Tag Archives: niche construction

Interviews at the Lisbon Summer School on Evolution

These interviews were conducted at the 2013 International Summer School on Evolution which was organized by the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in collaboration with Ciência Viva, and held at Ciência Viva’s Pavilion of Knowledge in Lisbon, Portugal.

In the following first video I was interviewed on Philosophy of Biology, the Extended Synthesis, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Niche Construction, Macroevolution, Symbiogenesis and the Gaia Hypothesis and Niche Construction.

In the second video the School teachers were asked to give their definition of evolution: these were Bruce Lieberman, Folmer Bokma, Michael Arnold, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Ilya Tëmkin, Mónica Tamariz, Marion Blute, Fiona Jordan, Michael Ruse, Derek Turner, Frédéric Bouchard, Emanuele Serrelli and Nathalie Gontier. The AppEEL You Tube channel features full interviews with these and other scholars.

See the post on my and Nathalie’s course: Modeling sociocultural evolution.

More info can be found at:

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  • Ciência Viva Ciência Viva Knowledge Pavilion
  • Centre for Philosophy of Science of the University of Lisbon
  • Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon
  • University of Lisbon

Modeling sociocultural evolution

Summer2013, July: Emanuele Serrelli teaches (with Nathalie Gontier) Modeling sociocultural evolution at the 1st International Summer School on Evolution, Ciencia Viva Knowledge Pavilion, Lisbon, Portugal. The program is also on Academia.edu.


Course Description

In recent years, the classic humanity and life science departments have seen a fast rise of new fields such as Evolutionary Anthropology, Evolutionary Sociology, Evolutionary Linguistics and Evolutionary Psychology. These new fields primarily examine how Natural Selection Theory can be universalized to explain the origin and evolution of human cognition, culture or language. A consequence is that scholars active in dual inheritance theories, gene-culture co-evolutionary theory, memetics, or the units and (multiple) levels of selection debate, are actively seeking what the adaptive benefits are of sociocultural traits; what the sociocultural analogs are of genes; and which sociocultural selective pressures or levels of sociocultural selection can be distinguished.

We, on the contrary, will explore how biological evolutionary theories that are associated with the Extended Synthesis can be extended and implemented into studies on human, sociocultural and linguistic evolution.

In biology, theories of symbiosis, symbiogenesis, horizontal and lateral gene transfer have demonstrated that the transmission of traits does not necessarily follow a linear and vertical pattern of descent. In sociocultural evolution too, the transmission of traits is multidirectional, and often occurs through horizontal transmission.

Punctuated equilibria theory has proven that evolution is not necessarily gradual, and scholars active in the fields of archeology and anthropology also point out periods in human evolution that are characterized by cultural stasis which are intermitted by rapid sociocultural change.

Phenotypic plasticity and niche construction theory are currently redefining how we should perceive the interaction between biological organisms and their environments. Rather than being passive entities that undergo selection by an active environment, biologists are currently investigating how organisms partly construct their niche and how organisms are able to demonstrate plasticity towards changing environments. These theories too provide new means by which we can conceptualize sociocultural evolution.

Day-by-Day Program

Lecture 1: Sociocultural Evolution Studies and Applied Evolutionary Epistemology (Emanuele & Nathalie)

  • Dawkins, R. 1983 Universal Darwinism. In Hull, D.L. & Ruse, M. (eds.) The philosophy of biology. New York: Oxford University Press: 15-35. [First published in Bendall, D.S. (ed.) 1998 Evolution from molecules to man. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press: 403-25.]
  • Campbell, D.T. 1997 From Evolutionary Epistemology via Selection Theory to a Sociology of Scientific Validity. Evolution and Cognition 3: 5-38.
  • Mesoudi A, Whiten A, Laland KN 2006 Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:329-383.
  • Gontier N. 2012 Applied Evolutionary Epistemology: A New Methodology to Enhance Interdisciplinary Research Between the Human and Natural Sciences. Kairos, Journal of Philosophy and Science, 4: 7-49.

