Section 2.7. The Baldwin Effect


2.7. The Baldwin Effect

At the dawn of the 20th century, James Mark Baldwin, a pioneering developmental psychologist, began a line of inquiry into the coevolution of genes and culture that continues to this day. Baldwin asserted that organisms could survive ecological challenges by relying on acquired knowledge and skills, often learned from others, and that this may then channel natural selection to favor unlearned versions of the same behavior. This mechanism, now known as the Baldwin effect, suggests that organisms can learn to shape their environment and consequently alter the path of evolution. For example, we know dairy farming emerged before the spread of lactose absorption genes and created the selection pressures that favored them, not the other way around.

For those of us living in the modified ecologies of the 21st century, the Baldwin effect has special meaning. As a species, we have transformed our environment beyond recognition. We cannot help but wonder about the role and rules of natural selection in a society where the average life expectancy exceeds 75 years. And we must constantly struggle to reconcile our ancient survival instincts with modern reality. Behaviors that once kept us from starvation and predators now lead us into stress, obesity, and drug addiction. Evolution cannot keep pace with the environment. We must rely heavily on our intelligence, the gift of language, and our ability to learn and unlearn. For the proving grounds have shifted from natural and built environments to the noosphere, a world defined by symbols and semantics, a world that in certain respects does not exist, as Figure 2-16 reminds us.

Figure 2-16. René Magritte's assertion that "This is not a pipe" invites us to question the distinction between image and reality (© 2005 C. Herscovici, Brussels/Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York)


When pondering the reality of the noosphere or the substance of cyberspace, it's worth throwing memes into the mix. Richard Dawkins, one of the world's most prominent biologists, describes memes as follows:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes' fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: ' ... memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.'(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talkingthe meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.[*]

[*] The Selfish Meme by Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Press (1976), p.192.

When we talk about navigating the noosphere or wayfinding on the Web, we are not just using metaphor. The worlds of words and ideas are in a very real sense, real. When we enter these spaces, we bring our senses along for the ride. We rely on geocentric and egocentric strategies that have served us for millennia. We become disoriented. We get lost. We find our way. We learn. Our virtual experiences change us physically. Winston Churchill once remarked "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." These words take on new meaning as our physical and digital structures and our everyday experiences become deeply and irrevocably interconnected.

Like Shangri-la, like mathematics, like every story ever told or sung, a mental geography of sorts has existed in the living mind of every culture, a collective memory or hallucination, an agreed-upon territory of mythical figures, symbols, rules, and truths, owned and traversable by all who learned its ways, and yet free of the bounds of physical space and time.

Michael Benedikt, architect and author of Cyberspace, 1991