Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 203–219 | Cite as

Homeostasis and the physiological dimension of niche construction theory in ecology and evolution

  • J. Scott TurnerEmail author
Original Paper


Niche construction theory (NCT) has been represented as a new and comprehensive theory of evolution, one that breaks the constraints imposed by the dominant and largely gene-selectionist standard evolutionary model that is presently mischaracterized as “Darwinian.” I will argue that NCT is not so much a new theory, as it is a fruitful readmission of a venerable physiological perspective on adaptation, selection and evolution. This perspective is closer in spirit and philosophy to the original (and richer) Darwinian idea developed by Darwin himself, and that animated much of the rich late nineteenth century debate about evolution, heredity, adaptation and development, a debate that was largely eclipsed by the early twentieth century emergence of the Neodarwinian synthesis. I will argue that a full realization of the promise of NCT turns on a full understanding of another intellectual revolution of the nineteenth century, Claude Bernard’s conception of homeostasis, a profound statement of the nature of life that has, through the twentieth century, come to be widely misunderstood and trivialized.


Niche construction Physiology Homeostasis Persistent dynamic disequilibrium Cognition Purposefulness Intentionality Adaptation Extended organism 



Part of this article is a précis of a book written with the support of a fellowship from the John C Templeton Foundation. Sponsors of the research that shaped this work also include the Human Frontiers Science Program, the National Geographic Society, the US Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation.


