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The Baldwin effect, also known as Baldwinian evolution or ontogenic evolution, is an early evolutionary theory put forward in 1896 in a paper "A New Factor in Evolution" by American psychologist James Mark Baldwin which proposes a mechanism for specific selection for general learning ability. Selected offspring would tend to have an increased capacity for learning new skills rather than being confined to genetically coded, relatively fixed abilities. In effect, it places emphasis on the fact that the sustained behavior of a species or group can shape the evolution of that species. The "Baldwin effect" is better understood in evo-devo literature as a scenario in which a character or trait change occurring in an organism as a result of its interaction with its environment becomes gradually assimilated into its developmental genetic/epigenetic repertoire (Simpson, 1953; Newman, 2002).
Suppose a species is threatened by a new predator and there is a behavior that makes it more difficult for the predator to kill individuals of the species. Individuals who learn the behavior more quickly will obviously be at an advantage. As time goes on, the ability to learn the behavior will improve (by genetic selection), and at some point it will seem to be an instinct.
Baldwin gives the following case involving cooperation: “Animals may be kept alive let us say in a given environment by social cooperation only; these transmit this social type of variation to posterity; thus social adaptation sets the direction of physical phylogeny and physical heredity is determined in part by this factor” (Baldwin, 1896, p. 553).
The appearance of lactose tolerance in human populations with a long tradition of raising domesticated animals for milk production has been suggested as another example. This argument holds that a feedback loop operates whereby a dairy culture increases the selective advantage from this genetic trait, while the average population genotype increases the collective rewards of a dairy culture.
The opposite of the Baldwin effect is 'shielding'[How to reference and link to summary or text]. Modern medicine for example could artificially control a pathogen preventing any genetic immunity against the pathogen from being selected for. Here learned behaviour that improves fitness prevents genetic adaptation.
The Baldwin effect theory has always been controversial, with scholars being split in "Baldwin boosters" and "Baldwin sceptics". There have been a number of arguments against the effect. For example, it has been argued that the change from learning to instinct might not constitute an improvement, because only very stable environments where change is extremely slow would favour innate traits as opposed to the plasticity of learning (especially social learning, which doesn't have such high costs as individual learning by trial-and-error). The very mechanism of the transition has also been questioned, as genetic variations which "tend to decouple [...] behaviour from environmental signals" might be "distant from those genotypes that mediate plastic, learned response".
- Baldwin, Mark J. A New Factor in Evolution. The American Naturalist, Vol. 30, No. 354 (Jun., 1896), 441-451.
- Osborn, Henry F. Ontogenic and Phylogenic Variation. Science, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 100 (Nov. 27, 1896), 786-789.
- Baldwin, Mark J. Organic Selection. Science, New Series, Vol. 5, No. 121 (Apr. 23, 1897), 634-636.
- Hall, Brian K. Organic Selection: Proximate Environmental Effects on the Evolution of Morphology and Behaviour. Biology and Philosophy 16: 215-237, 2001.
- Bateson, Patrick. The Active Role of Behaviour in Evolution. Biology and Philosophy 19: 283-298, 2004.
- Sterelny, Kim. 2004. The Baldwin Effect and Its Significance: A Review of Bruce Weber and David Depew (eds) Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered; MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass 2003, pp x, 341. To appear in: Evolution and Development.
- "Simpson, G Gaylord." 1953 The Baldwin effect; Evolution 7 110–117
- "Newman, Stuart A." 2002 Putting Genes in their place; Journal of Biosciences 27 97-104
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