Skip to content

Research at St Andrews

Niche construction, innovation and complexity

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


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

    Research areas

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

Discover related content
Find related publications, people, projects and more using interactive charts.

View graph of relations

Related by author

  1. Animal learning as a source of developmental bias

    Laland, K. N., Toyokawa, W. & Oudman, T., 26 Aug 2019, In : Evolution and Development. Early View, e12311.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  2. Social transmission favours the ‘morally good’ over the ‘merely arousing’

    Stubbersfield, J. M., Dean, L. G., Sheikh, S., Laland, K. N. & Cross, C. P., 4 Jun 2019, In : Palgrave Communications. 5, 11 p., 3.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. The reach of gene-culture coevolution in animals

    Whitehead, H., Laland, K. N., Rendell, L., Thorogood, R. & Whiten, A., 3 Jun 2019, In : Nature Communications. 10, 10 p., 2405.

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

  4. A four-questions perspective on public information use in sticklebacks (Gasterosteidae)

    Webster, M. M., Chouinard-Thuly, L., Herczeg, G., Kitano, J., Riley, R. J., Rogers, S., Shapiro, M. D., Shikano, T. & Laland, K. N., 20 Feb 2019, In : Royal Society Open Science. 6, 2, 24 p., 181735.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

ID: 79465590