, Volume 28, Issue 5, pp 757-766

Causal mechanisms of evolution and the capacity for niche construction

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Abstract

Ernst Mayr proposed a distinction between “proximate”, mechanistic, and “ultimate”, evolutionary, causes of biological phenomena. This dichotomy has influenced the thinking of many biologists, but it is increasingly perceived as impeding modern studies of evolutionary processes, including study of “niche construction” in which organisms alter their environments in ways supportive of their evolutionary success. Some still find value for this dichotomy in its separation of answers to “how?” versus “why?”questions about evolution. But “why is A?” questions about evolution necessarily take the form “how does A occur?”, so this separation is illusory. Moreover, the dichotomy distorts our view of evolutionary causality, in that, contra Mayr, the action of natural selection, driven by genotype-phenotype-environment interactions which constitute adaptations, is no less “proximate” than the biological mechanisms which are altered by naturally selected genetic variants. Mayr’s dichotomy thus needs replacement by more realistic, mechanistic views of evolution. From a mechanistic viewpoint, there is a continuum of adaptations from those evolving as responses to unchanging environmental pressures to those evolving as the capacity for niche construction, and intermediate stages of this can be identified. Some biologists postulate an association of “phenotypic plasticity” (phenotype-environment covariation with genotype held constant) with capacity for niche construction. Both “plasticity” and niche construction comprise wide ranges of adaptive mechanisms, often fully heritable and resulting from case-specific evolution. Association of “plasticity” with niche construction is most likely to arise in systems wherein capacity for complex learning and behavioral flexibility have already evolved.