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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
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Filling the Gap -Niche Theory and the Human Consciousness

Susan Willis

Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waistcoat-pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge. In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.
-Lewis Carroll

How do we create something new in this world? In an age where the issues of increasingly diminishing natural resources are available and the amount of consumption is growing, this question is becoming increasingly important.

The niche theory gives us a partial answer. Mayr, in his book What Evolution Is tells us that a niche is a "constellation of properties of the environment that make it suitable for occupation by a species". Niches for organisms can not only be found on the topological surface of the earth (which in itself is a niche in the universe) but also inside already existing organisms, given the right conditions of adaptability. Examples of this would be to look at some viruses that inhabit living organisms and in some cases, are limited to specific species.

The human consciousness seems to me to fit many of the characteristics of a niche, barring the obvious fact that it in itself is not an independent organism. Niches in my opinion can not only be limited to being filled by living organisms, but also by its bi-products. We define our consciousness as the fundamental characteristic that makes us human.

Early philosophers defined out consciousness as "reason": our consciousness in fact gives reason and meaning for our existence and transcends the purely biological needs of the species. It is the motivation that propels us to seek knowledge and to "fill" ourselves. Our consciousness creates a second world one in which humans are capable of examining and having a deep understanding of ourselves. We create a new place for ourselves to inhabit inside ourselves.

The reason as to why or how it came about that humans developed a consciousness is still unknown. Why is it that humans (and potentially one or two other species) evolved to the point of being able to create this new inner world, new niche to inhabit while other species did not? This is a fundamental question of life that man has been asking since recorded history and most likely since this faculty first became active in primitive man. It may be better to turn away from the questions of why and how and instead examine in what way we fill this obviously present niche.

Human imagination is just one way in which we look at, interpret and revisit the world we inhabit. It is one of the fundamental characteristics of our consciousness. It is the home of our internalized self. Everyone at one point or another during the day gets lost "day dreaming" or living out an imaginary scenario (some more than others). It is the motor of our desires, our ambition, and our driving force as it is the faculty that allows us to see things in relation to ourselves.

If we characterize a niche as a place where something new is created, we are faced with a roadblock when we look at imagination in this context. Our imagination is not only comprised of things we have experienced seen, touched, tasted, smelled, or heard. We have the capacity to re-arrange these things in a different order than the way in which we experienced things. However, no one can actually create something new and original. An article from the 11th Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) says that

"The common use of the term (imagination) is for the process of forming in the mind new images which have not been previously experienced, or at least only partially or in different combinations. However the image of a centaur is the result of combining the common percepts of man and horse; fairy tales and fiction generally are the result of this process of combination. In various spheres...even imagination is in practice limited"

Our imagination is in fact like a jigsaw puzzle putting different pieces of things we have experienced together to create something different. We don't have the capacity to create anything "new" because everything we imagine is comprised of things in which we have already experienced. Like Alice, we find that all the things we experience in our dream world are just a mutation of reality.

Our consciousness is therefore not a niche in the sense that it dose not create original things, yet simultaneously it does create a new space for us to inhabit. If we apple this to the context of biology, the same issue applies: can we say that anything is really new? All organisms feed off another; borrow from another, contingent on the life and death of one another. We are all interconnected and reliant. If this is so, I propose that we revise the use of "new" in the context of niche theory, and indeed in the context of life and existence.

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