I threatened you with niche construction

And I followed through! I kept it short, though, so it won’t hurt too much.


  1. hemidactylus says

    Though had some relevant technical points it kinda fell flat and took all the joy out of it for me. No plant allelopathy? No beaver dams? No lactase persistence? I think part of the allure of niche construction is that is an ersatz inheritance system in its own right where future generations inherit the products of the past generation. Odling-Smee calls it “ecological inheritance”. A crude example is parents bequeathing a house or other “inheritance” to offspring, which is a source of societal inequity, but is still a factor in mitigating obstacles to survival and reproduction in those offspring. That could be extended into a noxious socially Darwinian (versus eugenic) direction if that sort of inheritance isn’t capped. I suppose those burrowing critters you discuss could inherit the fruits of previous generation’s labor.

    I am rereading Thomas Huxley on ethics and evolution and he uses an apt metaphor of a walled garden to differentiate cultivated human artifice from the state of nature. Jordan Peterson could benefit. In horticulture one expends energy to cut against the grain of nature and keep the ornamentals from succumbing to the encroachment of the better suited weeds. That could be twisted into a eugenic argument that Huxley nips in the bud, but it also works to show how a social group could cultivate a means to buffer itself from the harsh elements (not by consciously breeding itself). This buffer would be heritable in a nongenic sense. Huxley’s eventual point will be to counter an appeal to nature (lobster posture), but that’s beside the point. Society ideally walls people off from the red in tooth and claw world. It counters some selection pressures.

    Plants buffer themselves from competition through noxious chemicals and leaf fall. See Aussie pine. Beavers modify waterways. Some animals burrow. Watership Down? Humans herded cattle and some started making milk more tolerable with products such as yogurt and cheese and eventually were able to tolerate lactose as adults. Is that where you will go in the next lecture?

  2. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Thank you PZ. Felt like an article in Scientific American or American Scientist. I could see your point without being a biologist, only a chemist. Watch you next week.

  3. wajim says

    Another excellent video (but no college credit, huh? Okay, I guess . . .). That is, as a poet me learn-d very much. (That sudden edit to your full screen mug activated my fight or flight response a bit, though, but I huffed some inert gas for ten seconds and was fine.) If only Stormy Daniels could read the text you’d (or I’d, really) be fine. Seriously, but for some reason I hope to dream about as some sort of explanation, I keep coming back. Keep going. You’re strangely addictive.

  4. John Morales says

    Over 5 minutes in, and the only mention about niche construction so far is that it’s not a revolutionary concept. Which is fine in this case since I trust PZ — but ordinarily I would by now have zotted forward to see if there’s any actual meat on the video.

  5. hemidactylus says

    @4 John

    I think PZ undersold the concept or he could have done better to steel-person it. In reading stuff about the extended synthesis that’s mostly trying to bring disparate post Modern Synthesis stuff together into a somewhat over-hyped framework, the one topic that gave me pause and made me say hmmmm… was niche construction. The point about inheriting improvements in ecological conditions of existence seemed lost in PZ’s portrayal. Not that I entirely buy the extragenic inheritance part. Memetics makes a mountain out of a flawed analogic molehill for instance. But it is arguable that organisms can do stuff that bootstraps future generations via passing along changed environments.

  6. chigau (違う) says

    I really enjoyed nodding along with this one.
    Thanks, PZ.
    (wearing the eye-glasses is not good)

  7. billyjoe says


    I think the idea is to approach any one person’s take on a subject without any preconceived ideas about what you expect to find included or excluded. In 15-20 minutes not every single aspect (i.e. inheritance of niches) – and every single example (ie plant allopathy, beaver dams, lactase) can be included. In fact, PZ Myers did mention that a lot needed to be excised from the video. So there was more there than reached the final cut.

