Friday, October 01, 2021

Baldwin - Learning and evolution, may be one of the most significant learning theorists ever

You may never have heard of the philosopher and psychologist James Mark Baldwin. Yet he may be one of the most significant learning theorists ever. He was a psychologist who set up one of the first laboratories of experimental psychology, in Toronto, which influenced Paiget. He also introduced what is called the ‘Baldwin Effect’ into evolutionary theory. This profound and radical idea puts ‘learning’ into the evolutionary process and has been recently revived. Just as Darwin and Wallace struck upon the same idea at the same time, Baldwin had two Wallaces, in Henry Fairfield Osborne and Conwy Lloyd Morgan. All three published the same ideas in 1895-96.

Baldwin Effect

The Baldwin Effect is the theory that learned behavior, and not just environment and genes, influences the direction and rate of the evolution of psychological and physical traits. Note that this is not Lamarckism, as it does not claim that acquired characteristics are passed on genetically, only that the offspring of an adaptive trait (physical or psychological) may be genetically better at learning. This creates the opportunity, as it creates the conditions and successful population survival, for standard selection to take place. It means that behavioural learning, which can take place culturally can eventually shape the genetics of a species.

The Baldwin effect therefore places ‘learning’ on a larger theoretical canvas, lying at the heart of evolutionary theory. Learning is no longer just a cognitive ability, albeit a complex one with many different systems of memory involved, but a feature that defines the very success of our species.

Growth of Baldwin effect

The theory has some impressive supporters, including Aldous Huxley, AI expert Geoffry Hinton, Nowlan, Dennett and Deacon. Evolutionary psychology, in particular, has had a profound influence on the resurrection of the idea. Hinton and Nolan revived the idea in How Learning Can Guide Evolution (1987) and Richard Richards who published Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour (1996), in the same year. But it is Daniel Dennett who has done most to popularize the idea in Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995).  Dennett posits the Baldwin idea that learned behavior, especially sustainable innovative behaviours, if captured in substantial genetic frequency, can act as what he calls a ‘sky crane’ in evolution. Weber and Depew have since published an excellent explanatory and supportive book Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered (2007).

Deacon proposed that the Baldwin effect accounts for the rapid evolution of the mind and language. As Wittgenstein showed, a private language makes no sense as meaning is use. As soon as a small number start and continue to develop language skills it confers significant adaptive advantage and confers a real runaway advantage to the users. This ability to learn new skills may be the key to our species having moved beyond fixed, genetic determinism. More than just language, adaption to new environments, responding to climatic and food pressures and other changes that require quicker adaption through selected learning, may have played a role in the rapid success of Homo Sapiens. Dennett proposes the actual creation of selective pressure on others by sustained learned behaviour. 


In an interesting development Geoffry Hinton and Steven Nowlan (1996) claimed to have demonstrated, through computer technology (simulations) that learning could shape evolution. The Baldwin effect, may, through its own efficacy have created the technological conditions for its own proof! The brain, through consciousness, may have created a fast developing structure that in turn accelerates learning and thus evolution. It remains a controversial but increasingly supported idea.


Weber, B. H., and Depew, D. J. (2003). Evolution and learning: The Baldwin effect reconsidered. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Hinton, G.E. and Nowlan, S.J., 1996. How learning can guide evolution. Adaptive individuals in evolving populations: models and algorithms, 26, pp.447-454.

Laurent, J., 1990. Robert J. Richards, Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behaviour. Social Studies of Science, 20(1), pp.161-165.

Dennett, D. C. (1995). Darwin's dangerous idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.

Baldwin, J. M. (1973). Social and ethical interpretations in mental development. New York: Arno Press.

Baldwin, J.M., 1896. A new factor in evolution (Continued). The American Naturalist, 30(355), pp.536-553.

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