In the last few decades, there has been an rapid buildup of literature on the evolutionary impacts of niche construction. Broadly speaking, niche construction refers to the way organisms define, alter, and select their environments through their metabolism, cognitive repertoire, and behaviors. Richard Lewontin (1983, 1985 with Levins, 2000, 2001) argues that niche construction undermines the metaphor of adaptation, the idea that organisms adaptively evolve in response to their physical environment through natural selection. The metaphor of adaptation is no longer applicable when niche construction demonstrates that the environment depends on organisms. The goal of this lecture is to clarify the type of independence between organisms and environment assumed in adaptationist thinking, and how niche construction undermines this independence. Most of the subsequent literature has rejected Lewontin's conclusion that niche construction challenges the adaptationist metaphor of natural selection. The current consensus is that environment depends on organisms in two ways. The first, exemplified in Niche Construction Theory (Odling-Smee, Laland, and colleagues), is that the environment causally depends on organisms when the activities of organisms modify the physical properties of the environment. The second, developed by Brandon and colleagues, is that the environment referentially depends on organisms when the identification of the relevant environment references properties of the organisms. These positions admit that the environment is identified in terms of, or causally altered by organisms, but still maintain that organisms respond, by way of natural selection, to the intrinsic qualities of the environment (Godfrey-Smith 1996, 2001). Talk of the dependency between organism and environment can be ambiguous, both in terms of the level of description (individual or population) and types of dependence (casual, conceptual, etc.). I aim to sharpen the debate by arguing that the fundamental independence relation between organisms and environment is the logical relation between variation and selection in natural selection explanations. Adaptationist thinking presupposes that the generation of variations are not biased towards the direction of selection, and that, conversely, the factors that determine selection are not responsive to the variations generated. Indeed, in some circumstances, the aforementioned causal and referential dependences do not influence the independency between variation and selection. However, in other circumstances, more specifically, when individuals vary in the their niche construction abilities, the selective environment depends on the specific variations in the population, violating the independence between variation and selection. Niche construction, in this way, challenges how we understand natural selection.
Lynn Chien-Hui Chiu is currently a dissertation write-up fellow at the Konrad Lorenz Institute and a philosophy PhD student at University of Missouri. Her dissertation project concerns the impact of organism activities and cognitive abilities on natural selection explanations. She has a MA in philosophy from University of Missouri and a MS in psychology from National Taiwan University, with a BS in Life Sciences from National Yang Ming University.