Adam Smith on Human Niche Construction

A recurring theme on this blog has been niche construction—the idea that in evolution a species does not solely adapt to exogenous changes in the environmental conditions of its niche, but rather can also itself alter those conditions to suit its life needs. This phenomenon is pervasive across many, many species of life, and it is the subject of study within both ecology and evolutionary biology (see discussions of key articles in Kiza’s post on “ecological engineering” and mine on the basic niche construction proposal). And, as has been argued throughout this blog, the Anthropocene can be framed in terms of human beings’ niche construction activity (see, e.g., my reading post on Smith and Zader’s use of the idea to identify the beginning of the period). These articles refer to the recent and on-going scientific elaboration of what its proponents call NCT (niche construction theory).

We can, however, find fascinating anticipations of elements of the niche construction idea, deployed in explanations of human society, in writers from the history of social and political theory. In a previous post I presented Rousseau’s conjectural account of human development in his Discourse on Inequality; because it foregrounds human beings’ efforts to survive through increasingly intensive transformations of the landscape I believe it can be interpreted to invoke a conception of niche construction. Now I would like to propose that we can detect a similar sensitivity to the phenomenon in Adam Smith.

It is not surprising to find a common theme in Rousseau and Smith. They were contemporaries, and Smith was a close reader of Rousseau: he reviewed the Discourse (though he did not discuss the aspects of Rousseau’s account I mentioned). I am currently working on a paper on ways Smith provides an view of habitation that is both similar to but also importantly different from Rousseau’s. And because the Anthropocene can be seen as, in effect, an economic phenomenon—resulting from transformations driven by globalized capitalism—I am eager to see whether Smith has things to say that are relevant to this blog’s concerns.

In this post I will focus on what I take to be a clear articulation of the idea that human beings’ survival depends on their niche construction capacities. Let me note several points in advance, however.

First, Smith presents this human capacity by way of a contrast with other animals—he does not see this as a ground of similarity across species. However, I don’t think much hangs on this point, which we can read simply as his mode of presentation of what he takes to be key features of human nature.

Second, I do not claim that Smith identifies the evolutionary aspect of niche construction: the idea of Darwinian natural selection is obviously not within his horizon. And he does not foreground the idea of a cultural evolutionary mechanism to the same extent as does Rousseau—though he does hint that there is an inner, perhaps aesthetic, driver behind cultural development. Most importantly, unlike Rousseau, Smith does not imply that human beings change in response to the environmental conditions they create; for Smith, human nature seems to be given and fixed.

Nonetheless, Smith does express quite directly the notion that human beings create, rather than seek out, a niche that provides for their fundamental needs:

The natural temperature of the air is altogether adapted to the condition of the other animals, who seem to feel very little inconvenience from the several vicissitudes of the weather. But even this soft and subtl(e) fluid is too severe for [Man’s] tender and delicate frame. One should imagine that this subtle and fleeting element would not submit to any change from his hands, but he even forms to himself around his body a sort of new atmosphere, more soft, warm and comfortable than that of the common circumambient air. For this purpose he furnishes himself with cloaths which he wraps round his body, and builds himself a house to extend this atmosphere to some greater distance around him. These are contrivances which none of the other animals perceive the need of, but men can hardly subsist without them. (from Meek, Raphael and Stein, eds., Lectures on Jurisprudence, Report of 1762-3, vi.10-11, Indianapolis: The Liberty Fund, 1982, emph. added)

Human beings, that is, can survive only within a certain narrow range of atmospheric conditions—but they respond to that organic need not by seeking out places to inhabit that fall into that range, but instead by creating micro-environments that provide comfortable temperature and dryness, allowing them to inhabit virtually any place on Earth, or indeed beyond.

What is interesting here is not simply finding an contemporary scientific idea anticipated in an historical text; no doubt there are many statements of the view of human beings as niche constructors to be found, going back to antiquity (e.g. in Cicero). Rather, it is more important to observe the role this idea plays in Smith’s social theory—which obviously has had tremendous influence. And its role is foundational: “in a certain view of things all the arts, the science(s), law and government, wisdom, and even virtue itself tend all to this one thing, the providing meat, drink, rayment, and lodging for men, which are commonly reckoned the meanest of employments and fit for the pursuit of none but the lowest and meanest of the people (op. cit. vi.20-21). Smith seems to suggest that the edifice of human civilization is a manifestation of human niche construction, which in turn ought to be valued not as a mean thing, associated with mere survival, but as on a par with “virtue itself.” In my next post I plan to elaborate the structure of Smith’s theory in more detail, in order to consider how his idea of niche construction meshes with the economic ideas for which he is famous. To anticipate: Smith’s economic ideas deal with the social mechanisms that coordinate the activities of huge numbers of individuals—a phenomenon that will be at the root of any understanding of the Anthropocene.

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2 thoughts on “Adam Smith on Human Niche Construction

  1. Just stumbled onto Inhabiting The Anthropocene and intrigued by this fantastic post. Have you read Elijah Millgram’s recent, ‘The Great Endarkenment: Philosophy in an age of Hyperspecialization’?.
    Though directed (somewhat, though not exclusively) at philosopher’s and the profession as a whole, it’s analysis of how we could and should think about various traditional moral, metaphysical and epistemic questions under the assumption of such a niche approach is very good.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! No, I don’t know that book–though I’ve read other things by Milgram . . . I’m eager to take a look. I very much want to pursue a normative approach that is informed by the richest possible understanding of human behavior. Thanks for the suggestion!

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