  1. Agutter PS, Wheatley DN (1999) Foundations of biology: on the problem of “purpose” in biology in relation to our acceptance of the Darwinian theory of natural selection. Found Sci 4:3–23CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ayala F (1970) Teleological explanation in evolutionary biology. Philos Sci 27:1–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Benes FM (2000) Emerging principles of altered neural circuitry in schizophrenia. Brain Res Rev 31:251–269CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bennet-Clark HC (1970) The mechanism and efficiency of sound production in mole crickets. J Exp Biol 52:619–652Google Scholar
  5. Blume H (2002) The origin of specious. And why reductionists are winning the Darwin wars. Am Prospect 13:41–44Google Scholar
  6. Boogert NJ, Paterson DM, Laland KN (2006) The implications of niche construction and ecosystem engineering for conservation biology. Bioscience 56:570–578CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cairns-Smith A, Hartman H (eds) (1986) Clay minerals and the origin of life. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  8. Calvi LM, Adams GB, Weibrecht KW, Weber JM, Olson DP, Knight MC, Martin RP, Schipani E, Divieti P, Bringhurst FR, Milner LA, Kronenberg HM, Scadden DT (2003) Osteoblastic cells regulate the haematopoietic stem cell niche. Nature 425:841–846CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Dangerfield JM, McCarthy TS, Ellery WN (1998) The mound-building termite Macrotermes michaelseni as an ecosystem engineer. J Trop Ecol 14:507–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dawkins R (1976) The selfish gene. Oxford University Press, New York, p 224Google Scholar
  11. Dawkins R (1982) The extended phenotype. W H Freeman & Co, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  12. Dennett DC (1995) Darwin’s dangerous idea. Evolution and the meanings of life. Simon & Schuster, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  13. Dick SJ, Strick JE (2005) The living universe. NASA and the development of astrobiology. Rutgers University Press, New BrunswickGoogle Scholar
  14. Dupré J, O’Malley MA (2009) Varieties of living things: life at the intersection of lineage and metabolism. Philos Theory Biol 1:1–25Google Scholar
  15. Dyson F (1999) Origins of life, 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eigen M, Gardiner W, Schuster P, Winkler-Oswatitsch R (1981) The origin of genetic information. Sci Am 244:88–118CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Erwin DH (2008) Macroevolution of ecosystem engineering, niche construction and diversity. Trends Ecol Evol 23:304–310CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. French RM, Messinger A (1994) Genes, phenes and the Baldwin effect: learning and evolution in a simulated population. In: Brooks R, Maes P (eds) Artificial life IV. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  19. Fry I (2000) The emergence of life on earth. A historical and scientific overview. Rutgers University Press, New BrunswickGoogle Scholar
  20. Grafen A (2002) A first formal link between the price equation and an optimization program. J Theor Biol 217:75–91CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Hamilton WD (1972) Altruism and related phenomena, mainly in social insects. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 3:193–232CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Henning BG, Scarfe AC (eds) (2014) Beyond mechanism. Putting life back into biology. Lexington Books, LanhamGoogle Scholar
  23. Hutchinson GE (1957) Concluding remarks. Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol 22:415–427CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Jones CG, Lawton JH, Shachak M (1997) Positive and negative effects of organisms as physical ecosystem engineers. Ecology 78:1946–1957CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Jones CG, Gutiérrez JL, Byers JE, Crooks JA, Lambrinos JG, Talley TS (2010) A framework for understanding physical ecosystem engineering by organisms. Oikos 119:1862–1869CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kavanagh MW (1987) The efficiency of sound production in two cricket species, Gryllotalpa australis and Teleogryllus commodus (Orthoptera: Grylloidea). J Exp Biol 130:107–119Google Scholar
  27. Kylafis G, Loreau M (2008) Ecological and evolutionary consequences of niche construction for its agent. Ecol Lett 11:1072–1081CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Laland KN, Odling-Smee FJ, Feldman MW (1996) The evolutionary consequences of niche construction. A theoretical investigation using two-locus theory. J Evol Biol 9:293–316CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Laland KN, Odling-Smee J, Feldman MW (2000) Niche construction, biological evolution and cultural change. Behav Brain Sci 23:131–175CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Laland KN, Odling-Smee J, Gilbert SJ (2008) Evo-devo and niche construction: building bridges. J Exp Zool 310:549–566CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Laland KN, Odling-Smee J, Myles S (2010) How culture shaped the human genome. Nat Rev Genet 11:137–148CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Laland KN, Sterelny K, Odling-Smee J, Hoppitt W, Uller T (2011) Cause and effect in biology revisited: is Mayr’s proximate-ultimate dichotomy still useful? Science 334:1512–1516CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  33. Laland K, Uller T, Feldman M, Sterelny K, Müller GB, Moczek A, Jablonka E, Odling-Smee J, Wray GA, Hoekstra HE, Futuyma DJ, Lenski RE, Mackay TFC, Schluter D, Strassmann JE (2014) Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Nature 514:161–164CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. Lemischka IR, Moore KA (2003) Interactive niches. Nature 425:778–779CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Lewontin R (1983) Gene, organism, and environment. In: Bendall DS (ed) Evolution from molecules to men. Cambridge University Press, New York, p 273–286Google Scholar
  36. Lewontin RC (2000) The triple helix: gene, organism and environment. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  37. Lovelock JE (1987) Gaia. A new look at life on earth. Oxford University Press, OxfordGoogle Scholar
  38. Margulis L (1967) Origins of life. In: Proceedings of the first conference. Origins of life. Gordon and Breach, Science Publishers, Princeton, New Jersey, p 376Google Scholar
  39. Margulis L, Sagan D (eds) (1997) Slanted truths. Essays on Gaia, symbiosis and evolution. Springer, HeidelbergGoogle Scholar
