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Evolution and LearningReview - Evolution and Learning
Baldwin Effect Reconsidered
by Bruce.H. Wallace and David Drewpew (Editors)
MIT Press, 2003
Review by Keith S. Harris, Ph.D.
Jun 30th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 27)

This is not a book designed to appeal to the casual reader.  Most, if not all, of the issues that concern the book's contributors are domain-specific – that is, a substantial degree of knowledge about the more subtle aspects of evolutionary theory (esp. the Modern Synthesis) is presumed.  The general reader will may find this collection challenging.  And yet, that said, simply playing with the ideas and nuances of the various ideas in this book, readers of differing backgrounds may find out that they can expand their notions of what evolutionary theory – standard or synthesized – is all about.

It should be noted at the start that JM Baldwin was not some minor character of a now-dusty past.  Despite academia's tendency to associate Baldwin's ideas with the repeatedly-discredited Lamarckian ideas of previous century, James Mark Baldwin (1861-1934) was undoubtedly an important pioneer in the field of developmental psychology.  The value of his theorizing, as well as that of his contemporary, Lloyd Morgan, has been roundly discounted by respected scholars only to be more recently resurrected by scientists and philosophers for their own purposes.

A founding member of the American Psychological Association in 1892, he became its sixth President in 1897, and was a founder of the journal Psychological Review as well.  Most relevant to current interest in his work, Baldwin became known within psychological circles for his attempts to apply the relatively new theory of evolution to the development of infants and children.

In addition to (or perhaps in spite of) his association with Larmarckism, Baldwin was a well-respected psychologist and a major proponent of experimental psychology in the U.S. in his time, especially promoting research involving child development.  (His experiments with children included work with his own daughter, Elizabeth.)  Baldwin maintained, as did the major advocates of behaviorism in those times, that the experimental method, relatively new to psychology, could and should be applied in the field of child development.  However, Baldwin reached substantially different conclusions about human nature than did the behaviorists.  While major figures such as J.B. Watson refused to consider "the mind" as relevant to human development (see e.g., Baldwin, 1930) at all, Baldwin himself decided that the mind is central to development.  The importance of the concept of mind is obvious in much of his work, including a book he specifically titled, The Story of the Mind, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1905).

The very term, "The Baldwin Effect," has often been taken simply to imply (in a Lamarckian fashion) that what is learned by one generation can change the evolutionary processes leading to subsequent generations.  As one of the editors of this volume describes it, "The general thrust of the idea is [that] under some conditions, learned behaviors can affect the direction and rate of evolutionary change by natural selection" (p. 3).

However, it never occurred to Baldwin himself that his theories might be seen as contradicting or fundamentally challenging Darwinian evolutionary theory (as it was then conceived); he believed his thoughts complemented Darwin's.  However, in part because Baldwin's theory later became associated with the by-then discredited Lamarckian theory, it was discounted by well-respected thinkers of the post-Modern Synthesis era such as Dobzhansky and Mayr.  (It should be noted, however, that Julian Huxley, who helped introduce what is known as the Modern Synthesis in the early 1940s, was in general agreement with the possibility of a so-called Baldwin Effect; see Huxley, J., Evolution: The Modern Synthesis. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942.)

While it might seem Lamarckian at first blush (e.g., a baby giraffe's neck is lengthened due to of the neck-stretching of her parents), it involves a much more precise and complex set of ideas.  Although a summary of these ideas can only be inadequate, it might go like this:

  1.  The initially random behaviors of individuals in their environments can be selectively reinforced due to environmental conditions – a process that Baldwin called "ontogenetic adaptation."

  2.  These adaptations can shape inherited instincts to coincide with the relevant environmental conditions.

  3.  These adaptations further improve the organisms' likelihood of survival and procreation in their particular niches.

  4.  In some (presumably more advanced) species, ontogenetic adaptations can further be culturally enhanced, and indeed these enhancements can continue to appear until "germinal elements" happen to coincide with their presence and influence them to "turn into congenital instincts" (p. 7).

It is, again, noteworthy to remember that Baldwin considered himself a true Darwinian, and none of this process was thought to in any way distract from or interfere with the processes of Darwin's understanding of natural selection.  However, the author of one chapter, Stephen Downes, also points out that Baldwin was also "an unabashed progressivist," meaning that he saw "the perfection of the human mind and brain to the be culmination of evolution…was interested in promoting the role of conscious intelligence in directing evolution without collapsing into a Lamarckian view" (p. 37).

The current volume, Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered, collects a variety of opinions from scholars and scientists about the meaning and current value of Baldwin's ideas.  According to the editors, "One goal of this volume is to bring together historical and philosophical analyses of what was originally proposed, how it was modified and redefined over time, and what it might mean in contemporary evolutionary theory" (p. ix).

Because of this approach, there is really no main consensus around which to gather the various articles, and the editors divided the book divided the contributions into three main sections:  "Baldwin Boosters and Baldwin Skeptics," in which the primary focus is simply whether or not there is anything of value in Baldwin's work worth carrying forward; "Baldwinism and Development," in which the Baldwin's work on development is reviewed and critiqued; and "Beyond Baldwinism," in which the Baldwin's work is updated with what has been learned since his time about mechanisms from molecular to behavioral.

Because of the (perhaps somewhat unexpected) popularity among lay readers of his most recent book (Freedom Evolves, New York: Viking Books, 2003), it is also worth mentioning that among the many contributors to the current volume is the American philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1995) (and other works supportive of Baldwin's ideas, such as Consciousness Explained, New York: Little Brown & Co., 1991), who perceives the Baldwin Effect as part and parcel of the process of evolution.  In fact, Dennett is featured in two chapters in Evolution and Learning; in one of these chapters he is sole author, and in another he provides one thread of a three-way conversation (debate?). 

In summary, this is a very useful collection of essays for those who do not yet believe that all the arguments about specific evolutionary processes have been settled.  For the casual reader, much of the subtlety of the debates will be difficult to follow.



·        Review of Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett by George Graham, Ph.D. on Jun 17th 2003


© 2004 Keith Harris

Keith Harris, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and supervises the research section of the Department of Behavioral Health, San Bernardino County, California. His interests include the empirical basis for psychotherapy research (and its design), human decision-making processes, and the shaping of human nature by evolutionary forces.


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