The Human Ecosystem: knowledge and philosophy

All species exist within their ecology and niche. This is a combination of physical things, both favourable and unfavourable: nutrients and prey, predators and toxins, hot and cold, water and salt. If you imagine a deer in the woods, it exists among the trees, eating grass and bark. Humans are not like this. We live apart from all of our requirements and ailments. We exist independent of our ecosystem. How did this happen?

Firstly, it’s worth clearing up some terminology. The Gause Exclusionary Principle is a way of defining a species, and it is reliant on the ecosystem in which the species exists. Therefore, if humans are a species, we do not live apart from our ecosystem; our ecosystem must simply not be what it appears to be. The Gause Exclusionary Principle―or competitive exclusion principle―states that any two individuals who are able to exist in the same area occupying the same ecological niche are members of the same species; two different species trying to occupy the same niche in the same area will enter into competition, which one species will lose and become locally extinct or excluded. Given sufficient time, one of the species may adapt to a different niche.

If you put cows and sheep in a field, one will be better at eating grass than the other. Populations of both will increase until their is sufficient pressure on the resource that the advantage of one species over the other becomes significant. The disadvantaged species will go hungry. Their competition for grass will be a competition one of the species will lose. (I use a farming example to simplify the ecosystem.)

Over here, Nate asked his readers to entertain the question of whether evolution can select for advanced cognitive abilities, like philosophical ponderance, complex and abstract true beliefs and science. When you think of a species struggling to survive, it may seem the brain of brain-possessing species only needs to find food and select mates, a struggle to which the concept of abstract ‘truth’ may not be important. The Tunicate, for example, is a filter feeder that uses a brain to navigate to a rock, clings to that rock, then eats its own brain and filter feeds from their. Functional brains are not necessarily useful.

But, given a particular niche, functional and intelligent brains are useful. Early hominids created tools, which were very useful for hunting, and fire, which was useful for cooking. This gave hominids an immediate advantage over species in similar niches that didn’t have tools. If individuals gathered an way of understanding, then they could learn to make tools from other individuals who either intentionally or accidentally made, say, a spear.

Spear heads were made by taking flint and striking it with a harder rock, and the way flint breaks makes a sharp edge. But, it’s not enough to watch another individual do that and then replicate it. What would you replicate? Could you also reach for the nearest rock to your right and the nearest to your left and clash them together? Were the rocks important, or could a handful of sand and a stick achieve the same thing? Do you need anything in your hands, or could I simply mimic the motion with my empty hands? No, I would need an understanding of an explanation that explains what was happening, then I could adjust my behaviour to find the right rocks, and alter the way they collide to make sure they fracture correctly to make a sharp edge.

This is a very different behaviour to other species in their niche. Some birds use rocks, unchanged, and drop shells and nuts onto the rocks for the food. Others make inadvertent changes to their ecosystem that have to enter into an equilibrium. Humans (and a couple of other primates) alter their niche on purpose. And the tool they use for that is knowledge and deep cognitive function.

Our intelligence is a primary feature of our niche. Unlike other species, whose niches can be described in terms of water and energy flows, nutrient cycles and prey/predation population dynamics, human ecology is defined in schematics, economics, international trade and technology; all of which are built on intelligence. Once our niche could be capitalised on by intelligence and understanding, the capacity to understand true things became a selective pressure. Explanations and understanding are our niche. Globally.

If you look to a dog, then a sheep and start to ponder whether evolution can really create deep cognitive function and philosophical pondering, you need to ponder that in the context that once a species occupies the niche globally, it can only happen once. Otherwise, there will be competition for resources, like land and space. (Rise of the Planet of the Apes.)

Philosophical pondering is very important and a key part to how understanding and technology progress. Take, again, our early hominids clashing stones together to make a spearhead. Evolution may have been able to select for something more superficial, like knowledge of the types of rocks to reach for. But it’s certainly not clear what the progressive and graduated steps to such binary knowledge might be. Whereas, for levels of cognition, that comes in levels. Labradors think more than mice. Primates more so, again. This clearly is on a continuous spectrum. That is where evolution operates.

Philosophical ponderance allows our hominid to ponder what about its observation is important. It will have to make these sorts of judgements, because it will never find identical rocks; it has to know how to identify selection criteria. Perhaps it will posture that the colour of the things being hit together is important, which it can then test, identify the failure and go through a process until it identifies the rocks are important. It must conjecture an understanding that it tests and refines. It’s philosophical ponderances are key to the progress.

Our ecosystem, our niche, is our intelligence and our ability to create explanations. Our critical though and philosophical ponderances define our nest. And that is why evolution has created no other contemporary species with the same intellect; because then we would be fighting for a niche, and one of us would lose.


6 thoughts on “The Human Ecosystem: knowledge and philosophy”

  1. The Gause Exclusionary Principle sounds idiotic at first glance. I am reminded of the description of the Great Plains environment by the Lewis and Clarke expedition: gigantic herds of deer, elk, and buffalo all intermingling on the plains, all sharing the same food (grass) and all thriving. Packs of wolves and Native Americans culled the herds of the weaker members of those species, improving the survivability of the rest. Is the said principle saying that the deer, elk, etc. were in an unstable situation in which one would necessarily triumph over the others? I don’t think so. The balance was only broken by the “machine harvesting” scheme that was the buffalo hunters and railroads.

    1. I’ve looked into it, and deer, elk and buffalo don’t have the same niche. Deer eat fruits, which elk don’t. Both elk and deer eat bark, which American buffalo do not, they prefer prairie grass when it’s available.

    2. Although, my response does start to eek into the problem you might allude to: it’s infalsifiability. Given how complex a niche can be–in space, predation, resources, habitat, mating rituals, etc–there is a real possibility that two populations may never be said to be occupying the same niche. I’ve not done sufficient research to see what falsification might look like.

  2. Ecosystems are all about competition, natural selection and interdependency.

    There is nothing about the ecosystem model, the model of life on Earth, that includes or explains the existence of man.

    Any creature that attempts to compete with man, loses.

    Man has not been subject to natural selection for at least 10,000 years, if ever.

    And man’s dominion over the natural world is of a completely different nature than ecological interdependency among living things.

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