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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful addition to evolutionary theory, May 28, 2007
This review is from: Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (MPB-37) (Monographs in Population Biology, 37.) (Paperback)
One of the best books I've read on evolutionary processes.

The authors are well place in the academic community. John Odling-Smee (Oxford University), Kevin Laland (St. Andrews University) and Marc Feldman (Stanford University) argue that the ability of organisms to construct habitat which subsequently alters evolutionary pressures upon the constructing organism's gene pool represents a curiously unexplored evolutionary mechanism. They call the process 'niche construction'.

To quote the cover jacket, "Niche construction is the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other's niches. By transforming natural selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in evolution, on a scale hitherto underestimated, and in a manner that alters the evolutionary dynamic. Niche construction also plays a critical role in ecology, where it supports ecosystem engineering and part regulates the flow of energy and nutrients through ecosystems."

The authors argue that classic evolutionary theory lost sight of 'niche construction', favoring an exclusive interest in genetic inheritance and reproduction dynamics (natural selection). Traditionally, scientists have argued that evolution is entirely random and blind to any consequences of genetic mutation. In other words, evolution is not self-referential, the choices of the reproducing individuals have no impact on selection pressures.

The authors vigorously argue against this simplistic model. They argue that niche construction is a fundamental evolutionary process in its own right. In this way individuals offer two legacies to their decendants, their genes and an ecological setting. In establishing their framework, they much more comfortably address issues Dawkins had difficulty answering. For example, the authors show how Dawkin's circular 'selfish gene' and 'extended phenotype' metaphors can easily be dismissed by incorporating niche construction into one's evolutionary theory.

Example cited by the authors include the creation of an oxygen rich atsmophere by plants, beaver dams, wren tool use, yam cultivation by humans, and a host of others.

I suspect the book will have limited short term impact because it makes an already difficult subject even more complex. Few will be happy with its refutation of classic evolutionary theory's convenient solutions to problems of causality. For example, the authors spend a great deal of time with something they call 'semantic information.' "Semantic information is information, typically encoded in DNA, that specifies the adaptations of organisms. It pertains to the life requirements and functioning of organisms in their local environments. Semantic information is accrued primarily through population genetic processes, although it can also be acquired through other processes, for instance, learning. Semantic information is therefore "meaningful" information for organisms in niches. Unlike configurational information, semantic information is incommensurate with binary digits, or BITS."

I'm not sure what this means, but they are equating cultural heritage with genetic heritage. Additionally, their notion of information is outside mathematical modeling. This will certainly be difficult assertion for many to accept.

Since there is currently no editorial reviews, I'll close with more quotes from the dust jacket:

"If the amount of attention warranted by this book is paid to it, the

result should be a massive reorientation of evolutionary theory."

David Hull, Northwestern University

"... a wonderful exploration of this strangely neglected topic,

opening new vistas on how organisms - including humans -

construct ecological niches over evolutionary time...I think this

book is a `must read.'" Robert M.May, University of Oxford

"The sobriquet, `landmark' is casually used to press the virtues of

books, but seldom can it be taken seriously, Niche Construction

really is a landmark book." Richard Lewontin, Harvard University

"This ambitious book tackles a problem of fundamental

importance in science: the whole-hearted synthesis of the

disciplines of ecology and evolution."Robert D. Holt, University

of Florida

"... the first full-length treatment of an intensely absorbing topic

which deserves the close attention of anybody interested in

evolution."Patrick Bateson, University of Cambridge
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Initial post: Oct 16, 2011 8:26:31 AM PDT
Heresiarch says:
I've read Odling-Smee's contribution to the book, Evolution, the Extended Synthesis, where he apparently condenses the ideas presented in this book. Evolution - the Extended Synthesis One implication of niche construction is that natural selection ain't what it's cracked up to be. The role of the environment in shaping phenotypes gets minimized when organisms build their own environments. What's left for the environment to do? It looks more like the creatures are active agents in shaping themselves. Given this and other components of the Extended Synthesis, a Kuhnian revolution in biology seems inevitable.
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