"Integrating Ecology and Evolution: Niche Construction and Ecological Engineering"

G. Barker and F. J. Odling-Smee. (In Barker et al. eds., Entangled Life: Organism and Environment in the Biological and Social Sciences, Springer, 187-211), 2014

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Abstract: Ecology and evolution remain poorly integrated despite their obvious mutual relevance. Such integration poses serious challenges: evolutionary biologists’ and ecologists’ conceptualizations of the organic world–and the models and theories based upon them–are conceptually incompatible. Work on organism-environment interaction by both evolutionary theorists (niche construction theory) and ecologists (ecosystem engineering theory) has begun to bridge the gap separating the two conceptual frameworks, but the integration achieved has so far been limited. An emerging extension of niche construction theory–ecological niche construction–now promises to achieve a richer integration of evolutionary and ecological conceptual frameworks. This work raises broader philosophical problems about how to choose and combine idealized models of complex phenomena, which can be addressed with the aid of ideas developed by biologists (such as Richard Levins) and philosophers (such as Sandra Mitchell) on the goals and strategies of model-building in the complex sciences. The result is an opening up of new pathways for conceptual change, empirical investigation, and reconsideration of the familiar that has only just begun. Ecological niche construction combines with new developments in evolutionary developmental biology to reveal the need for a deep transformation of the conceptual framework of evolution and the emergence of an integrative biology re-uniting development, evolution and ecology.

This paper was the result of a collaboration formed at the Rotman Institute's first conference. John Odling-Smee and I discovered that our work had been moving in parallel for some time. Thus when John was unable to complete the paper he had planned to contribute to the conference volume, I was able to save the plan for the volume by completing a paper that included material based on John's conference talk, framed within a broader philosophical discussion.