structural coupling: a reciprocal connection


niche, medium, and environment

How do we know what the niche of a living being is?

We can only know to the extent that we are able to observe what aspects of the environment the living system responds to.  The living system determines its own niche according to its connection with its medium.  Whatever it does not connect with (respond to) is essentially “not there” for the being, it does not see the environment, ie. the “surround” of its niche. 

Of course we may not see what the living being is interacting with.  We may not see its niche, fully, as it may exist outside our ken.  We can sometimes impute that there is “more” from behaviour, as for example when a dog is obviously smelling something we cannot sense. 

conservation and change

One of the statements in the slideshow is worth repeating, as it is a general “law of the universe”... i.e. it is something that always happens wherever we look:

niches in relationships

Given that living beings comprise most of the relevant niche for each other, how can we think about the niche of, say persons A and B in a relationship?  Of course the other is part of the niche for each of them, but there are also other aspects of A’s niche that are invisible to B, and vice versa. 

As an observer, we can also speak about A and B as a couple, who share a joint niche, say a home.  But that is inherently a selective look, we are regarding only some aspects of the niche that we notice.  Of course either A or B can also be an observer, so they can be the ones who speak of “our niche.”  Yet it always behooves us to remain aware that the other relates to aspects of our unknowable environment, that we are conceptually aware of as something that must exist, but cannot see as that is not part of our personal niche.   Thus we are always only speaking of that part of an animal’s “actual” niche that we are able to see as something we relate to in some other way than what the animal experiences.

Not seeing what is outside our niche is not a failure as it is the relation between the two beings that is relevant, and in that relation B can tell A about what B perceives that may not be accessible to A.  Animals “tell” via their behaviour, and people tell via conversation.  Hence the relationship between two people retains the sense of being “whole”.

empty niches

Biologists sometimes speak of niches as if they were physical structures, something like apartments in a building, that should be occupied. That is a rather static view of a niche, it does not acknowledge the dynamic reciprocal relationship between living beings.  Thus, in my view the concept of an “empty niche” is nonsense, as the niche of a living this is determined by what it does, how it lives (and of course the bodyhood that its evolutionary heritage has provided it with). 

If we say a niche is “empty” we are suggesting that we could bring in a species to this location and that would begin to do a particular thing. We forget that we may not be able to observe all the dimensions that are relevant to that species; or that we may think something is relevant simply due to our own associations.

Of course we are tempted to speak about empty niches when a species ceases to exist in some place.  However, the system is just what it is, and all the entities that remain form a network of relations that is different.  And as this changes enough, the species that was there earlier may or may not find that the new context is viable for it. 

We as humans concern ourselves with our preferences, our desires, for whatever motive.  We may wish to ensure that a species does not go extinct, so we act to change the environment in some location so that this species can be reintroduced, or it can increase in numbers.  This is why we remove invasive species, we wish to conserve the system as it was before.  And we value biodiversity.

The biosphere has a much longer perspective than we do.  Given enough time it will continue to evolve new species and new ecosystems. 

structural coupling

Maturana pers com
(and likely somewhere in his papers too)

green turtle

“When in a collection of elements some configuration
of relationships begins to be conserved, a space is opened
for everything to change around what is conserved. “

English ivy is an invasive species in my local forests.  The Pacific Spirit Park Society organizes volunteer work groups to remove the ivy.

We don’t usually think of the intertidal zone as an aspect of the niche of the common black bear.  How does one incorporate “opportunism” into the concept of niche?