2019-04-07 - 2019-04-12 | Research area: EvoDevo Philosophy of Biology History of Biology
Niche construction theory (NCT) is a strand of evolutionary theory that stresses the influence that organismal activities have on natural selection, ecological processes, and biological causality (Laland, Odling-Smee and Endler 2017; Odling-Smee, Laland and Feldman 2003). In the context of recent debates on evolutionary thinking across disciplinary fields, NCT has played an important role within the framework currently known as ‘extended evolutionary synthesis’ (EES; Laland et al. 2015; Müller 2017): its models of (the complexity of) biological evolutionary processes have been widely endorsed to differentiate the global EES proposal from the Modern Synthesis-based ‘standard evolutionary theory’ (SET). Depicted as abstractions of the reciprocal interactions between organisms (O) and environments (E) – in which niche construction (NC) and ecological inheritance (EI) appear as primary conceptual innovations– these models are currently undergoing further elaboration to accommodate the ‘biosocial becomings’ (sensu Ingold and Pálsson 2013) of human groups. Initially adopting the classical anthropological notion of ‘culture’, prominent NCT authors started this work by (re)interpreting well-known cases of niche construction in human populations (e.g. cattle domestication/dairy farming plus lactase persistence in Eurasia) under the label of ‘cultural niche construction theory’, notably in co-authorship with archaeologists (e.g. Laland and O’Brien 2011). At present, other well-known evolutionary archaeologists continue to foster collaborations with EES-oriented evolutionary biologists to refine (c)NCT, at the same time addressing longstanding questions in archaeological theory/practice (e.g. domestication and agricultural origins; see Smith 2016; Zeder 2018).
NCT’s positive reception in other recent archaeological works, not necessarily linked directly to ongoing conversations around NCT and the EES (e.g. Hodder 2012), suggests that earlier conceptual frameworks throughout the history of archaeological theory might have contained proposals whose resemblances to NCT postulates go beyond simple appearance. Historiographically, the ‘origins of NCT’ have been legitimately traced back to the work of Richard Lewontin and Conrad Waddington. In the context of an increasing interest in the EES from scholars in the human/social sciences, would it be possible to establish that past archaeological discourse, in and of itself, has entailed conceptual stipulations that fit NCT to a larger, deeper degree than currently recognized? Which implications could these correspondences have on future refinements of NCT/cNCT, and forthcoming debates around the EES?