Tag Archives: 1987

Ontogenetic niche

West, M. J., & King, A. P. (1987). Setting nature and nurture into an ontogenetic niche. Developmental Psychobiology, 20, 549-562.

All organisms inherit parents’ genes, but many also inherit parents, peers, and the places they
inhabit as well. We suggest the term ontogenetic niche to signify the ecological and social legacies that accompany genes. A formal name is needed to give the idea of the inherited environment equal status with i�s conceptual cognates; nature and nurture. We argue here that increased recognition of the inherited environment facilitates unification efforts within the developmental sciences by emphasizing the affinity, rather than opposability, of ontogenetic processes.

The authors are rather Whorfian in their motivation:

The addition of a [ontogenetic] niche might seem only a semantic art. We argue later that it is not, but such an interpretation does not bother us because words matter greatly. If we are told nature and nurture compete, we assume divisibility, and we look for the strong and the weak. If we are told they are rivals, we go so fare as to create numerical scores to determine which prevailed. But if we are told nature and nurture are allies, what different ontogenetic process might be proposed and what metrics might evolve to measure their collaborative effects?

Ontological niche as legacy. Parents bequeath an endowment of resources, peers, social standing, and customs at least as important for inheritance as their endowment of genetic material. In this conception, the authors adopt a sense of environment as habitat, with an ecological approach to “nonarbitrary connections between species-typical surroundings and species-typical behavior.” This is such an important point. We often point to things like language or bipedal locomotion in humans as utterly genetic–they are universals, after all, so they must be evolved, “nature” traits. This ignores, of course, that there are a lot of universals of early experience for human kids, and this commonality of experience may be as contributory as any genetic predisposition. Also, this makes me think of B.I.Z.A.R.R.E. chimpanzees.

Ontological niche as link. Because the niche is not just the physical environment, but the social, “niches rest on transgenerational social dynamics.” Our niche reflects our dependencies on one another. In our early niche, we are nourished and cared for. We learn appropriate and inappropriate social behaviors, food preferences, sexual behaviors, parenting skills, Parents nurture offspring; responsive offspring nurture good parenting.

Ontological niche as way of life. A niche “specifies the behavioral adaptations of its occupants.” For mammals, certainly, and likely other critters, play is a behavior often thought of as an ontological adaptation, a chance for the young to, relatively safely, practice and perfect the behaviors (social aggression and cooperation, mating, food gathering, hunting, tool use, etc.) that would be necessary as an adult. The authors warn us, though, of seeing the world of the child through “adultomorphically biased lenses” (yes!).

Watching animals play is seeing them at their best. It is to view professionals in the game of growth.

The authors quote Piaget: play and youthful behaviors “supply evolution with its principle motor.” That is, they argue, playful behaviors, with their inherent variety and novelty are a force for breaking tradition and changing culture. Perhaps. Though I’d note that, in the motor learning literature, for example, the best way to establish a strong schema for an action is through varied practice. That is, learning of the “core” of an action is strongest when we around the that core a bit–rather than massing practiced instance of the core behavior itself. Perhaps the variety we see in play, dancing around the adult forms, is a way to cement culture as much as break it down.