the actions of humans” (Lewis & Maslin 2015, 118)

Wesley Harmon made a different, optimistic, but quite thoughtful case:

  • Current trends are not representatives of future adaptive behaviors and systems
    • Past does not point to future trends, nor do present adaptational systems represent best-of-fit systems to wide range of future selective pressures (solving the problem of breathing more CO2 than Oxygen, behaviors that are killing off many species that are integral in the global ecosystem, pollution of environment further pressuring new solutions to larger amounts of waste from human populations)
    • But, conservation efforts across many fields of research demonstrate a possible growing trend of awareness among large populations of human negative impact on a global scale.
  • Possibly a new adaptive system forming? – Conservation as a means of survival; contrary to history of evolution which posits population-expansion as one of the main components for selective pressures of adaptations across ALL species.
  • Nonetheless- highly social niche will persist to increase efficiency of new global problem-solving strategies; species-wide technology to reinforce this type of interconnectivity further enhanced by internet.

Karin and Wesley were just two of many many students who had thoughtful, original considerations about how well we’re fit to the TOES niche that had already emerged evolutionarily … how we affect the wider ecosystem … what to expect in the future … and how to engage in future developments of human-biosphere interaction. Many students addressed the presentation prompt by taking on the difficult, initially very abstract issue of scale. The human TOES niche evolved over millions of years, across a relatively wide stretch of terrestrial habitats, usually in open vegetation regimes. For hundreds of thousands of years, human populations have influenced local ecosystems across a large part of Africa and Eurasia. But there’s scale, and then there’s scale. How does our widespread prehistoric ecological impact compare to the more recent pattern, in which we have begun to influence the entire biosphere–something that, according to Lewis and Maslin (2015), may have begun as early as 5000 years ago? Is the sheer scale and complexity of the Earth’s biosphere something that’s on our side, with systems that could support sequestering ecosystem pollutants and building ecosystem resilience? Or is the sheer scale and complexity of human extraction, consumption, and disposal activities too much to achieve a “soft landing” to a sustainable human-biosphere relationship? Needless to say, these are challenging but vital questions.

Of course, the inquiry process does not end when students get their grades on the assignment. As for the professor, I’ve been inspired to take a fresh look at an article manuscript that I am preparing to submit, dealing with how the social part of the TOES niche connects to the technological extractive part. I get to make new conceptual and procedural connections between how I work as a researcher and how I work as a teacher. The students will have some vacation, but many will quickly jump into summer coursework, internships, community service programs, and research projects. I promised the students that I would put together this post, offering some perspective on what they contributed collectively with their final presentation projects. To my students, I am grateful that you took the challenge so seriously. Your inquiry yielded new connections between what you learned about niche-adaptation co-evolution in human prehistory to the wider question of our current and future balance with the biosphere that constitutes and sustains us. Please keep growing your commitment to the inquiry process. Own your knowledge through understanding, compassion, sense of humor (but I won’t throw in a digressive anecdote to try to make you laugh … we’ll save that for later), and ethical awareness.


Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 212–218.

Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 519(7542), 171–180.

Ruddiman, W. F., Ellis, E. C., Kaplan, J. O., & Fuller, D. Q. (2015). Defining the epoch we live in. Science, 348(6230), 38–39.