Niche construction: ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive
Much of what researchers believe about the public and effective communication is wrong.
By Matthew C. Nisbet and Dietram A. Scheufele | July 23, 2012
Excerpt: “The lesson is that many of the same background factors that shape the perceptions of the general public also influence the political judgments of scientists, explaining in part why several of the myths reviewed in this article linger on.”
Biologists who study behavior who are not biochemists, neuroendocrinologists, or molecular biologists must still keep the basic principles of biology and levels of biological organization in mind (as indicated in the FDA Critical Path Initiative) lest they become more like social scientists who think that correlates can be meaningfully interpreted as evidence of anything (e.g., including the evolution of morality or fitness benefits of religious belief).
The early ethologists, for example, thought birds had poor olfactory abilities, “… so the use of olfactory cues was ruled out a priori. The resulting correlates with behavior associated only with audiovisual input in birds brought us to our current failure to understand much of anything in the context of nutrient dependent and pheromone-dependent neurogenic niche and socio-cognitive niche construction, which means everything to anyone studying the behavior of any species.
No neurogenic niche does not mean no behavior, and no socio-cognitive niche only means that the unconscious affects of sensory stimuli on hormones and behavior will predominate. In context, however, 1) ecological, 2) social, 3) neurogenic, and 4) socio-cognitive niche construction explain the adaptive evolution of behavioral development in species from microbes to man.
None of the above is easy to explain to science journalists or to a lay audience, but what’s worse is when there is a need to explain niche construction to biologists. Recently, for example, I was asked by an antagonist to define the term ‘neurogenic niche’. The antagonist, Clarence ‘Sonny’ Wiliams, claims expertise in biology and evolutionary theory, including random mutations, domain-specific modules, and unknown natural mechanisms. All his claims are made with the absence of any understanding of biologically based cause and effect. But his question about the neurogenic niche makes me wonder how many others, especially other social scientists, do not understand the importance to behavior of the diet-responsive hypothalamic neuronal niche. And those who do not understand the adaptive evolution of that neuronal niche are probably the same people who think correlates of audiovisual input in humans can be meaningfully interpreted in the context of biologically based cause and effect — as if we were birds with poor olfactory abilities.
In truth, we are like birds that have superior olfactory abilities, whether or not we think we do. We assess food odors and pheromones that determine our food preferences and prefernces for other people. The assessments begin at birth. Isn’t it long past time to stop thinking about the human sense of smell as if we were bird-brained ethologists, and include the epigenetic effects of nutient chemicals and human pheromones in our scientific approaches to the study of animal behavior?