Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. F. John Olding-Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2003. 468 pp., illus. $75.00 (ISBN 0691044384 cloth).
Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution achieves three objectives. It describes and celebrates the ways organisms profoundly influence their own and others' physical environments; it advocates placing these effects within the context of evolutionary ecology (the ecologies of organisms emerge as adaptations to these feedbacks between the biotic and abiotic); and it suggests a novel worldview. Phenomena such as “ecological inheritance” and abiotic– biotic feedbacks create a kind of coevolution in which the abiotic environment becomes analogous to a living, evolving partner with life. Written by F. John Olding- Smee, Kevin N. Laland, and Marcus W. Feldman, the book is masterly and scholarly in its treatment of niche construction. Its theory for modeling niche construction is less satisfying, at least to me, and the unorthodox aspects of the authors' worldview seem unnecessary and perhaps indefensible. Overall, however, the book is easy to read, highly informative, thoughtful, and provocative.
Reading Niche Construction reminded me of river rafting. Parts of the book flow smoothly, with detailed perspectives on prior work, nice modeling examples, and descriptions of a central role for natural selection in shaping feedbacks between organisms and their environment. In between run the exhilarating rapids of contentious perspectives on new forces of natural selection, Maxwell's Demon (you will have to read the book; this was a new beast for me), and environments adapting to their organisms. Together, these topics add up to a complete conceptual and research package, replete with observations, theory, and predictions.
So what is niche construction? The book shows an excellent appreciation for Jones and colleagues' (1994) ecological concept of “ecosystem engineers,” and for the many ways in which organisms modify their environments. While giving a central role to the evolutionary feedbacks created by ecosystem engineering, the book shows less interest in concepts of environmental feedback taken from evolutionary game theory and adaptive dynamics (Heino et al. 1997). Like other terms in this volume (adaptation, fitness, and niche), the phrase niche construction is sometimes used in an operational sense that conflicts with the definition in the glossary (an immensely useful and important part of the book—keep it handy).
Niche construction broadly includes all of the intentional, adaptive, and collateral effects that organisms have on their own and others' physical environments. The authors highlight these effects in a series of tables in chapter 2. Table 2.2 shows broadscale effects produced by diverse taxa, including the production of oxygen by plants and the weathering of rocks by protists. In tables 2.3–2.7, the animal examples focus on niche construction as an adaptation by which the organism modifies its environment in a manner that is favorable for itself, with collateral positive or negative effects on other organisms (e.g., burrows, nests, and beaver dams). The subdiscipline of habitat selection is charmingly categorized as “relocational niche construction.” Despite the many excellent examples that imply a difference between adaptively intentional and unintentional habitat modifications, the book never fully makes the distinction. Niche Construction provides a nice review of niche concepts; although the glossary defines the niche as the “sum of all natural selection pressures” (complete with a niche function that has unspecified units), the book presents and seems to prefer Leibold's (1995) concepts of the “impact niche” and “requirement niche.”
Given chapter 2's delightful and comprehensive treatment of niche construction as empirical fact, I looked forward in the next chapters to the development of a comprehensive framework for studying the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these modifications. However, chapter 3, which offered examples of modeling niche construction, seemed nevertheless to fall short of providing a theory of niche construction. The use of simple models based on population genetics did not satisfy me. Perhaps this was because the theory, although genetically rigorous, offered little ecological sophistication in terms of such considerations as population sizes and per capita growth rates; or perhaps it reflected my personal bias of solving problems in niche construction with evolutionary game theory. Chapter 8 provided welcome and more sophisticated evolutionary models of niche construction.
Chapters 4 and 5 raise provocative questions such as “How can organisms exist?” and how current theories of Darwinian evolution are wanting. Someone who is dissatisfied and searching for a different or expanded worldview may find inspiration and solace in these chapters. However, as in a carnival funhouse, concepts of natural selection and niche construction seem distorted by their reflection in a wavy mirror. By pushing the idea of ecological inheritance too far, the book seems to go “through the looking-glass,” making the metaphor of ecological inheritance analogous to the biotic inheritance of traits. Perhaps there is something profound and useful in this approach. I missed it, but others may be inspired.
The remaining chapters—until the controversial conclusions in chapter 10—provide smooth sailing, with thoughtful discussion of the applications of niche construction to human cultural evolution, additional modeling, and, much to the authors' credit, serious attention to how a niche-construction approach to evolutionary ecology might produce novel, interesting, and testable predictions.
The final chapter remains true to the book's conceptual thrust, but I found myself drawing quite different conclusions about what an evolutionary ecology of niche construction should look like. A population-genetics approach seems cumbersome and undesirable for addressing a problem that simultaneously includes the coadaptation of multiple traits within the organism, the frequency dependencies that occur within and among species, the direct and indirect coevolutionary processes among species as they modify their environments, and the temporal dynamics of resources and state variables representing the physical environment. For me, game theory provides a modeling tool that simplifies this Gordian knot, a tool that is not addressed in this volume.
Yet I gained much from reading the book, and my mixed reaction to it is biased in part by my own theoretical background. Because Niche Construction is rich in examples and concepts, and provides a richly textured worldview, other readers with different perspectives and biases are likely to debate its conclusions and gain from it in other valuable ways.