Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The problem with niche construction

Meme researcher Kevin Laland has been doing fine work for many years on what he calls niche construction.

Niche construction is defined here as being:

the process whereby organisms, through their metabolism, their activities, and their choices, modify their own and/or others' niches".

While the work that has been done under the "niche construction" umbrella seems great, I see a problem with it - and the problem is with the name.

According to the dictionary to "construct" something means: "to build or form by putting together parts".

However, "niche construction" is not defined as being an activity involving "construction". It just talks about "modification" - which includes destruction as well as construction. "Niche construction" does not mean what its name says. For me, that is one of the hallmarks of bad terminology.

Environment modification destroys niches as well as creating them. Mushroom rings demonstrate the phenomenon: the mushrooms destroy their own niche my depleting it of nutrients.

I am not the first to point out this terminology problem. Dawkins (2004) says much the same, citing Sterelny (2001). He says:

The problem I have with niche construction is that it confuses two very different impacts that organisms might have on their environments. As Sterelny (2001, p. 333) (29) put it, ‘Some of these impacts are mere effects; they are byproducts of the organisms’s way of life. But sometimes we should see the impact of organism on environment as the organism engineering its own environment: the environment is altered in ways that are adaptive for the engineering organism. Niche construction is a suitable name only for the second of these two (and it is a special case of the extended phenotype). There is a temptation, which I regard as little short of pernicious, to invoke it for the first (byproducts) as well.’ Let’s call the first type by the more neutral term, ‘niche changing’, with none of the adaptive implications of niche construction or – for that matter – of the extended phenotype.

"Construction" is hardly synonymous with "engineering" - but anyway, Richard correctly identifies the basic problem. However, I don't much like his proposal of ‘niche changing’ very much either.

There are various possible alternatives: "niche modification", "ecological modification" and "environmental modification". I tend to use "environmental modification" - since I usually want to distinguish it from changes which organisms make to themselves, and it fits in neatly with the concept of "environmental inheritance". However, "niche modification" is the one that most clearly refers to Laland's concept.

The proponents offer a defense against this specific criticism here - but their defense seems inadequate to me: they defend their science, but not their terminology.

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