“Niche construction” before “niche construction” was cool?

One of the most useful aspects of being aware of the history of science is that much like literature and the arts, one can trace the historical origins of ideas and make connections among various thinkers who lived at different times. Last week’s post was a great example of such a connection: the arguments of Gould & Lewontin were articulated over 70 years before 1979 by TH Morgan, and more astoundingly, William Bateson (who even nailed down the idea of a “spandrel”). While there may be no link between Gould & Lewontin and Morgan & Bateson, this example shows us that biologists have had to argue against adaptationism since at least 1903. We can see a clear historical trend.

I came across another example in Lewontin’s 1983 essay, “Gene, Organism and Environment.” [1] While originally published in From Molecules to Man, I read this essay in Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution (2001) (which I will blog about later). Lewontin’s central argument is that evolution by natural selection, still under the controlling influence of Darwin and Mendel, is too frequently said to be a process of “autonomous” environmental forces acting on the internal genetics of the organism; the internal and external operate in separate domains. Lewontin believes we should instead view the organism and environment as reciprocal influences upon each other – they evolve in tandem. This gives us the idea of niche construction: “organisms do not adapt to their environments; they construct them out of the bits and pieces of the external world” (64). Frequent examples include beaver dams (building a physical structure that lasts generations) and the chemical changes to the soil enacted by earthworms.

A beaver dam – an example of an organism constructing its own environment. From: SewerDoc (Flickr) (click image to go to his page).

I find this idea to be an entirely new way of thinking about how evolution works. The book this is compiled in, Cycles of Contingency, is all about dissolving the barriers and false dichotomies biologists have constructed over the years (such as nature/nurture and genes/environment) and Lewontin’s niche construction falls right in place here.

While Lewontin is attacking the status quo of evolutionary population genetics (as articulated by the Modern Synthesis) which perpetuates the internal/external dichotomy, it is important to examine what some of the major Synthesis thinkers may have actually thought. In my history major paper, I had the chance to read some of the work by scientists like Dobzhansky, Fisher, and Wright, and luckily enough, what I read may have some bearing on the issue (and by “may” I mean “this is why I am writing the post”).

According to Lewontin, the orthodox view is that “the history of life is then the history of the coming into being of new forms that fit more and more closely into these preexistent niches” (63).

This actually matches something Dobzhansky wrote in a 1974 essay titled “Chance and Creativity in Evolution:” [2]

Evolution creates new living systems to occupy the ecological niches that are available and accessible. As pointed out above, not even minuscule ecological niches are disregarded if they are accessible. New ecological niches constantly arise. This is why evolution has not become stalled or terminated (Dobzhansky 330).

Evolution by natural selection allows populations to fit to newly accessible niches (Dobzhansky believes mutation isn’t important in this regard), but Lewontin, of course, would respond that this is also partly due to the fact that organisms construct the niches in which they occupy. No wonder there is a “marvelous fit of organisms to their environments” (Lewontin 63)!

So far, Lewontin’s portrayal of orthodoxy seems accurate, but the Synthesis thinkers were not monolithic in their worldviews or scientific beliefs. A scientist that may have had a rudimentary sense of niche construction was RA Fisher.

Lewontin points out a way in which organisms may construct their environment:

(4) Organisms create a statistical patten of environment different from the pattern in the external world.

It might be objected that the notion of organisms constructing their environments leads to absurd results. After all, hares do not sit around constructing lynxes! But in the most important sense they do. … The biological properties of lynxes are presumably in part a consequence of selection for catching prey of a certain size and speed, i.e., hares. Second, lynxes are not part of the environment of moose while they are of hares, because of biological differences between moose and hares. (Lewontin 64).

(While the first sentence may seem cryptic, I think the different “statistical pattern of environment” is illustrated by the moose: moose are physically in the same environment as the lynx and hare, but play no part in lynx/hare biology. In this sense, the lynx and hare have constructed an environment with no moose in it.)

It seems that, to Lewontin, evolutionary arms races are a form of niche construction: the environment of the lynx, which includes the hare, evolves because of the lynx. While this example may seem trivial, Lewontin’s portrayal of the scenario lends it a new light as coevolution – one species indirectly constructs the other –  but RA Fisher [3] may have agreed with him already:

Just where does the theory of natural selection place the creative causes which shape evolutionary change? In the actual life of living things; in their contacts and conflicts with their environments, with the outer world as it is to them; in their unconscious efforts to grow, or their more conscious efforts to move (Fisher 17).

“Contacts and conflicts with their environments, with the outer world as it is to them” sounds an awful lot like the different “statistical pattern of environment” argument from Lewontin. Fisher even gives a similar example to illustrate his point:

The timid antelope has played its part in the creation of the lion, and species long extinct must have left indelible memorials in their effects on species still surviving. Who knows if the mammals would ever have evolved, but for the creative activity of the dinosaurs! (Fisher 18-19).

This example is almost exactly the same one given by Lewontin, only 33 years earlier.

At this point, I doubt there was an intellectual link between Lewontin’s niche construction and Fisher’s proto-niche construction (and “proto” may even be too strong of a prefix). However, I don’t know how widespread Fisher’s antelope/lion argument was at the time – was this an original thought by Fisher or was he articulating a belief held widely by other biologists?

Whatever the case, the evolutionary theory we have inherited didn’t incorporate the ideas of niche construction. For example, Lewontin argues that the adaptive landscape completely changes when we take into account niche construction – populations no longer “climb mountain peaks” but are “walking on trampolines;” frequency-dependent selection becomes the norm, rather than a “complication of marginal interest” (Lewontin 65). So it seems that in the end, even though Fisher had some idea of niche construction, he didn’t transmit those ideas in any meaningful way as a founder of population genetics.

I am not trying to establish too much here or make any grandiose claims. I just wanted to point to an example of how being well-read in the history of science (not that I am particularly well-read… yet) helps you make links between various lines of thought from different historical periods. It makes your science much richer when you know the intellectual history of the science itself.


[1] Lewontin, Richard. “Gene, Organism and Environment.” In Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution, edited by Susan Oyama, Paul E. Griffiths, and Russell D. Gray, 59-66. Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2001.

[2] Dobzhansky, Theodosius. “Chance and Creativity in Evolution.” In Studies in the Philosophy of Biology: Reduction and Related Problems, edited by Francisco José Ayala and Theodosius Grigorievich Dobzhansky, 307-38. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.

[3] Fisher, Ronald Aylmer, Sir. “Creative Aspects of Natural Law.” In The Eddington Memorial Lecture: Cambridge University Press, 1950.

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