  40. Matthews B, De Meester L, Jones CG, Ibelings BW, Bouma TJ, Nuutinen V, van de Koppel J, Odling-Smee J (2013) Under niche construction: an operational bridge between ecology, evolution, and ecosystem science. Ecol Monogr 84:245–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mayr E (1982) The growth of biological thought: diversity, evolution, and inheritance. Belknap/Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  42. Mayr E (1988) Essay 2. Cause and effect in biology. In: Mayr E (ed) Toward a new philosophy of biology. Belknap/Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  43. Miller W (2001) The structure of species, outcomes of speciation and the ‘species problem’: ideas for paleobiology. Palaeogeogr Palaeoclimatol Palaeoecol 176:1–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Morel RE, Fleck RE (2006) A fourth law of thermodynamics. Khimiya 15:305–310Google Scholar
  45. Nagel T (1979) Teleology revisited. And other essays in the philosophy and history of science. Columbia University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  46. Nagel T (2012) Mind and cosmos: why the materialist neo-darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford University Press, USACrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Normandin S (2007) Claude Bernard and an Introduction to the study of experimental medicine: “Physical vitalism”, dialectic, and epistemology. J Hist Med Allied Sci 62:495–528CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  48. Odling-Smee FJ (2010) Niche inheritance. In: Pigliucci M, Müller GB (eds) Evolution. The extended synthesis. MIT Press, Cambridge, p 175–207CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Odling-Smee J, Turner JS (2011) Niche construction theory and human architecture. Biol Theory 6:283–289CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Odling-Smee FJ, Laland KN, Feldman MW (2003) Niche construction: the neglected process in evolution. Princeton University Press, PrincetonGoogle Scholar
  51. Odling-Smee J, Erwin DH, Palkovacs EP, Feldman MW, Laland KN (2013) Niche construction theory: a practical guide for ecologists. Q Rev Biol 88:3–28CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Raynaud X, Jones CG, Barot S (2013) Ecosystem engineering, environmental decay and environmental states of landscapes. Oikos 122:591–600CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Schneider ED, Sagan D (2005) Into the cool. Energy flow, thermodynamics and life. University of Chicago Press, ChicagoGoogle Scholar
  54. Schrödinger E (1974) What is life: the physical aspects of the living cell. Mind and matter. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  55. Scott-Phillips TC, Laland KN, Shuker DM, Dickins TE, West SA (2014) The niche construction perspective: a critical appraisal. Evolution 68:1231–1243CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  56. Shapiro R (1986) Origins. A skeptics guide to the creation of life on Earth, HeinemannGoogle Scholar
  57. Sober E (ed) (2006) Conceptual issues in evolutionary biology. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  58. Terenius L (2000) Schizophrenia: pathophysiological mechanisms—a synthesis. Brain Res Rev 31:401–404CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  59. Turner JS (2000) The extended organism. The physiology of animal-built structures. Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  60. Turner JS (2002) A superorganism’s fuzzy boundary. Nat Hist 111(6):62–67Google Scholar
  61. Turner JS (2004a) Extended phenotypes and extended organisms. Biol Philos 19:327–352CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Turner JS (2004b) Gaia, extended organisms, and emergent homeostasis. In: Schneider SH, Miller JR, Crist E, Boston PJ (eds) Scientists debate Gaia. The next century. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 57–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Turner JS (2006) Termites as mediators of the water economy of arid savanna ecosystems. In: Porporato A, d’Odorico P (eds) Dryland ecohydrology. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 303–313CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Turner JS (2007a) Homeostasis, complexity and the problem of biological design. In: Richardson KA, Cilliers P (eds) Explorations in complexity thinking: pre-proceedings of the 3rd international workshop on complexity and philosophy. ISCE Publishing, Mansfield, Massacusetts, pp 131–147Google Scholar
  65. Turner JS (2007b) Signs of design. The Christian Century 124:18–22Google Scholar
  66. Turner JS (2007c) The Tinkerer’s accomplice. How design emerges from life itself. Harvard University Press, CambridgeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Turner JS (2013a) Biology’s second law. Homeostasis, purpose and desire. In: Henning G, Scarfe A (eds) Beyond mechanism. Putting life back into biology. Lexington Books, Lanham, pp 183–203Google Scholar
  68. Turner JS (2013b) Homeostasis and the forgotten vitalist roots of adaptation. In: Normandin S, Wolfe CT (eds) Vitalism and the scientific image in post-enlightenment life science, 1800–2010. Springer, Heidelberg, pp 271–291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Turner JS (2013c) Superorganisms and superindividuality. The emergence of individuality in a social insect assemblage. In: Bouchard F, Huneman P (eds) From groups to individuals. Perspectives on biological associations and emerging individuality. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 219–241Google Scholar
  70. Turner JS, Marais E, Vinte M, Mudengi A, Park W (2006) Termites, water and soils. Agricola 2006:40–45Google Scholar
  71. Wächtershäuser G (1988) Before enzymes and templates: theory of surface metabolism. Microbiol Rev 52:452–484PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  72. Waddington CH (1961) The nature of life. George Allen & Unwin Limited, LondonGoogle Scholar
  73. Walker TJ, Figg DE (1990) Song and acoustic burrow of the prairie mole cricket, Gryllotalpa major (Orthoptera: Gryllidae). J Kansas Entomol Soc 63:237–242Google Scholar
  74. Wilson EO (1971) The insect societies. Belknap/Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  75. Wilson EO (1975) Sociobiology. The new synthesis. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  76. Wilson DS (1989) Levels of selection: an alternative to individualism in biology and the human sciences. Social Networks 11:257–272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Wilson DS (1997) Biological communities as functionally organized units. Ecology 78:2018–2024CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Wolfe CT (2008) Introduction. Vitalism without metaphysics? Medical vitalism in the enlightenment. Sci Context 21:461–463CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  79. Wright JP, Jones CG (2006) The concept of organisms as ecosystem engineers ten years on: progress, limitations, and challenges. Bioscience 56:203–209CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologySUNY College of Environmental Science and ForestrySyracuseUSA

Personalised recommendations