In evolutionary biology, the Baldwin effect, a phenotype-first theory of evolution, describes the effect of learned behaviour on evolution. James Mark Baldwin and others suggested during the eclipse of Darwinism in the late 19th century that an organism's ability to learn new behaviours (e.g. to acclimatise to a new stressor) will affect its reproductive success and will therefore have an effect on the genetic makeup of its species through natural selection. Though this process appears similar to Lamarckism, that view proposes that living things inherited their parents' acquired characteristics. The Baldwin effect has been independently proposed several times, and today it is generally recognized as part of the modern synthesis.
The effect, then unnamed, was put forward in 1896 in a paper "A New Factor in Evolution" by the American psychologistJames Mark Baldwin, with a second paper in 1897. The paper proposed a mechanism for specific selection for general learning ability. As the historian of science Robert Richards explains:
If animals entered a new environment—or their old environment rapidly changed—those that could flexibly respond by learning new behaviours or by ontogenetically adapting would be naturally preserved. This saved remnant would, over several generations, have the opportunity to exhibit spontaneously congenital variations similar to their acquired traits and have these variations naturally selected. It would look as though the acquired traits had sunk into the hereditary substance in a Lamarckian fashion, but the process would really be neo-Darwinian.
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 behaviour of a species or group can shape the evolution of that species. The "Baldwin effect" is better understood in evolutionary developmental biology 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 or epigenetic repertoire. In the words of the philosopher of science Daniel Dennett:
Thanks to the Baldwin effect, species can be said to pretest the efficacy of particular different designs by phenotypic (individual) exploration of the space of nearby possibilities. If a particularly winning setting is thereby discovered, this discovery will create a new selection pressure: organisms that are closer in the adaptive landscape to that discovery will have a clear advantage over those more distant.
An update to the Baldwin effect was developed by Jean Piaget, Paul Weiss, and Conrad Waddington in the 1960s–1970s. This new version included an explicit role for the social in shaping subsequent natural change in humans (both evolutionary and developmental), with reference to alterations of selection pressures.
Subsequent research shows that Baldwin was not the first to identify the process; Douglas Spalding mentioned it in 1873.
Initially Baldwin's ideas were not incompatible with the prevailing, but uncertain, ideas about the mechanism of transmission of hereditary information and at least two other biologists put forward very similar ideas in 1896. In 1901, Maurice Maeterlinck referred to behavioural adaptations to prevailing climates in different species of bees as "what had merely been an idea, therefore, and opposed to instinct, has thus by slow degrees become an instinctive habit". The Baldwin effect theory subsequently became more controversial, with scholars divided between "Baldwin boosters" and "Baldwin skeptics". The theory was first called the "Baldwin effect" by George Gaylord Simpson in 1953. Simpson "admitted that the idea was theoretically consistent, that is, not inconsistent with the modern synthesis", but he doubted that the phenomenon occurred very often, or if so, could be proven to occur. In his discussion of the reception of the Baldwin-effect theory Simpson points out that the theory appears to provide a reconciliation between a neo-Darwinian and a neo-Lamarckian approach and that "Mendelism and later genetic theory so conclusively ruled out the extreme neo-Lamarckian position that reconciliation came to seem unnecessary". In 1942, the evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley promoted the Baldwin effect as part of the modern synthesis, saying the concept had been unduly neglected by evolutionists.
In the 1960s, the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr contended that the Baldwin effect theory was untenable because
the argument is stated in terms of the individual genotype, whereas what is really exposed to the selection pressure is a phenotypically and genetically variable population;
it is not sufficiently emphasized that the degree of modification of the phenotype is in itself genetically controlled;
it is assumed that phenotypic rigidity is selectively superior to phenotypic flexibility.
In 1987 Geoffrey Hinton and Steven Nowlan demonstrated by computer simulation that learning can accelerate evolution, and they associated this with the Baldwin effect.
Paul Griffiths suggests two reasons for the continuing interest in the Baldwin effect. The first is the role mind is understood to play in the effect. The second is the connection between development and evolution in the effect. Baldwin's account of how neurophysiological and conscious mental factors may contribute to the effect brings into focus the question of the possible survival value of consciousness.
The house finch's colonisation of North America has provided empirical evidence of the Baldwin effect.
Still, David Depew observed in 2003, "it is striking that a rather diverse lot of contemporary evolutionary theorists, most of whom regard themselves as supporters of the Modern Synthesis, have of late become 'Baldwin boosters'". These
are typically evolutionary psychologists who are searching for scenarios in which a population can get itself by behavioral trial and error onto a "hard to find" part of the fitness landscape in which human brain, language, and mind can rapidly coevolve. They are searching for what Daniel Dennett, himself a Baldwin booster, calls an "evolutionary crane," an instrument to do some heavy lifting fast.
According to Dennett, also in 2003, recent work has rendered the Baldwin effect "no longer a controversial wrinkle in orthodox Darwinism". Potential genetic mechanisms underlying the Baldwin effect have been proposed for the evolution of natural (genetically determinant) antibodies. In 2009, empirical evidence for the Baldwin effect was provided from the colonisation of North America by the house finch.
^Noble, R.; Noble, D. (2017) Was the Watchmaker Blind? Or Was She One-Eyed? Biology 2017, 6(4), 47; doi:10.3390/biology6040047, quoting Bateson, P. The adaptability driver: Links between behaviour and evolution. Biol. Theory 2006, 1, 342–345. See also Stigler's law.
Hall, Brian K. (2001). "Organic Selection: Proximate Environmental Effects on the Evolution of Morphology and Behaviour". Biology and Philosophy. 16 (2): 215–237. doi:10.1023/a:1006773408919. S2CID80821399.