Research in evolutionary biology and philosophy of biology and cognition strongly suggests that human organisms modify their environment through active processes of niche construction. Recently, proponents of the free-energy principle and variational active inference have argued that their approach can deepen our understanding of the reciprocal causal relationship between organisms and their niche on various scales. This paper examines the feasibility and scope of variational formalisations and conceptualisations of the organism-niche nexus with a particular focus on the extended active inference account. I will draw a conceptual distinction between selective niche construction, developmental niche construction, and organism-niche coordination dynamics and argue that these notions capture different causal patterns, each of which with a distinct scope. Against this background, I will analyse and discuss the extended active inference account and its strategy to integrate variational active inference with work on extended cognition. The proponents of extended active inference assume that their account can provide an explanation of selective niche construction, developmental niche construction, and organism-niche coordination dynamics. However, my key claim will be that this account has the potential to elucidate the workings of organism-niche coordination dynamics, but does not adequately capture the causal patterns of selective niche construction and developmental niche construction.
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- free-energy principle
- variational active interference
- selective niche construction
- developmental niche construction
- organism-niche construction dynamics
- extended cognition