Evolutionary Ecology

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 307–324 | Cite as

Neo-Darwinism, niche construction theory, and the initial domestication of plants and animals

  • Bruce D. SmithEmail author
Original Paper


The initial domestication of plants and animals and the subsequent emergence of agricultural economies, which began independently more than 10,000 years ago in a number of different world regions, represent a major evolutionary transition in earth history. It is these domesticates, and the agricultural economies based on them, that have formed the lever with which humans have substantially modified the earth’s terrestrial ecosystems over the past ten millennia. General explanations for this transition from hunting and gathering to food production economies formulated over the past 40 years have been based on standard evolutionary theory (SET) and employ the assumption of unidirectional adaptation—that environments change and species adapt. Here I compare these proposed SET—based externalist explanations for domestication with a recently formulated alternative developed from niche construction theory (NCT). Archaeological and paleoenvironmental records from two independent centers of domestication in the Americas—eastern North America and the Neotropics of northern South America, are found to support the NCT-based explanatory approach but not the SET explanations, underscoring the limitations of externalist SET approaches and the need for broader conceptualization of the processes that direct evolutionary change in order to gain a better general understanding of initial domestication as well as other major evolutionary transitions.


Domestication Origins of agriculture Niche construction theory Standard evolutionary theory Neo-Darwinism 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland (outside the USA) 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural HistorySmithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Santa Fe InstituteSanta FeUSA

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