Lecture 2: Sociocultural Evolution and Universal Symbiogenesis (Nathalie)

  • Gontier N. 2007.Universal Symbiogenesis: a Genuine Alternative to Universal Selectionist Accounts. Symbiosis 44: 167-181.
  • Hird, M.J. Symbiosis, Microbes, Coevolution and Sociology. Ecological Economics, 2008, 10(001): 1-6.
  • van Driem, George (2008). The Origin of Language: Symbiosism and Symbiomism, pp. 381-400 in John D. Bengtson, ed., In Hot Pursuit of Language in Prehistory. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Shijulal NS, List JM, Geisler H, Fangerau H, Gray RD, Martin W, Dagan T 2010 Networks Uncover Hidden Lexical Borrowing in Indo-European Language evolution. Proc R Soc B: doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.1917

Lecture 3: Sociocultural Evolution and Punctuated Equilibria Theory, Stasis, Drift and Rapid (Macro)Evolution (Nathalie)

  • Borgerhoff Mulder M, Nunn CL & Towner M 2006 Macroevolutionary Studies of Cultural Trait Variation: The Importance of Transmission Mode. Evolutionary Anthropology 15: 52-64.
  • Eldredge N 2011 Paleontology and Cornets: Thoughts on Material Culture. Evolution: Education and Outreach 4: 264-373
  • d’Errico F. 2003 The Invisible Frontier: a Multiple Species Model of the Origin of Behavioral Modernity. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 188-202.
  • Bentley RA, Hahn MW & Shennan SJ 2004 Random Drift and Culture Change. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Vol 271. 1443-1450.

Lecture 4: Niche Construction and Cultural Evolution (Emanuele)

Laland, K.N. & Sterelny, K., 2006 Perspective: 7 Reasons (not) to Neglect Niche Construction. Evolution, 60(9), 1751–1762.

  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2011 Niche Construction in the Light of Niche Theory. Ecology Letters, 14(2), 82-90.
  • Laland KN, O’Brien MJ 2010 Niche Construction Theory and Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, December 2010, Volume 17, Issue 4 (monographic issue on niche construction), 303-322.
  • Jeremy Kendal, Jamshid J. Tehrani and John Odling-Smee (2011). Human Niche Construction in Interdisciplinary Focus. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2011 366 (1566, monographic issue on NC), 785-792.

Lecture 5: Phenotypic Plasticity and Niche Construction (Emanuele)

  • Pigliucci, M., 2007. Do We Need an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis? Evolution, 61(12), 2743–2749.
  • Pfennig, D.W. et al., 2010. Phenotypic Plasticity’s Impacts on Diversification and Speciation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25(8), 459–67.
  • Donohue, K., 2005. Niche Construction Through Phenological Plasticity: Life History Dynamics and Ecological Consequences. The New Phytologist, 166(1), 83–92.
  • Panebianco F, Serrelli E (working paper), Niche Construction with “Reaction Norms” and Phenotypic Selection?

Suggested Further Reading

  • Atkinson QD et al. 2008 Languages Evolve in Punctuational Bursts. Science 319 (5863): 588.
  • Ingold, T. 1990 An Anthropologist Looks at Biology. Man, N.S. 25: 208-29.
  • Kylafis, G. Loreau, M., 2008 Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Niche Construction for its Agent. Ecology Letters, 11(10), 1072-81.
  • Gontier N. 2010. Evolutionary Epistemology as a Scientific Method: a New Look Upon the Units and Levels of Evolution Debate. Theory in Biosciences 129 (2-3): 167-182.
  • Gould, Stephen Jay (1991) Exaptation: A Crucial Tool for Evolutionary Psychology. Journal of Social Issues 47(3): 43–65.
  • Smallegange, I.M. & Coulson, T., 2012. Towards a General, Population-level Understanding of Eco-evolutionary Change. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 1–6.
  • Speidel, M. 2000 The Parasitic Host: Symbiosis contra Neo-Darwinism. Pli, The Warwick Journal of Philosophy 9: 119-38.
  • Taborsky, B. & Oliveira, R.F., 2012. Social Competence: an Evolutionary Approach. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 27(12), 679–688.
Teachers at the first Summer School on Evolution, AppEEL, Lisbon, 2013
Instructors at the International Summer School on Evolution, at the Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Lab in the Faculty of Science, University of Lisbon. Left to to right, Derek Turner, Michael Ruse, Frédéric Bouchard, Fiona Jordan, Nathalie Gontier, Marion Blute, Ilya Tëmkin, Luis Villarreal, Frietson Galis, Emanuele Serrelli. From Marion Blute’s blog.


