“Niche Construction”

F. John Odling-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, Marcus W. Feldman. 1996. The American Naturalist, Vol. 147, No. 4, pp. 641-648.
Laland Lab Niche Construction site publications page: http://synergy.st-andrews.ac.uk/niche/files/2015/08/Publication20.pdf
Organisms, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, define, partly create, and partly destroy their own niches. We refer to these phenomena as “niche construction.” Here we argue that niche construction regularly modifies both biotic and abiotic sources of natural selection in environments and, in so doing, generates a form of feedback in evolution that is not yet fully appreciated by contemporary evolutionary theory. [first paragraph of article]

This article is a fine entry point into the literature on niche construction theory (“NCT”). This concept has been developed by the authors in many papers and a book; many of their publications are compiled at a website maintained by Kevin Laland’s lab at St. Andrews, which also provides a comprehensive overview of the topic.

One of the key intellectual challenges of the Anthropocene idea is that it calls for an inherently dynamic understanding of the relationship between human beings and their physical environment—an understanding that foregrounds their relationship, rather than their conceptual distinctiveness. Thus, the “habitability approach” I hope to develop is based on the idea that the physical condition of the places human beings occupy is not simply given by nature. Instead it is a result—of activities people engage in, by which they shape their environment so that it enables them to live the kind of life they think is good. This is how I think of “habitation”—of what it means to “inhabit nature:” through the process of habitation nature becomes habitat. My view is based on the intuition that it is possible to view the human involvement in nature dialectically—as a process unfolding over time, stemming from the interactions between components which are thereby mutually transformed.

NCT substantiates this dialectical intuition: it provides a rigorous, empirically grounded way of understanding organisms and their environment not as sharply distinct entities, but rather as different aspects of a complex system they help constitute. Indeed, as the authors of this article acknowledge, it was inspired by the work of Richard Lewontin, who seeks explicitly to articulate a dialectical approach. In his phrase, “Just as there can be no organism without an environment, so there can be no environment without an organism.” (2000, 48) Thus NCT makes intelligible the Heraclitean image of nature as the realm of becoming—i.e. a realm where the boundary between organism and environment is blurred. It gives us a way to think of them not as separate, but as essentially related. In sum, NCT gives specific content to the notion that we best understand species and their environments in terms of the dialectical interrelation between them.

NCT is, obviously, a crucial intellectual resource for the habitability approach. In particular, it frames the activities by which human beings transform the landscape to make it more habitable within a broader biological outlook, thereby specifying in detail a conception of human beings as natural. But in this way NCT raises a profound moral question. If it is “only natural” for human beings to alter the landscape to suit their own standards of habitability—i.e., if in doing so they are doing what, in a sense, they cannot but do as natural beings—what is the basis for moral evaluation of their niche construction activities? If we don’t blame beavers for making dams, even if the resulting ponds damage other creatures, how can we blame human beings for doing in essence the same thing, albeit at a wider scale? By showing yet another continuity between human beings and other forms of life, NCT brings humans even completely into nature. But if we think that morality demands limitations on our niche construction, does NCT therefore force us to strengthen the idea that morality involves a struggle against nature? On the other hand, perhaps NCT offers a prospect for articulating a naturalized morality, well suited to the moral dilemmas posed by the Anthropocene, both by developing a broad understanding of ways niche construction in general can be counter-adaptive, and by developing normative standards from within an understanding of what makes for a characteristically human niche.

Richard Lewontin. 2000. The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism, and Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. This book lays out the dialectical approach that underlies NCT.

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