Monday, April 6, 2015

Lewontin: There is no niche without an organism

David Sloam Wilson (DSL) interviews Richard Lewontin (RL) on adaptation and evolution. They start the conversation with the classic article Lewontin co-authored with Stephen Jay Gould, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme”. And then things get interesting. Wilson brings up cultural evolution and Lewontin says, in effect, what's wrong with cultural history? Wison's reply, more or less, is that it covers too; history is everything. It's in that context that Lewontin makes this remark:
RL: But the problem, here, is that it’s a form of adaptation that hasn’t been studied enough in animals and plants, which is that each change in the species changes what we call the environment, so there is a co-evolution of organism and environment. Historical change in our species has been increasingly the consequence of the organism itself. We’re inventing it all. As the brain grew into what we now have, it became the chief mechanism by which organisms constructed their environment. Look, let me interject here. I think it is extremely important to go to a fundamental issue, which is organisms create their own environments. All organisms make their niches. The whole notion of ecological niche is a very bad notion. There are no niches without organisms. This notion that there is a hole in the world that the organism evolves to fill. The organism by its evolution changes the conditions of its life and changes what surrounds it. Organisms are always creating their own hole in the world, their own niche.

DSW: You pioneered the concept of niche construction, which has become a hot topic.

RL: I think that one mustn’t see niche construction as a special issue. There are niches and then there is reconstruction of the niches. My claim is a very strong one and I could be wrong: there is no niche without an organism.
There is no niche without an organism – that seems right to me, and I'd figured that out back in the 1970s. As I put it in this post about patterns, "a niche was a pattern that some organism “traced” or “inscribed” in an environment." A bit later, at the end of the talk:
RL: Oh no, I’m with you! If I could convince people to use that notion of niche, not as a fixed thing, but as something that is manufactured by the organism, I would be very very happy. But when I talk to biologists about it, they’re always surprised.

DSW: It is still a new idea, in part of course because it’s a complex idea. Complexity is complex, it’s hard to study. We’re always trying to keep things simple, even when we should be embracing complexity in some sense.
Yikes! Still a new idea? If that's so, then biologists aren't so sophisticated as I'd thought/hoped.

Just before that, Wilson said this:
History seems to me too broad. Sure everything is history but we’d like to say something more specific. If there is a process of adaptation going on, even if it’s one of rapid niche construction and coevolution, that’s still a more specific set of ideas than just plain history, which really does encompass everything and therefore nothing. Don’t we want to use some of those more specific ideas about adaptation and coevolution and niche construction? That’s more than just history!
OK, "a more specific set of ideas" is a bit vague. But I'll take it.

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