Phenotypic variation in ecological setting

phenotypic-ecological.035Organisms are niche constructors: they impact the environment and modify selective pressures that direct their own evolution as well as that of their non-conspecific fellows in ecological systems at various scales. The theoretical acknowledgement of niche construction has inspired many reflections about the active role of organisms in evolution, often proclaiming a revolutionary theoretical change. But if we look at formal models the claim is not yet justified. Ecologists have specified population-scale models of niche construction, but these cannot be adopted as evolutionary models: they don’t incorporate heritable variation nor allow for directional selection and cumulative change. As evolutionists point out, these models are mere phenotype dynamics or population fluctuations with different possible outcomes – extinction or sustainability. Evolutionary models of niche construction, on the other hand, are not so revolutionary in their foundations, often being just classical population genetics provided with feedback loops between loci and selective pressures acting on them. The idea that variation among organisms boils down to genetic differences captured by gene frequencies dates back to the heart of the Modern Synthesis. But niche construction points directly to the world of physical and chemical interactions. This is the world where resource-impacting phenotypes are built through developmental processes, in turn subject and sensitive to the surrounding environment and the resources left over by previous generations. The produced phenotypes and their effects are hardly summarized by gene frequencies, yet evolutionary models need some kind of heritable variation and selection. The future challenge of evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis is thus ecological, plastic variation that allows for inheritance with varying degrees and not-always-allelic mechanisms.

Session: Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E (2013). Phenotypic variation in ecological setting: a challenge for evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Montpellier, France, July 7-11. [http://hdl.handle.net/10281/46365]


Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis

In 2013 Emanuele Serrelli organized the session “Understanding variation beyond the Modern Synthesis” at the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology Sunday, 7-11 July, Montpellier, France. The session, supported by AppEEL, includes Pablo Razeto-Barry and Davide Vecchi (Instituto de Filosofía y Ciencias de la Complejidad, Santiago, Chile) and Nathalie Gontier (University of Lisbon).

Emanuele’s paper:

Serrelli E (2013). Phenotypic variation in ecological setting: a challenge for evolutionary modeling beyond the Modern Synthesis. Meeting of the International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology (ISHPSSB), Montpellier, France, July 7-11. [BOA] [Ac]

Other talks in the session:

Variation in a world with multiple levels, mechanisms, and units of evolution: The Applied Evolutionary Epistemology Approach
Nathalie Gontier

Scholars working within the units and levels of selection debate have been developing more and more refined heuristics of how evolution by means of natural selection works. A motivation of such endeavor has been the question whether individual organisms are the only, or the most appropriate, units of natural selection, or whether groups, traits, a (set of) genes or behaviors, developmental systems, population, species can also be considered as units of selection. Heuristics based on natural selection have also been applied in order to assess whether evolution by natural selection can occur within phenomena that are traditionally understood to be extra-biological, such as cultural units, artifacts, neural maps, cognitive traits, altruistic rules etc. This abstraction and extension of natural selection to the sociocultural domain, provides a unified scientific methodology that enables scholars to study the evolution of life as well as the evolution of cognition, science, culture and any other phenomenon displayed by living organisms by means of natural selection theory. Today, with the several pleas there exist to extend the Modern Synthesis, evolutionary biologists are acknowledging the importance of mechanisms such as lateral gene transfer, symbiogenesis, drift, etc. Applied Evolutionary epistemology is a methodology that provides more open heuristics to assess how these mechanisms associated with an extended synthesis work, what their units and levels, and where they are active. Associated with this endavour is not only the recognition of multiple units, levels and mechanisms of evolution, but also to acknowledgement that there are different kinds of evolution (the evolution of the brain, of languages, of culture, of niches, etc). This talk takes the debate a step further, asking how important inter-unit, inter-level and inter-mechanism variation is for a general understanding of evolution.

