Rethinking Adaptation: The Niche-Construction Perspective

Niche construction refers to the capacity of organisms to construct, modify, and select important components of their local environments, such as nests, burrows, pupal cases, chemicals, and nutrients. A small but increasing number of evolutionary biologists regard niche construction as an evolutionary process in its own right, rather than as a mere product of natural selection. Through niche construction organisms not only influence the nature of their world, but also in part determine the selection pressures to which they and their descendants are exposed, and they do so in a non-random manner. Mathematical population genetics analyses have revealed that niche construction is likely to be evolutionarily consequential because of the feedback that it generates in the evolutionary process. A parallel movement has emerged in ecosystem ecology, where researchers stress the utility of regarding organisms as ecosystem engineers, who partly control energy and matter flows. From the niche construction standpoint, the evolving complementary match between organisms and environments is the product of reciprocal interacting processes of natural selection and niche construction. This essay reviews the arguments put forward in favor of the niche-construction perspective.