Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Vary Niche Beginnings: Ideas About Evolution

As a philosopher of biology I can be quite particular about words and concepts with biological definitions and many of these words have their own (painfully different) common uses. Vary Niche is a project of passion for me because it hurts me to hear the term "niche" misused in personal and business dialog. The idea of finding or carving out our own niche is used with impunity but doesn't make any sense if you understand "niche" in the context of evolution as biologists currently understand it.
Niche is the interrelation between a species and any living or non-living factors affecting it. Text over photo of a marsh taken by Danny Booth at Point Pelee, Ontario.

To be fair, "niche" enjoyed 300 years of common use before biologists took it up and made it their own.  It was taken up by biologists as a term for an organism's habitat or place in its environment. This original biological version and the common uses of "niche" share the "hollow in a static background" notion. In one common use, a niche is a hole in a wall in which decorative items like statues can be placed. In the business world, a niche is a hollow in the market that can be filled with a business or product. Under this view, changing a niche is discussed in very permanent terms... as "carving" as if out of stone. All of these uses of niche make a niche seem very rigid, unchanging, or difficult to change. Additionally, these ideas make the niche seem importantly separate from its occupant.

More recent uses of "niche" in biology reflect the importance of change, feedback, and vitality in biological systems. The new biological notion of a "niche" is the interrelation of an organism or species with both living and non-living aspects of its surroundings. It is neither rigid nor separate. The regular activities of organisms change their niche and such accumulated modifications can feed back to affect the organisms. A niche is dynamic, easily changed, and interactive.

So in business and personal life, we do NOT carve out or find our niche, we endlessly construct and change it. Since our daily activities change our niche and feed back to affect us, whether we like it or not, getting the niche we want requires close attention to our actions and their consequences.

Vary Niche is about composing my own niche through awareness of how my daily actions change my environment. I hope following my journey will help others compose their own niche.

To my fellow philosophers and biologists: I apologize if my (over)extension of the notion of niche construction into the realm of business and self-help hurts your sensibilities. I will strive to be strictly accurate as much as possible while I share my understanding of the world with our less-biology-obsessed conspecifics.


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