Sunday, June 16, 2013

Niche Construction and Denis Noble

A rough idea of Niche Construction Theory
Denis Noble sends me some fascinating e-correspondence with John Olding-Smee who is one of the key proponents of Niche Construction Theory, a very neat idea which integrated ecology and evolution in an interesting and productive way.  There is a very interesting 2013 paper by Olding-Smee et al called "Niche Construction Theory: A Practical Guide for Ecologists" which gives a helpful overview, and there is a website which has many other helpful resources, and a 2003 book Niche Construction: the neglected process in Evolution. which has a nice commendation from Bob May.

The basic idea is that, in contrast to the implicit assumption in neo-Darwinist discussion that the environment is fixed so you have millions of years for genetic adaptations,  ecological niches are most always constructed/modified by organisms and the niches evolve at a similar pace to the organisms. Therefore it is no good to take a simplistic "gene's-eye view" you have to consider the whole interacting system of genes, organisms, and the niches they create and modify. Interestingly this can be seen as a generalisation of the "Extended Phenotype" idea proposed by Dawkins, except that Dawkins was, and is, so blinkered by his "Selfish Gene" nonsense that he restricts the notion of Extended Phenotype to exclude most of the interesting interactions.

The Niche Construction Theory people explicitly focus on the complex network of co-evolution between organisms and niches and this means that causality is far from straightforward.  It will be very interesting to see whether and how people like Nowak and Tarnita take up these ideas.

It's also pretty notable that none of the Dawkins Defenders have really responded directly to Denis's points - even from the Music of Life let alone his latest work. I've glanced at the list of 417 citations of Music and I can't see anything - more to the point nor is Denis aware. I am however rather pleased to see a paper in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences entitled "Philosophical basis and some historical aspects of systems biology: From Hegel to Noble - Applications for bioenergetic research."

It will be interesting to see whether any of them rise to the challenge of his "Rocking the Foundations" paper when it becomes the basis for his IUPS Presidential Address next month. At present it hasn't really penetrated popular consciousness.  We shall see...

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