    Not that it is entirely possible to do that. For example, I expected more of a deconstruction of the arguments in support of EES. And, interestingly, John Morales expected, or would have preferred, less. On the other hand, I’m glad neither beaver dams nor lactase persistence were used as examples, because both have been done to death. I was actually happy to see some less common examples.

    And, in the end, I’m not unhappy how EES was dealt with. What better way to show how misguided EES is than to show how easily modern evolutionary theory accommodates epigentics, plasticity, and niche construction. It’s a positive rather than a negative attack showing how evolutionary biology is doing just fine. On the other hand, I wouldn’t mind seeing Shapiro and Pigliucci dissected in a future video.

  8. billyjoe says


    “But it is arguable that organisms can do stuff that bootstraps future generations via passing along changed environments”

    But the point is that it is all these mechanisms – epigentics, plasticity, niche construction – are programmed into the genome. The genome codes for these mechanisms,and these mechanisms, in turn, speed up evolutionary change. But, epigentics, plasticity, and niche construction can effect only short term phenotypic changes in response to short term changes or fluctuations in the environment. For evolutionary change, there has to be changes in the genome.

  9. hemidactylus says


    It may be overreaching wordplay that hyperextends the niche construction concept beyond an acceptable limit, but Odling-Smee in his contribution “Niche Inheritance” to the book Evolution edited by Massimo Pigliucci & Gerd B. Müller says:

    ““The Earth’s aerobic atmosphere is a monument to the potency of bacterial niche construction.”

    That’s pretty damn profound if so. Organisms, such as beavers, can construct the conditions of existence for other species. Another more mundane example than terraforming by cyanobacteria would be human habitations providing shelters and sustenance for rats and other pests. Or gopher tortoises providing convenient burrows for frogs, snakes and many other commensals. So organisms can set up shop for themselves in a limited modest sense (allelopathy) or alter the environment for organisms other than themselves in a slight (earthworms altering soil in short term) or earth shattering (cyanobacterial terraforming) manner. We benefit from cyanobacterial legacy bequeathed to us. Thanks. Bacteria are underrated.

    But by explaining too much the concept might get out of hand. It is a perspective shifting thing as I think PZ had said. But is it solid in its foundations? Is it a distorting bum steer?


  10. unclefrogy says

    another good one, PZ. each one is getting better than the previous one.
    I think I get the point of this one . It is all the things effecting how an organism expresses its DNA in concert with all the external influences and and in tern influences the external .
    There is no single thing driving evolution all the influences are in play all the time, while it might be useful to think of influences separately in reality they exist in concert to produce the individual today.
    uncle frogy

  11. billyjoe says


    It’s not just wordplay. Proponents of the EES want to move away from the gene-centered view, even though the gene-centered view underlies all the features that they believe cry out for a dramatic reappraisal of how evolutionary biologist should think about evolution. The MS has been accommodating all those interesting features enumerated by EES proponents for decades. In fact, all the way back to Darwin – who actually first studied those niche-creating earth worms that you mentioned.

    It all comes back to the genome. The genome codes for regulatory proteins that are the basis for epigenesis and epigenetics. Plasticity is coded for in the genome, and that code got there by ordinary Darwinian mechanisms – plasticity increased the chances of survival in rapidly changing environments. Same with niche construction. There is no evidence that environmentally induced changes in the so-called “epigenome” has been responsible for any evolutionary change.

  12. billyjoe says


    Yes, including the environment external to the gene, such as other genes; including the environment external to the nucleus such as the contents of the cytoplasm especially epigenetic factors; the environment external to the cell, such as other cells of the same or different type (especially during epigenesis), hormones, chemicals, toxins, and drugs; the environment external to the organism including climate, geology, and other organisms of the same or other species. And yes, all these interactions are reciprocal.

  13. John Morales says

    Ignoring billyjoe’s inane waffling, I did think the video got bit abstract towards the end.
    Good, but.

    Hemidactylus, the Great Oxygenation Event did come to mind as I watched that last bit.

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