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Evolution and Learning: The Baldwin Effect Reconsidered (Life & Mind: Philosophical Issues in Biology & Psychology) Hardcover – 11 Jul 2003
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"Evolution and Learning is a readable and challenging volume, and I would recommend it strongly to people who enjoy thinking hard about evolution." - Kevin N. Laland, Nature" --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Bruce H. Weber is the Robert Woodworth Professor of Science and Natural Philosophy at Bennington College and Professor of Biochemistry at California State University at Fullerton. David J. Depew is Professor of Communication Studies and Rhetoric of Inquiry at the University of Iowa.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Of course, phenotypes, not genotypes, are selected, so there is ample room for plastic phenotypes to be selected, and the genetic basis of their plasticity or ease of learning to adapt to particular environments to become fixed in the gene pool. However, until Dawkins' "extended phenotype" and more recently Odling-Smee, Laland, and Feldman's "niche construction" theories were developed, the whole matter was quite vague.
This conference volume outlines the history of the Baldwin Effect, and the effect of the interchange of expert opinion on the reader should be pretty clear: niche construction and in the case of humans, gene-culture coevolution are the intellectual heirs of the Baldwin Effect and are extremely important biological phenomena. Paul Griffiths' and Terrence Deacon's contributions to the volume make this crystal clear. Numerous evo-devo types also want to claim a piece of the Baldwin effect, but despite reams of material on how development affects the gene pool, I remain unconvinced. But, perhaps that's my limited perspective. At any rate, if you know a fair amount of evolutionary and developmental biology, this is really quite a fine book to read. Perhaps even better than attending the original conference.
The Baldwin Effect (Baldwin created this concept in 1896), makes economists' use of Darwin's Evolutionary Theory look really stupid and WRONG.
Deacon. The niche-construction point of view "breaks the pseudo-Lamarckian mould," for it does not maintain that acquired traits become genetically assimilated. This is a good thing because this simplistic version of the Baldwin effect fares poorly when applied to the evolution of human language (e.g., Pinker). It assumes, implausibly, the ability of incremental genetic changes to reach this predescribed goal; and is also empirically unsuccessful (e.g., innate control of vocalisation has actually decreased in human evolution). Instead one should think in terms of masking. Most genes are masked from selection since they have no substantial phenotypic effect in the current environment. A change in the environment will unmask some of these and mask others. Thus natural selection need not wait for and does not look for the genetic equivalents of learned behaviours; instead learning unmasks a pool of previously silent genes from which support for the learned behaviour can be drawn in a number of ways. For example, when Waddington exposed flies to heat he unmasked a diverse set of previously silent genes scattered in the population, the beneficial ones of which were driven to genetic fixation. The evolution of human language is probably of this type, with the added complexity that the adaptations alters the behaviour in turn.
I appreciated getting dissenting opinions on what the Baldwin Effect is, how it might operate, and whether it matters. The book is the product of a conference, and reading it feels a bit like attending a series of lectures on a topic. If you are interested in how development and learning during and organism's lifetime might influence genetic evolution, this is a great book. It's a particular niche subject, and you probably need to have a basic understanding of evolutionary theory to dive in, but once you do, this book provide a very cool approach. The idea that changes in an organism's development and behavior patterns over its life could either help speed and direct evolution is really fascinating and counter-intuitive. The Baldwin Effect is sort of the tail wagging the dog--organisms learning new skills can effectively change their ecology such that the new skill becomes coded genetically.
Basically, I'd recommend this to anyone who read (and liked) Deacon's Symbolic Species, or anyone who found the above idea exciting. If it's possible for an academic discussion to get you going, this one will.