Niche construction, innovation and complexity

Kevin Neville Laland, Cara Louise Evans, Neeltje Boogert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)


Niche construction is the process of environmental modification by organisms. By transforming natural selection pressures, niche construction generates feedback in evolution at various different levels. Niche-constructing species play important ecological roles by creating habitats and resources used by other species and thereby affecting the flow of energy and matter through ecosystems (ecosystem engineering) and can be a source of legacy effects to descendant populations (ecological inheritance). Niche construction theory (NCT) emphasizes how acquired characters play an evolutionary role through transforming selective environments, a point germane to human evolution, where we see extensive environmental modification through cultural practices. Theoretical findings stemming from population-genetic and population-ecology modelling of niche construction suggest that niche construction can be a source of evolutionary innovation and stability, and can generate unusual evolutionary dynamics, such as time-lagged (i.e. inertia, momentum) and autocatalytic responses to selection, and coevolutionary feedback between levels (e.g. gene-culture coevolution). Similar dynamics are predicted in analogous cultural systems subject to human niche construction. Here we present an accessible introduction to NCT and then briefly reflect on how it might be used to study human innovation and complex systems.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-86
JournalEnvironmental Innovation and Social Transitions
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2013


  • Cultural niche construction
  • Ecological inheritance
  • Evolutionary economics
  • Legacy effects
  • Societal transition


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