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28 Jan 08 – Baldwin, The Baldwin Effect, and Human (Non-Deistic) Teleological Evolution.

28 January 2008

On this day in 1902, Andrew Carnegie endowed the Carnegie Institution. This institution was created in order to support scientific research, including psychological research. A committee, then, was formed to recommend worthy psychological research projects. This committee was headed by James Mark Baldwin. I would like to use this blog to talk a little bit about Baldwin, especially the “Baldwin Effect,” and to talk about an issue that is currently a “hot topic”: evolution.

James Mark Baldwin was an American philosopher and psychologist, trained in philosophy under the tutelage of James McCosh at Princeton University. Similar to the philosopher Thomas Reid, McCosh felt that our beliefs were the direct result of sensation and, thus, not open to question (this belief was central to Gibson’s account of perception in yesterday’s blog post).  McCosh also felt that evolution glorifies the divine designer:

                 “All that science has demonstrated, all that theism has argued, of the order, of the
                 final cause and benevolent purpose in the world is true, and can not be set aside.
                 Every natural law — mechanical, chemical, and vital — is good. Every organ of the
                 body, when free from disease, is good. There is certainly the most exquisite
                 adaptation in the eye, however we may account for its formation, and for the
                 numerous diseases which seize upon it. Agassiz has shown, by an induction of
                 facts reaching over the whole history of the animal kingdom, that there is plan in
                 the succession of organic life.”

We can see from this statement of McCosh’s that he believed that there was a final cause (or teleology) in evolution. That is, from McCosh’s perspective, evolution proceeded in a purposive way. For McCosh, this purpose was determined by God – it was a deistic teleology:

                 “Development implies an original matter with high endowments. Whence the original matter?
                 It is acknowledged, by its most eminent expounder, that evolution can not account for the
                 first appearance of life. Greatly to the disappointment of some of his followers, Darwin is
                 obliged to postulate three or four germs of life created by God. To explain the continuance
                 of life, he is obliged to call in a pangenesis, or universal life, which is just a vague phrase for
                 that inexplicable thing life, and life is just a mode of God’s action.”

Inclined toward consideration of evolution as his mentor McCosh was, Baldwin is probably best known for what has come to be called, “The Baldwin Effect.” In the Baldwin Effect, he drew heavily from his interaction with McCosh in formulating theories on both development and evolution. There is an interesting pseudo-teleology in Baldwin’s theory, evidencing a mix of McCosh’s teleological take on Darwin (while appearing to want to maintain a more deterministic perspective) and a pseudo-Lamarckian perspective (where acquired characteristics were inherited). The Baldwin Effect essentially states that the sustained behaviour of a species can shape the evolution of the species. For example, if learning to create a shelter quickly makes it more difficult for the weather to kill individuals in the species, individuals who learn to do this quickly have an advantage. As time passes, the ability to acquire that skill with be genetically selected for and at some point it will be an instinct.

The “pseudo-teleology” in this is that there appears to be a purpose to the behaviour and the genetic selection of the behaviour. That is, the purpose is that individuals do not want to get killed. So, they engage/develop this behaviour. It is a trial and error sort of mechanism. Unfortunately, it is the mechanistic portion, driven by genetic variability, which underlies the Baldwin Effect: essentially, it is not driven by human choice. Instead, it is driven by random chance of the genetic variation that creates this ability. This is where the Darwinian (and “Spencerian” – Herbert Spencer who used the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe) “natural selection” enters into Baldwin’s theory: everything is “selected” naturally (with no human interference) from the random variations in genetic code.

Alternatively, the modern counter-argument is that there is some “intelligent design.” Intelligent design can mean many things. One of these many perspectives on intelligent design is that God designed the world with a clear purpose and it is this design that is followed through evolution. Every change in species was predetermined. What we are now and what we will be are similarly determined by something (or someone) outside of human choice determined our current status.

Though this is more appealing to people who believe and accept divine intervention, such intelligent design formulations have the same limitation that evolutionary theory does: it removes responsibility from the individual (and society). How, for example, can we be responsible for our actions if they were either the result of genetic forces outside of our control or of Godly forces outside of our control? We had no choice in the matter and, hence, we cannot be responsible. Given this lack of responsibility, we could therefore not be held accountable for those behaviors, at least not with any credibility. It would be akin to saying, “bad dish,” to a dish that fell out of a cupboard: the dish had no choice in the matter, it was the result of factors outside its control. The only difference between such intelligent design formulations and Darwinian formulations is that the intelligent design formulations are less random and chaotic (its interesting that scientists who are so concerned with prediction and control accept a formulation, which is a deterministic basis of much of their scientific work, that is itself fundamentally unpredictable and uncontrollable…its almost as if they rule out the real ability to predict and control when they accept such a formulation).

Alternatively, a human teleology perspective on evolution would allow for personal choice and responsibility. Under a human teleology formulation, we develop skills for a purpose. That is, we realize that having a shelter (something over our heads) keeps us dry for the rain. For the sake of keeping the rain off of us, we make a shelter. This making of shelters is recognized by others and becomes a social phenomenon. Eventually, it becomes ingrained into the fabric of life. Such a perspective neither rules out the place of genetics or of God. For example, those who do not accept that they should make shelters for the sake of keeping the rain off of them would likely be shunned by those who do. As a result, they would likely mate with those who had similar perspectives. Those with the same perspective, mating with like minded individuals would then continue to present their views to their offspring, thus creating a cultural mindset where the origination of the idea or change was lost to time but the behaviour continued. Eventually, the individuals who chose the perspective that was more adaptive to the environment would continue to thrive in that particular region and those who did not choose that perspective would either migrate to another region or cease to exist.

Similarly, there is nothing to rule out an involvement of God in this process. God could still be conceived as permitting the agency of those humans in either pursuit/perspective. God would still be the creator, much like any other parent, but the actions of the children (or humans) do not necessarily follow the desires (or dictates) of the parent (or God).

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.


January 28, 2008 - Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , ,

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