A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:
Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.
Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition
Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.
Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.
This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.