Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Cultural Niche Construction

I recently attended a workshop on Cultural Niche Construction organized by Kevin Laland and Mike O’Brien. About 15 researchers gathered at the Konrad Lorenz Institute, just outside Vienna, Austria, to discuss a variety of topics related to Niche Construction Theory (NCT). As described in Post & Palkovacs 2009, NCT is similar to eco-evolutionary dynamics in that it recognizes the bi-directional interactions between the environmental modification caused by populations and the subsequent evolution of that (and other) populations. Some subtle differences in emphasis and terminology exist between eco-evolutionary dynamics (as studied by evolutionary ecologists) and NCT (as studied by animal behaviorists and anthropologists), and these differences generated much lively discussion.

After ironing out our differences (or deciding to shelve them so we could move along), the main topic of the meeting focused on the role of culture in shaping the ecology and evolution of animals and humans. Talks covered a huge variety of fascinating topics, including ecosystem engineering, social structure, tool use, and the origins of agriculture and public health institutions. In one fascinating example, crows from the island of New Caledonia have learned to use tools to obtain food in the wild and solve a variety of puzzles contrived by researchers. This culturally transmitted ability to make and use tools appears to have shaped the evolution of beak morphology in this species. And human evolution has undoubtedly been impacted by cultural practices. One example is the domestication of plants and animals, which emerged as a shared arena of interest for those focused on the evolution of humans, those focused on the genetics of domestication, and those (like myself) focused on the broader ecological implications of domestication as a special case of human-induced evolution.

An important aspect of this workshop was also experiential education. So, after learning about the relatedness of the world’s grape cultivars, we were forced to put our new knowledge to good use. Prost!

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