Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Niche construction, biological evolution, and cultural change

Kevin N. Laland a1, John Odling-Smee a2 and Marcus W. Feldman a3
a1 Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge, Madingley, Cambridge CB3 8AA, United Kingdom
a2 Institute of Biological Anthropology, University of Oxford, Oxford OX2 6QS, United Kingdom
a3 Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-5020


We propose a conceptual model that maps the causal pathways relating biological evolution to cultural change. It builds on conventional evolutionary theory by placing emphasis on the capacity of organisms to modify sources of natural selection in their environment (niche construction) and by broadening the evolutionary dynamic to incorporate ontogenetic and cultural processes. In this model, phenotypes have a much more active role in evolution than generally conceived. This sheds light on hominid evolution, on the evolution of culture, and on altruism and cooperation. Culture amplifies the capacity of human beings to modify sources of natural selection in their environments to the point where that capacity raises some new questions about the processes of human adaptation.

Key Words: adaptation; altruism; cooperation; evolutionary psychology; gene-culture coevolution; human evolution; human genetics; niche construction; sociobiology.