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)
What role does non-genetic inheritance play in evolution? In recent work we have independently and collectively argued that the existence and scope of non-genetic inheritance systems, including epigenetic inheritance, niche construction/ecological inheritance, and cultural inheritance—alongside certain other theory revisions—necessitates an extension to the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis (MS) in the form of an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis (EES). However, this argument has been challenged on the grounds that non-genetic inheritance systems are exclusively proximate mechanisms that serve the ultimate function of calibrating organisms (...) to stochastic environments. In this paper we defend our claims, pointing out that critics of the EES (1) conflate non-genetic inheritance with early 20th-century notions of soft inheritance; (2) misunderstand the nature of the EES in relation to the MS; (3) confuse individual phenotypic plasticity with trans-generational non-genetic inheritance; (4) fail to address the extensive theoretical and empirical literature which shows that non-genetic inheritance can generate novel targets for selection, create new genetic equilibria that would not exist in the absence of non-genetic inheritance, and generate phenotypic variation that is independent of genetic variation; (5) artificially limit ultimate explanations for traits to gene-based selection, which is unsatisfactory for phenotypic traits that originate and spread via non-genetic inheritance systems; and (6) fail to provide an explanation for biological organization. We conclude by noting ways in which we feel that an overly gene-centric theory of evolution is hindering progress in biology and other sciences. (shrink)
Evolutionary theory is one of the most wide-ranging and inspiring of scientific ideas. It offers a battery of methods that can be used to interpret human behaviour. But the legitimacy of this exercise is at the centre of a heated controversy that has raged for over a century. Many evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists are optimistic that evolutionary principles can be applied to human behaviour, and have offered evolutionary explanations for a wide range of human characteristics, such as homicide, religion (...) and sex differences in behaviour. Others are sceptical of these interpretations. Moreover, researchers disagree as to the best ways to use evolution to explore humanity, and a number of schools have emerged. Sense and Nonsense provides an introduction to the ideas, methods and findings of five such schools, namely, sociobiology, human behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology, cultural evolution, and gene-culture co-evolution. In this revised and updated edition of their successful monograph, Laland and Brown provide a balanced, rigorous analysis that scrutinizes both the evolutionary arguments and the allegations of the critics, carefully guiding the reader through the mire of confusing terminology, claim and counter-claim, and polemical statements. This readable and informative introductory book will be of use to undergraduate and postgraduate students (for example, in psychology, anthropology and zoology), to experts on one approach who would like to know more about the other perspectives, and to lay-persons interested in evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. Having completed this book, the reader should feel better placed to assess the legitimacy of claims made about human behaviour under the name of evolution, and to make judgements as to what is sense and what is nonsense. (shrink)
Niche construction is the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other’s niches. By transforming natural-selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in evolution at various different levels. Niche-constructing species play important ecological roles by creating habitats and resources used by other species and thereby affecting the flow of energy and matter through ecosystems—a process often referred to as “ecosystem engineering.” An important emphasis of niche construction theory (NCT) is that acquired characters play an evolutionary (...) role through transforming selective environments. This is particularly relevant to human evolution, where our species has engaged in extensive environmental modification through cultural practices. Humans can construct developmental environments that feed back to affect how individuals learn and develop and the diseases to which they are exposed. Here we provide an introduction to NCT and illustrate some of its more important implications for the human sciences. (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 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 agree with Ramsey et al. regarding the need for new methods and concepts in the study of innovation, and welcome their initiative, but are concerned that their operationalization is over-reliant on subjective judgements.
We applaud Gintis's attempt to provide an evolutionary-based framework for the behavioral sciences, and note a number of similarities with our own recent cultural evolutionary structure for the social sciences. Gintis's proposal would be further strengthened by a greater emphasis on additional methods to evolutionary game theory, clearer empirical predictions, and a broader consideration of cultural transmission. (Published Online April 27 2007).
We are encouraged that the majority of commentators endorse our evolutionary framework for studying culture, and several suggest extensions. Here we clarify our position, dwelling on misunderstandings and requests for exposition. We reiterate that using evolutionary biology as a model for unifying the social sciences within a single synthetic framework can stimulate a more progressive and rigorous science of culture. (Published Online November 9 2006).
We suggest that human culture exhibits key Darwinian evolutionary properties, and argue that the structure of a science of cultural evolution should share fundamental features with the structure of the science of biological evolution. This latter claim is tested by outlining the methods and approaches employed by the principal subdisciplines of evolutionary biology and assessing whether there is an existing or potential corresponding approach to the study of cultural evolution. Existing approaches within anthropology and archaeology demonstrate a good match with (...) the macroevolutionary methods of systematics, paleobiology, and biogeography, whereas mathematical models derived from population genetics have been successfully developed to study cultural microevolution. Much potential exists for experimental simulations and field studies of cultural microevolution, where there are opportunities to borrow further methods and hypotheses from biology. Potential also exists for the cultural equivalent of molecular genetics in “social cognitive neuroscience,” although many fundamental issues have yet to be resolved. It is argued that studying culture within a unifying evolutionary framework has the potential to integrate a number of separate disciplines within the social sciences. (Published Online November 9 2006) Key Words: cultural anthropology; cultural evolution; cultural transmission; culture; evolution; evolutionary archaeology; evolutionary biology; gene-culture coevolution; memes; social learning. (shrink)
In 1953 a young female Japanese macaque called Imo began washing sweet potatoes before eating them, presumably to remove dirt and sand grains. Soon other monkeys had adopted this behaviour, and potato washing gradually spread throughout the troop. When, three years after her first invention, Imo devised a second novel foraging behaviour, that of separating wheat from sand by throwing mixed handfuls into water and scooping out the floating grains, she was almost instantly heralded around the world as a 'monkey (...) genius'. Imo is probably the most celebrated of animal innovators. In fact, many animals will invent new behaviour patterns, adjust established behaviours to a novel context, or respond to stresses in an appropriate and novel manner. -/- Innovation is an important component of behavioural flexibility, vital to the survival of individuals in species with generalist or opportunistic lifestyles, and potentially of critical importance to those endangered or threatened species forced to adjust to changed or impoverished environments. Innovation may also have played a central role in avian and primate brain evolution. Yet until recently animal innovation has been subject to almost complete neglect by behavioural biologists, psychologists, social learning researchers, and conservation-minded biologists. -/- This collection of stimulating and readable articles by leading scientific authorities is the first ever book on 'animal innovation', designed to put the topic of animal innovation on the map and heighten awareness of this developing field. (shrink)
The evidence of high cognitive abilities in cetaceans does not stand up to close scrutiny under the standards established by laboratory researchers. This is likely to lead to a sterile debate between laboratory and field researchers unless fresh ways of taking the debate forward are found. A few suggestions as to how to do this are proposed.
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.