Baldwin effect and overcoming the rationality fetish

G.G. Simpson and J.M. Baldwin

G.G. Simpson and J.M. Baldwin

As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the amazing features of the internet is that you can take almost any idea and find a community obsessed with it. Thus, it isn’t surprising that there is a prominent subculture that fetishizes rationality and Bayesian learning. They tend to accumulate around forums with promising titles like OvercomingBias and Less Wrong. Since these communities like to stay abreast with science, they often offer evolutionary justifications for why humans might be Bayesian learners and claim a “perfect Bayesian reasoner as a fixed point of Darwinian evolution”. This lets them side-stepped observed non-Bayesian behavior in humans, by saying that we are evolving towards, but haven’t yet reached this (potentially unreachable, but approximable) fixed point. Unfortunately, even the fixed-point argument is naive of critiques like the Simpson-Baldwin effect.

Introduced in 1896 by psychologist J.M. Baldwin then named and reconciled with the modern synthesis by leading paleontologist G.G. Simpson (1953), the Simpson-Baldwin effect posits that “[c]haracters individually acquired by members of a group of organisms may eventually, under the influence of selection, be reenforced or replaced by similar hereditary characters” (Simpson, 1953). More explicitly, it consists of a three step process (some of which can occur in parallel or partially so):

  1. Organisms adapt to the environment individually.
  2. Genetic factors produce hereditary characteristics similar to the ones made available by individual adaptation.
  3. These hereditary traits are favoured by natural selection and spread in the population.

The overall result is that originally individual non-hereditary adaptation become hereditary. For Baldwin (1886,1902) and other early proponents (Morgan 1886; Osborn 1886, 1887) this was a way to reconcile Darwinian and strong Lamarkian evolution. With the latter model of evolution exorcised from the modern synthesis, Simpson’s restatement became a paradox: why do we observe the costly mechanism and associated errors of individual learning, if learning does not enhance individual fitness at equilibrium and will be replaced by simpler non-adaptive strategies? This encompass more specific cases like Rogers’ paradox (Boyd & Richerson, 1985; Rogers, 1988) of social learning.
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