The way we live: Not as dO/dT= f(O,E); dE/dT=g(E) but as dO/dT=f(O,E); dE/dT=g(O,E)

O is organism (you); dT derivative of time ; E is “environment”; f & g functions of. The message is that environmental changes over time are a function of the Organism and the Environment, not only of E itself: the canonical view. We live and are one of the “niche constructing phenotypes”, Odling-Smee, argued, albeit an “extreme” one. Every organism modifies its environment, but not all build accessories.

I first saw the equations that make the title of this post, when I read Dr Lewontins’ The triple helix” (2000) but they were published-if i remember well- in Lewontin, R.C. 1983. Gene, organism, and environment. In: Evolution from Molecules to Men ed. D.S. Bendall. Cambridge University Press.pp. 273–285. (if not a year earlier in a Plotkin book, but I havent found it, I may be wrong).
Odling-Smee published a 1988 chapter about ‘niche constructing phenotypes’ in: The role of behavior in evolution. Plotkin, H.C. (ed). MIT Press. This consolidated the idea of niche construction and has brought new insights unto our evolutionary history, but of course pinheaded evolutionary biologists roll their eyes and cry wolf.

Laland, Kevin N., Odling-Smee, John and Feldman, Marcus W. (1999) Niche Construction, Biological Evolution and Cultural Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 23 (1):
Building on ideas initially developed by Lewontin (1983), we have previously proposed that biological evolution depends not only on natural selection and genetic inheritance, but also on “niche construction” (Odling-Smee, 1988, Odling-Smee, et al., 1996; Laland et al., 1996a). By niche construction we refer to the same processes that Jones et al. (1997) call “ecosystem engineering”. Niche construction refers to the activities, choices and metabolic processes of organisms, through which they define, choose, modify and partly create their own niches1. For instance, to varying degrees, organisms choose their own habitats, mates, and resources and construct important components of their local environments such as nests, holes, burrows, paths, webs, dams, and chemical environments. Many organisms also partly destroy their habitats, through stripping them of valuable resources, or building up detritus, processes we refer to as negative niche construction. In addition, organisms may niche construct in ways that counteract natural selection, for example by digging a burrow or migrating to avoid the cold, or they may niche construct in ways which introduce novel selection pressures, for example by exploiting a new food resource which may subsequently select for a new digestive enzyme. They may also do both, for instance if counteractive niche construction itself establishes a novel selection pressure by acting on a second trait, for example, when nest building is further elaborated to enhance defence. In every case, however, the niche construction modifies one or more sources of natural selection in populations’ environments, and in doing so generates a form of feedback in evolution that is not yet fully appreciated (Lewontin, 1983; Odling-Smee et al., 1996; Laland et al., 1996a).

A decade and a half later the ideas get facelift, botox and tummytuck:

Philosophical Trans of the Royal Soc. B. Biol. Sciences.
Theme issue ‘Human niche construction’ compiled and edited by Jeremy R. Kendal, Jamshid J. Tehrani and John Odling-Smee. April 12, 2011 Vol. 366, (1566);
Discussion Meeting issue ‘Culture evolves’ organized and edited by Andrew Whiten, Robert A. Hinde, Christopher B. Stringer and Kevin N. Laland; April 12 Vol 366 (1567).

I have always thought RCL ideas are too important. Ill go to the mountains and read the papers over the week, and laugh remembering Dr Lewontin spectacularly bad presentation (with black and white overheads) at my last AAAS symposium (Boston) (he told everyone in the huge room how bad-well, rather pinheaded- evol biologists are… nowadays, which has nothing to do with evolution, CD or anything else.).


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