Infrastructure and co-evolutionary technology: Overcoming anthropocentrism in human niche construction

Almost half a century ago, niche construction theory was proposed as a major alternative or at least modification of the standard Neodarwinian model. This for two reasons. First, living beings change their environment in many ways, both as a side effect or with purposeful behaviour, such as nest or burrow construction. This changes the forces of selection that shape the further evolution of the genetic information stored in their organisms, creating a feed back loop. Second, considering this, niche construction ties up with the so-called parity thesis which posits that biological information flows via both organismic and environmental channels, and hence, their roles can be reversed. I do not touch upon such foundational concerns here, but emphasize the aspect of the durability of the niche: Insofar as the changes caused by behaviour modify the environment in a time scale larger than the reproductive cycle, we can say that the niche becomes a channel for information transmission. The key point is that we cannot simply assert that the environment selects variations of genetic information expressed in phenotypes, but that the environment co-evolves endogenously with genetic information. This is even more significant if we consider that niche construction of various living beings interplays in creating ecosystems, hence contra the simple competitive interpretation of ‘selection’, we recognize the cooperative or synergetic nature of niche construction as it always impacts on the niches of other living beings who in turn influence the original niche construction.

The technosphere has emerged from human niche construction. Even though human life ultimately depends on natural resources, most of us live in niches in which technospheric elements dominate natural impacts by far: In a modern metropolis, ‘nature’ is mostly only present via parametrical changes (such as rising average temperatures) or catastrophical impacts (such heavy rainfalls). Public parks are just a biological artefact of the urban technosphere. This is also true for modern agriculture in general that sustains such places. So, is the technosphere the human niche? I suggest that we distinguish between technically mediated human action and the infrastructure, and to reserve the term ‘niche’ only for the latter. Infrastructure is that part of the technosphere which demarcates the human niche, especially at the interface between nature and human society.

Infrastructure is a neglected topic in economics and the social sciences, despite remarkable features that have attracted attention by scholars. Many infrastructures are huge, almost becoming ‘hyperobjects’ in the sense that, for example, the national power grid transcends the experiential horizon of most people and seems only visible via local manifestations. Infrastructure reveals the symbiotic relationship between technosphere and humans, since on the one hand it is often durable far beyond the scale of human generational cycles, but, at the same time, it becomes defunct when it is not used continuously, becoming a ruin. Infrastructure evolves via gradual repair and local construction activities, also accumulating many non-intended effects, especially at the interface to nature.

In which sense do the general criteria of niche construction apply for infrastructure? Even though, as in the case of agriculture, there might be even phenomena of genetic co-evolution, the most interesting aspect is co-evolution of infrastructure and cultural transmission across generations. This is the key to understanding technosphere evolution. For example, the infrastructure of roads co-evolves with habit formation, even in shaping culturally ingrained preferences, as manifest in our ‘automobile culture’. Economically, this is supported by the differential effects of available infrastructure on running costs of actions, such as transport. As a result, human actions are channelled towards sustaining the infrastructure of roads. The car is not an isolated technological artefact, but just one key element in this larger infrastructural system.

These observations point towards a new synthesis of niche construction theory and technosphere theory. This is extending the co-evolutionary and ecosystem view of niche construction to the concept of co-evolutionary technology as introduced in other posts. Human infrastructure is designed according to human needs and preferences. In recent decades, ecological aspects have been added, but only marginally. This mainly relates to negative side-effects of human infrastructure, such as blocking animal mobility. Yet, most infrastructural projects deeply affect natural environments on the negative side. The alternative view would approach infrastructure as co-evolutionary technospheric niche construction. This means to engage other living beings in co-evolving infrastructure and in deliberately designing infrastructure to activate their creativity in accommodating and adapting human niche construction in their own niche building.

Let me give one generic example. Niche construction in nature has often large positive impact on biodiversity, if we consider activities that come close to human infrastructure, such as burrow construction. One ubiquitous mechanism is that products of niche construction often offer protective spaces for other species, mostly much smaller than the original constructors. These species attract predators nonetheless, and the growing local biodiversity is leveraged by the various products of diverse metabolic processes in the evolving ecosystem. This principle can inspire biomimetic infrastructure design, in the sense that human designers would explicitly design infrastructure (shape, materials and so on) having such protective functions in mind. Interestingly, this would not necessarily target specific species, since co-evolutionary design results in creating affordances possibly even unknown to us but being discovered by other living beings. In turn, these beings would also become culturally creative, as some of them would be able to learn and adopt behaviour that is not pre-programmed genetically.

One important aspect of co-evolutionary infrastructure design would be that it is wasteful from the viewpoint of anthropocentric design principles. In evolutionary theory, this relates to the notion of exaptation: The design would integrate elements that are useless from the engineering point of view, but are exapted to the needs of non-humans. Clearly, this is difficult to sell to humans. One solution is to introduce the notion of ‘interspecies arts’ into infrastructure design, such as of buildings. That means, the new affordances for non-human niche construction would be created by humans in a process of artistic creativity. Nonetheless, what is non-functional for humans may turn out to be functional for non-humans.

This post is inspired by the workshop ‘Path dependence in the social sciences and humanities’ conducted under the auspices of the DFG SFB ‘Structural Change of Property’ especially Marco Sonnberger’s contribution on infrastructure.

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