Unknotting reciprocal causation between organism and environment

Biology and Philosophy 36 (5):1-29 (2021)
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Abstract

In recent years, biologists and philosophers of science have argued that evolutionary theory should incorporate more seriously the idea of ‘reciprocal causation.’ This notion refers to feedback loops whereby organisms change their experiences of the environment or alter the physical properties of their surroundings. In these loops, in particular niche constructing activities are central, since they may alter selection pressures acting on organisms, and thus affect their evolutionary trajectories. This paper discusses long-standing problems that emerge when studying such reciprocal causal processes between organisms and environments. By comparing past approaches to reciprocal causation from the early twentieth century with contemporary ones in niche construction theory, we identify two central reoccurring problems: All of these approaches have not been able to provide a conceptual framework that allows maintaining meaningful boundaries between organisms and environments, instead of merging the two, and integrating experiential and physical kinds of reciprocal causation. By building on case studies of niche construction research, we provide a model that is able to solve these two problems. It allows distinguishing between mutually interacting organisms and environments in complex scenarios, as well as integrating various forms of experiential and physical niche construction.

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Author Profiles

Jan Baedke
Ruhr-Universität Bochum

References found in this work

Causality.Judea Pearl - 2000 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Complexity and the Function of Mind in Nature.Peter Godfrey-Smith (ed.) - 1996 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Organisms, Agency, and Evolution.D. M. Walsh - 2015 - Cambridge University Press.

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