Níche Deconstruction

First of all, I wanted to put somewhere googleable that my mother, Donna Joan Swezey Bryson Hathaway died yesterday, 31 August 2010 at my sister's home where she had been in hospice for three days.  She only knew that she had cancer for three weeks, and had control of her life for all but about the last 22 hours.

I'm not going to do a full obituary here now.  When one is written, I will link to it in the comments.  If you knew my mom and this is how you found out she died, I'm sorry.  I have in my personal web space a memorial to some of my friends who died in 1994, and I still get email about that sometimes and I can see people often spend a lot of time on that site.  So I know how Internet searches can sometimes lead to the discovery of tragedy.

More to the topic of this blog, Will & I have been staying in my mother's apartment since we arrived, and as I look through it I am reminded of two really interesting theories -- the more relevant one is actually called The Extended Mind -- the idea that our intelligence and behaviour are determined by a lot of things outside our body, and that one way we make ourselves really smart is by carefully constructing the environments we work in.  Agre & Chapman pointed out how much this relates to reactive / dynamic intelligence back in the 1980s, while more recently the Getting Things Done people have emphasized this idea as well.  I don't find it even slightly surprising that a good theory from the philosophy of mind can tell us how to improve both artificial and natural intelligence.

The other theory is called niche construction.  This is a relatively new theory kicking around in biology.  On the theory side, it can sometimes gets a kind of post-modern anti-selectionist spin:  species don't inhabit existing niches, they create and define niches.  It is certainly true that every species (and every individual) affects its environment and therefore every other individual, though to spatially and temporally diminishing extents.  But it is still useful to think of a niche that more than one species has adapted to exploit, e.g. the ocean, predation on turtles, whatever.

But the other interesting thing about niche construction is that if your offspring live near where you do, then you are passing information to them by non-genetic means -- thus individually-constructed niches are a form of epigenetics (and also a bit of an oxymoron since definitionally you have inherited part of yours.)  Note this isn't just "stuff", it extends to social networks, governing structures, nutritional / resource environments etc.

I've been thinking in recent years (perhaps a bit late) that I'm old enough that I should be taking more care in making my homes really presentable and useful for entertaining and living in.  I mean, they've been OK every since I graduated from college, but never really as professional looking as I wanted -- the same for my wardrobe (Will might argue about whether that was even OK before he met me.)  The last few days wandering around my mother's house I can see how she has reconstructed her niche / external mind around her current identity (which is a lot different from the identity she had when I lived with her.)  And she has done a pretty good job of this.  It is a shame to dismantle such a well-constructed artifact, but it is her niche and it will never exactly suit anyone else.  My sister and I will keep some of the furniture, photos & knick knacks (sorry Will), and her friends will take some of her books and tapes and so forth I expect, but the vast majority of this will go to a sale or charity, and some will be thrown away.  It feels like a waste of so much precise and artistic construction, but without the central biological body and mind behind it, there is really nothing to save.

I suppose the same is true of any body of work -- no offense to my students, but even the ones most excited by my ideas miss steps and reasons I think are carefully and well documented.  In just the last year I have been growing to shift from thinking of science & the arts as the stuff documented in archival publications to thinking of them as a machine constructed of human recepeticles of knowledge and learning.  The archived information is an incredibly valuable part of our extended minds, but the work we do by physically being in universities or attending meetings, teaching & learning from our students, arguing with our colleagues and our friends and strangers in pubs --- that's what really makes up the state of science or the arts today.
2