In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Niche Construction

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Memetics, Cultural Evolution, and Niche Construction
  • Niche Construction, Boundary Objects, and Material Culture

Anthropology Niche Construction
Emily A. Schultz
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0267


Niche construction is a concept that originated in evolutionary biology. It challenges the assumption that ecological niches are empty, pre-existing environmental spaces into which passive organisms must be fitted through adaptive natural selection. Niche construction theory argues that organisms construct their own niches when they actively select features of their current environment on which to rely, thereby influencing the selection pressures they encounter. Niche construction was developed after 1975, during a period when sociobiology had gained popularity among evolutionary theorists, with claims that all features of organisms, from anatomy to social behavior, could be explained in terms of natural selection on genes. Organisms, indeed, were disappearing as agents in evolutionary narratives. By the mid-1980s, however, sociobiological narratives were facing challenges. Perhaps the most successful were mounted by evolutionary theorists who borrowed mathematical models from population biology and used them to explore how Darwinian selection might operate on units of culture as well as on genes. During this period, the original writings on niche construction were also re-examined, and ways were sought to model the process mathematically. These efforts led to the publication in 2003 of the landmark text Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, by John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman. This volume has since become widely influential, not only among theorists of biological and cultural evolution but also among scholars in fields such as ecology and developmental biology, as well as in the human sciences. In anthropology, archaeologists and biological anthropologists in particular have found niche construction theoretically helpful for explaining such phenomena as our ancestors’ ability to outlast other hominin species in the Pleistocene, our success in domesticating plants and animals after ten thousand years ago, and our dramatic remaking of global landscapes and species distributions in what has been called the Anthropocene. As a result, work on niche construction is coming to intersect in provocative ways across the subfields of anthropology with work by sociocultural anthropologists interested in areas such as environmental anthropology, material culture, and multispecies ethnography.

General Overviews

It is helpful to situate the genesis of niche construction within the context of theoretical debates in evolutionary biology that gave rise to it. These are set out by Lewontin 1983, whose author coined the term “niche construction,” and by Levins and Lewontin 1985; Lewontin’s views are more fully developed in Lewontin 2000 (see also The Origins of Niche Construction Theory in Theoretical Biology). Some of this history, and much else besides, is brought together in the pivotal text Odling-Smee, et al. 2003. An informal introduction to niche construction may be found in the conversation between the authors of Laland and Burghardt 2017. A central goal of niche construction theory, as developed by Odling-Smee, et al. 2003, was to develop a formal theoretical approach that would connect evolutionary biology and ecology. A recent assessment of the value of this work is found in Albuquerque, et al. 2019. A fuller discussion of niche construction theory in evolutionary biology may be found in Laland 2020.

  • Albuquerque, U. P., A. Luiz Borba do Nascimento, L. da Silva Chaves, et al. 2019. A brief introduction to niche construction theory for ecologists and conservationists. Biological Conservation 237:50–56.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.06.018

    A short introduction to niche construction theory aimed at ecologists and conservationists, in order to show how it extends the modern evolutionary synthesis and to demonstrate its value for ecological studies and conservation practices.

  • Laland, K. 2017. Defining niche construction. Extended Evolutionary Synthesis.

    Laland defines niche construction on a website linked to research promoting the extended evolutionary synthesis, of which niche construction is a key component. Other materials located at this site explore a variety of events, news, and projects associated with the extended evolutionary synthesis.

  • Laland, K. 2020. Niche construction. In Oxford Bibliographies in Evolutionary Biology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A detailed introduction to niche construction as it is understood and used within the field of evolutionary biology, written by one of the key scholars responsible for the development of the concept.

  • Laland, K., and G. Burghardt. 2017. Deconstructing niche construction: A conversation between Kevin Laland and Gordon Burghardt. This View of Life.

    This dialogue allows Laland to explain the relevance of niche construction to evolutionary theory. It was published on the website of the Evolution Institute, an organization that describes itself as “a non-profit think tank with a global presence. Our mission is to provide science-based solutions for today’s most pressing issues in order to improve quality of life.”

  • Levins, R., and R. Lewontin. 1985. The dialectical biologist. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A classic collection of essays by an evolutionary geneticist and an ecologist that includes a chapter in which the concept of niche construction is elaborated.

  • Lewontin, R. 1983. Gene, organism, and environment. In Evolution from molecules to men. Edited by D. S. Bendall, 273–286. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    An early statement by Lewontin of the role organisms play in constructing their own niches.

  • Lewontin, R. 2000. The triple helix. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A more recent, elaborated discussion of Lewontin’s perspective, in which the organism is a key player, along with genes and the environment, in shaping the evolutionary process.

  • Odling-Smee, J., K. Laland, and M. Feldman. 2003. Niche construction: The neglected process in evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    A rich, transformative text which brings together and evaluates a wide variety of evidence and debate from evolutionary biology and ecology, in order to argue in favor of an extended evolutionary synthesis in which niche construction is fully recognized as a selective process alongside natural selection.

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