In 1961, Ernst Mayr published a highly influential article on the nature of causation in biology, in which he distinguished between proximate and ultimate causes. Mayr argued that proximate causes (e.g. physiological factors) and ultimate causes (e.g. natural selection) addressed distinct ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions and were not competing alternatives. That distinction retains explanatory value today. However, the adoption of Mayr’s heuristic led to the widespread belief that ontogenetic processes are irrelevant to evolutionary questions, a belief that has (1) hindered (...) progress within evolutionary biology, (2) forged divisions between evolutionary biology and adjacent disciplines and (3) obstructed several contemporary debates in biology. Here we expand on our earlier (Laland et al. in Science 334:1512–1516, 2011) argument that Mayr’s dichotomous formulation has now run its useful course, and that evolutionary biology would be better served by a concept of reciprocal causation, in which causation is perceived to cycle through biological systems recursively. We further suggest that a newer evolutionary synthesis is unlikely to emerge without this change in thinking about causation. (shrink)
We are grateful to the commentators for taking the time to respond to our article. Too many interesting and important points have been raised for us to tackle them all in this response, and so in the below we have sought to draw out the major themes. These include problems with both the term ‘ultimate causation’ and the proximate-ultimate causation dichotomy more generally, clarification of the meaning of reciprocal causation, discussion of issues related to the nature of development and phenotypic (...) plasticity and their roles in evolution, and consideration of the need for an extended evolutionary synthesis. (shrink)
Niche construction theory (NCT) is distinctive for being explicit in recognizing environmental modification by organisms—niche construction—and its legacy—ecological inheritance—to be evolutionary processes in their own right. Humans are widely regarded as champion niche constructors, largely as a direct result of our capacity for the cultural transmission of knowledge and its expression in human behavior, engineering, and technology. This raises the question of how human ecological inheritance relates to human cultural inheritance. If NCT is to provide a conceptual framework for the (...) human sciences, then it is important that the relationship between these two legacies is clear. We suggest that cultural processes and cultural inheritance can be viewed as the primary means by which humans engage in the universal process of niche construction. (shrink)
In modern evolutionary theory, selection acts on particular genes and assemblages of genes that operate through phenotypes expressed in environments. This view, however, overlooks the fact that organisms often alter their environments in pursuit of fitness needs and thus modify some environmental selection pressures. Niche construction theory introduces a reciprocal causal process that modifies natural selection relative to three general kinds of environmental components: abiota, biota (other organisms), and artifacts. The ways in which niche-constructing organisms can construct or modify the (...) components differ. Modification of abiota, for example, may have different consequences from the construction of artifacts. Some changes in abiota may simply be caused by the by-products of metabolisms and activities of organisms. Alternatively, artifacts may be “extended phenotypes” that demonstrate obvious prior “design” and “construction” by organisms in the service of fitness needs. Nevertheless, adaptation should always account for the reciprocity between constructed niches and the living agents that construct them. Looking to well-adapted nature for inspiration for human-built artifacts must account for this reciprocity between phenotype and constructed environment as well as the novel features of human architecture, including frank intentionality of design and novel culturally acquired knowledge. (shrink)
In spite of its success, Neo-Darwinism is faced with major conceptual barriers to further progress, deriving directly from its metaphysical foundations. Most importantly, neo-Darwinism fails to recognize a fundamental cause of evolutionary change, “niche construction”. This failure restricts the generality of evolutionary theory, and introduces inaccuracies. It also hinders the integration of evolutionary biology with neighbouring disciplines, including ecosystem ecology, developmental biology, and the human sciences. Ecology is forced to become a divided discipline, developmental biology is stubbornly difficult to reconcile (...) with evolutionary theory, and the majority of biologists and social scientists are still unhappy with evolutionary accounts of human behaviour. The incorporation of niche construction as both a cause and a product of evolution removes these disciplinary boundaries while greatly generalizing the explanatory power of evolutionary theory. (shrink)
We propose a conceptual model that maps the causal pathways relating biological evolution to cultural change. It builds on conventional evolutionary theory by placing emphasis on the capacity of organisms to modify sources of natural selection in their environment (niche construction) and by broadening the evolutionary dynamic to incorporate ontogenetic and cultural processes. In this model, phenotypes have a much more active role in evolution than generally conceived. This sheds light on hominid evolution, on the evolution of culture, and on (...) altruism and cooperation. Culture amplifies the capacity of human beings to modify sources of natural selection in their environments to the point where that capacity raises some new questions about the processes of human adaptation. Key Words: adaptation; altruism; cooperation; evolutionary psychology; gene-culture coevolution; human evolution; human genetics; niche construction; sociobiology. (shrink)
Our response contains a definition of niche construction, illustrations of how it changes the evolutionary process, and clarifications of our conceptual model. We argue that the introduction of niche construction into evolutionary thinking earns its keep; we illustrate this argument in our discussion of rates of genetic and cultural evolution, memes and phenogenotypes, creativity, the EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness), and group selection.