Mutational Lamarckism and the Modern Synthesis view of mutational randomness as conditional independence
Pablo Razeto-Barry and Davide Vecchi
Current evolutionary biology is based on the legacy of the modern evolutionary synthesis (Huxley 1942). Nevertheless, the Modern Synthesis enshrined natural selection as the director of adaptive evolution not by providing evidence that it did, or could, account for observed adaptations (Leigh 1999), but rather by eliminating competing explanations (Mayr 1993). One of the eliminated competitors was Lamarckism, particularly “mutational Lamarckism”, a hypothesis according to which mutations may be directed towards producing phenotypes that improve the performance of the organism in a particular environment. Contrary to this hypothesis, the Modern Synthesis’ view claims that mutations are “random” (Lenski and Mittler 1993, Merlin 2010). Possibly because Lamarckism had largely felt into disrepute several decades before the eventual success of the Modern Synthesis, the precise meaning of the term “random mutation” was never deeply analyzed. However, current evidence of possibly legitimate cases of Lamarckism (Jablonka and Lamb 2005, Koonin and Wolf 2009) has revitalized the interest for clarifying the meaning of the term “random” in this context (Sarkar 2007, Jablonka and Lamb 2005, Millstein 1997, Merlin 2010). In this contribution we aim to analyze previous definitions of random mutations based on the concepts of statistical independence and correlation (e.g., Millstein 1997, Sarkar 2005, Jablonka and Lamb, Merlin 2010) and to show that they are deficient. We argue that the term “random mutation” refers to a triadic rather than dyadic relationship, that neither correlation nor independence are good concepts to formalize the neo-Darwinian concept of genetic randomness, and that as a consequence neither of them is suitable to define mutational Lamarckism. In this contribution we will illustrate our alternative proposal, show a way to formalize the concept of mutational randomness and provide some examples of its application.

A conceptual taxonomy of adaptation in evolutionary biology

The concept of adaptation is employed in many fields such as biology, psychology, cognitive sciences, robotics, social sciences, even literacy and art,1 and its meaning varies quite evidently according to the particular research context in which it is applied. We expect to find a particularly rich catalogue of meanings within evolutionary biology, where adaptation has held a particularly central role since Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859) throughout important epistemological shifts and scientific findings that enriched and diversified the concept. Accordingly, a conceptual taxonomy of adaptation in evolutionary biology may help to disambiguate it. Interdisciplinary researches focused on adaptation would benefit from such a result. In the present work we recognize and define seven different meanings of adaptation: (1) individual fitness; (2) adaptation of a population; (3) adaptation as the process of natural selection; (4) adaptive traits; (5) molecular adaptation; (6) adaptation as structural tinkering; (7) plasticity. For convenience here, we refer to them as W-, P-, NS-, T-, M-, S- and PL-ADAPTATION. We present the seven meanings in some detail, hinting at their respective origins and conceptual developments in the history of evolutionary thought (references are offered for further deepening). However, it is important to point out that evolution researchers seldom if ever refer to a single meaning purified from the others. This applies also to the authors we cite as representatives of one of the seven meanings. In Discussion and Conclusion draw from our work some future perspectives for adaptation within evolutionary biology.

Look for it in the Publications page (with additional links):

Serrelli E, Rossi FM (2009). A conceptual taxonomy of adaptation in evolutionary biology. doi 10.13140/2.1.4366.7209