What the Baldwin Effect affects depends on the nature of plasticity

January 23, 2020

In a process known as the Baldwin Effect, developmental plasticity, such as learning, has been argued to accelerate the biological evolution of high-fitness traits, including language and complex intelligence. Here we investigate the evolutionary consequences of developmental plasticity by asking which aspects of a plastic trait are the focus of genetic change. The aspects we consider are: (i) dependencies between elements of a trait, (ii) the importance of each element to fitness, and (iii) the difficulty of acquiring each element through plasticity. We also explore (iv) how cultural inheritance changes the relationship between plasticity and genetic change. We find that evolution by natural selection preferentially fixes elements that are depended upon by others, important to fitness, or difficult to acquire through plasticity, but that cultural inheritance can suppress and even reverse genetic change. We replicate some of these effects in experimental evolutionary simulations with human learners. We conclude that what the Baldwin Effect affects depends upon the mechanism of plasticity, which for behavior and cognition includes the psychology of learning.