Cultural niche construction and human evolution

Kevin Neville Laland, F J Odling-Smee, M W Feldman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

187 Citations (Scopus)


Organisms frequently choose, regulate, construct and destroy important components of their environments, in the process changing the selection pressures to which they and other organisms are exposed. We refer to these processes as niche construction. In humans, culture has greatly amplified our capacity for niche construction and our ability to modify selection pressures. We use gene-culture coevolutionary models to explore the evolutionary consequences of culturally generated niche construction through human evolution. Our analysis suggests that where cultural traits are transmitted in an unbiased fashion from parent to offspring, cultural niche construction will have a similar effect to gene-based niche construction. However, cultural transmission biases favouring particular cultural traits may either increase or reduce the range of parameter space over which niche construction has an impact, which means that niche construction with biased transmission will either have a much smaller or a much bigger effect than gene-based niche construction. The analysis also reveals circumstances under which cultural transmission can overwhelm natural selection, accelerate the rate at which a favoured gene spreads, initiate novel evolutionary events and trigger hominid speciation. Because cultural processes typically operate faster than natural selection, cultural niche construction probably has more profound consequences than gene-based niche construction, and is likely to have played an important role in human evolution.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)22-33
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2001


  • cultural transmission
  • ecosystem engineering
  • gene-culture coevolution
  • human evolution
  • niche construction


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