Niche construction and teleology: organisms as agents and contributors in ecology, development, and evolution

Biology and Philosophy 36 (5):1-20 (2021)
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Niche construction is a concept that captures a wide array of biological phenomena, from the environmental effects of metabolism to the creation of complex structures such as termite mounds and beaver dams. A central point in niche construction theory is that organisms do not just passively undergo developmental, ecological, or evolutionary processes, but are also active participants in them Evolution: From molecules to men, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1983; Laland KN, Odling-Smee J, Feldman MW, In: KN Laland and T Uller Evolutionary causation: Biological and philosophical reflections, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2019). In this paper, we distinguish between two fundamentally different ways in which organisms are active participants: as agents and as contributors. Roughly, organisms act as agents when niche constructing effects are a result of a goal-directed behavior over which the organisms have some degree of control. Organisms act as contributors when the niche constructing effects do not arise from a goal to perform the constructive activity. As illustrative examples we discuss plants altering leaf-morphology to optimize light exposure as reported by Sultan and bacteria creating novel niches through excreting energy-rich metabolites. The difference between agential and contributional niche construction is important for understanding the different ways organisms can actively participate in development, ecology, and evolution. Additionally, this distinction can increase our understanding of how the capacity of agency is distributed across the tree of life and how agency influences developmental and evolutionary processes.

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