Biological Theory

, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 191–202 | Cite as

Cultural Niche Construction: An Introduction

  • Kevin N. Laland
  • Michael J. O’Brien
Thematic Issue Article: Cultural Niche Construction


Niche construction is the process whereby organisms, through their activities and choices, modify their own and each other’s niches. 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—a process often referred to as “ecosystem engineering.” An important emphasis of niche construction theory (NCT) is that acquired characters play an evolutionary role through transforming selective environments. This is particularly relevant to human evolution, where our species has engaged in extensive environmental modification through cultural practices. Humans can construct developmental environments that feed back to affect how individuals learn and develop and the diseases to which they are exposed. Here we provide an introduction to NCT and illustrate some of its more important implications for the human sciences.


Cultural inheritance Cultural niche construction Eco-evolutionary dynamics Ecological inheritance Legacy effects Niche construction 



We extend our deepest gratitude to the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research for helping to sponsor our Altenberg Workshop on Cultural Niche Construction. In particular, we thank Gerd Müller, Werner Callebaut, and Eva Karner for their gracious hospitality and intellectual insights. We also thank Todd VanPool for excellent comments on an early draft of the paper. Our research was supported in part by an ERC Advanced grant to KNL and University of Missouri research funds to MJO.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognitive Research 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of BiologyUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsScotland, UK
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of MissouriColumbiaUSA

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