Meaning-making, belief and world shaping as core processes in the human niche
Department of Anthropology, Princeton University
Humans are not unique in the world. But we are quite idiosyncratic. Across the Pleistocene the genus Homo developed a distinctive suite of cognitive, behavioral, ecological, and technological processes and patterns; in short, a human niche. This niche eventually included a core role for meaning making, augmenting the capacity to engage with more than the “here and now” to develop novel ideas and concepts, share them, and convert them in material reality. Today humans represent an infinitesimally small percentage of all the life on this planet, yet despite being such a tiny part of the great diversity of living things, humans are among the most significant forces affecting ecosystems and all other life on this planet. Why and how this came to be are two of the most pressing questions one can ask about what it means to be human. I suggest that extensive and distinctive capacities for meaning-making, belief and world shaping (or better put, niche construction) are at the heart of the answers to these queries.