Semiotic Mechanisms Underlying Niche Construction

Jeffrey V. Peterson, Ann Marie Thornburg, Marc Kissel, Christopher Ball, Agustín Fuentes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The explanatory value of niche construction can be strengthened by firm footing in semiotic theory. Anthropologists have a unique perspective on the integration of such diverse approaches to human action and evolutionary processes. Here, we seek to open a dialogue between anthropology and biosemiotics. The overarching aim of this paper is to demonstrate that niche construction, including the underlying mechanism of reciprocal causation, is a semiotic process relating to biological development (sensu stricto) as well as cognitive development and cultural change. In making this argument we emphasize the semiotic mechanisms underlying the niche concept. We argue that the “niche” in ecology and evolutionary biology can be consistent with the Umwelt of Jakob von Uexkull. Following John Deely we therefore suggest that investigations into the organism—environment interface constituting niche construction should emphasize the semiotic basis of experience. Peircean signs are pervasive and allow for flexible interpretations of phenomena in relation to the perceptual and cognitive capacities of the behaving organism, which is particularly pertinent for understanding the relation of proximate/ultimate selective forces as co-productive (i.e., reciprocal). Additionally, theoretical work by Kinji Imanishi on the evolution of daily life and Gregory Bateson’s relational view of evolution both support the linkage between proximate and ultimate evolutionary processes of causation necessitated by the niche construction perspective. We will then apply this theoretical framework to two specific examples: 1) hominin evolution, including uniquely human cultural behaviors with niche constructive implications; and 2) the multispecies and anthropocentric niche of human-dog coevolution from which complex cognitive capacities and semiotic relationships emerged. The intended outcome of this paper is the establishment of concrete semiotic mechanisms and theory underlying niche constructive behavior which can then be applied to a broad spectrum of organisms to contextualize the reciprocal relation between proximate and ultimate drivers of behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)181-198
Number of pages18
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


  • Dog cognition
  • Domestication
  • Hominin
  • Interpretant
  • Legisign
  • Reciprocal causation
  • Umwelt


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