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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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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 ...

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