Niche Construction Article F

Niche Construction Article F - Beyond the Baldwin Effect...

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Beyond the Baldwin Effect: James Mark Baldwin’s ‘social heredity’, epigenetic inheritance and niche-construction * . Paul E. Griffiths, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA 15232, USA [email protected] 1. Introduction James Mark Baldwin is remembered today almost exclusively for his paper ‘A New Factor in Evolution’ (Baldwin, 1896a). The new factor, which he called ‘organic selection’ and which later became known as the Baldwin effect, was a process that could cause ‘accomodations’ - the acquired adaptive responses of individual organisms - to become hereditary. ‘Accomodations’ include physiological adaptations like calluses and, of much greater interest to Baldwin, learnt behaviors. The Baldwin effect differed from classic Lamarckian inheritance because it respected August Weismann’s doctrine of the ‘continuity of the germ plasm’ according to which modifications to somatic cell-lines can have no influence on the state of the germ cells. Viewed at the population level, the Baldwin effect would give the impression that the Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characters was taking place, but this impression would be an illusion - no individual * To appear in Learning, Meaning and Emergence: Possible Baldwinian Mechanisms in the Co-evolution of Mind and Language , Bruce Weber and David Depew (Eds.)
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organism would actually inherit an acquired character from a parent. I am not going to describe how the Baldwin effect is meant to occur. Baldwin himself never had a fully satisfactory theory and his contemporaries offered a number of significantly different theories. Later authors have offered many more. The details of these proposals are described by David Depew (this volume), Stephen Downes (this volume) and Peter Godfrey-Smith (this volume). Rather, in this paper I argue that too much attention has been paid to the Baldwin effect. George Gaylord Simpson was probably right when he said that the effect is theoretically possible and may have actually occurred but that this has no major implications for evolutionary theory (Simpson, 1953). The Baldwin effect is not even central to Baldwin’s own account of ‘social heredity’ and biology-culture co- evolution, an account that in important respects resembles the modern ideas of epigenetic inheritance and niche-construction. There are two reasons for the excessive attention that has been paid to the Baldwin effect. The first is the confused but enduring idea that the Baldwin effect allows ‘mind’ to ‘direct’ evolution and thus saves us from the barren Darwinian vision of a world ruled by chance and necessity. The second motive is less well known and far more interesting. Ever since Weismann, biologists interested in causes of adaptation other than natural
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Niche Construction Article F - Beyond the Baldwin Effect...

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