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

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The optimal foraging theory (OFT) family of models is often characterized as being nested within a hierarchy of higher-level evolutionary theory (e.g. behavioral ecology, evolutionary ecology, and neo-Darwinism), from which it draws epistemological support and justification (e.g. Gremillion et al. 2014). It is also identified as comprising a robust, well established, and standard set of principles in biology (Piperno 2006, 2011). Rather than being derived from and supported by higher-level evolutionary theory, however, the concept of optimization (and OFT) was first introduced into biology from microeconomics in the mid-1960 s as a still-to-be-tested hypothesis (MacArthur and Pianka 1966). Over the past 50 years it’s value and viability has frequently been questioned in biology and across a wide range of the behavioral and social sciences (see Smith 2015a for an extended discussion).

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Smith, B.D. Neo-Darwinism, niche construction theory, and the initial domestication of plants and animals. Evol Ecol 30, 307–324 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10682-015-9797-0

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Keywords

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