Philosophy: Wedging Mind into Evolution, does it work?

Philosophy: Wedging Mind into Evolution, does it work? February 11, 2006

One of the things I studied this week was “The Baldwin Effect” (an extensive bibliography). James Baldwin was an avid Darwinian just before the turn of the 20th century. At the time, there was another theory of evolution, Lamarckian theory. According to Lamarck, an organisms body parts/organs can grow or shrink depending on usage and that these changes (acquired within the life of one organism) will be passed on to the next generation. For instance, giraffs who spend their whole lives straining for higher leaves in the trees make their necks longer, and will have offspring with longer necks.

But Darwinian evolution runs on the following laws:

  1. Random Variation (at the genetic level)
  2. Natural Selection (by the environment)
  3. Continuation (good variations pass on their genes)

Baldwin wrote a text in 1896 which attempted to incorporate the voluntary actions (Mind) of animals into a Darwinian theory of heredity. He thought Lamarck went too far in suggesting that we could pass our acquired physical traits down immediately to our offspring. So how did he do this?

Lets take a trait in our population that can be either acquired (by our choices) or genetic: baldness (for an example, click here). In our population baldness, either by choice or genetics, serves no evolutionary advantage (bald people supposedly don’t have more children). But then in the not so distant future that changes, and now baldness has a marked benefit (it really becomes the case that bald men are having more children). Perhaps, due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere today an exposed scalp boosts Vitamin E levels which enhances sperm life; something seemingly very minute like that.

Now, lets say that a bright specimen of our population, we’ll call him ‘N’, notices this change and chooses baldness, thus increasing his odds of having more children. He is even so kind as to write a big paper on it, documenting the evidence. Many others follow suit (we’ll call them ‘smart’) while some curmudgeons resist (we’ll call them ‘dumb’).

There will still be non-bald guys who have lots of kids and bald men who are childless (by choice and/or through genetic sterility); but a shift has occurred wherein baldness = likelihood of more children.

Naturally non-bald men still have to choose to go bald and some don’t and thus join the group who more likely will have fewer children, but these children will likely be non-bald and, moreover, inherit ‘dumb’ nonadaptive genes and will thus be more likely to stay non-bald and have less children and so on until their family tree peters out. It doesn’t really matter for people who are genetically bald; they’re in good shape by chance (an old random variation in their genetic history which has been passed on to them).

N will pass on his ‘smart’ genes, thus ensuring a more likely continuation of his family through many more generations despite not having genetic baldness. And since genetic baldness follows Darwinian evolution (random variation, natural selection, continuation) there is an opportunity through time that the descendents of N will acquire that genetic trait. Thus the voluntary behavior of the ‘smart’ people leads to beneficial genetic changes in the population. The important fact for Baldwin is that the ‘smart’ people survive some environmental change (increased CO2) that their ‘dumb’ neighbors don’t. The population in 400 years will have far fewer ‘dumb’ people on average.

It still follows Darwin’s rules for genetic changes, but it supposes that the selection of a trait may be done behaviorally by ‘smart’ groups and then later encoded into genetics, whereas traditional Darwinism is rigidly one-directional. It is a theory still under much scrutiny because it is so difficult to show it actually working. Also there is the chicken and the egg problem: some people would like to say that those ‘smart’ people already have the genetics for smartness and that an enironmental change triggered the selection of that gene and thus we’re back to traditional Darwinianism (we don’t need to wedge in Mind for a good explanation). I’m not so sure…

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