Will the real James Mark Baldwin stand up?:
A comment on
Griffiths (2001)

Christopher D. Green

York University

Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3


©2003 by Christopher D. Green

The primary aim of Paul Griffiths chapter, "Beyond the Baldwin effect" (2001) is to call into question the significance of the "Baldwin effect" in evolution. Along the way, however, he makes a number of remarks about the effect's putative originator, James Mark Baldwin, that are misleading or incorrect.  The objective here is to address these matters in a little more detail so that we may obtain a better understanding of Baldwin's own contribution and intentions. 

As Griffiths notes, Baldwin was not very clear in his writing on this topic. One gets the impression of a man writing very quickly, often cutting and pasting from earlier works, so as to disseminate his ideas as widely and rapidly as possible. As a result, the modern glosses of precisely how the effect is supposed to work vary somewhat in detail. Also, as Griffiths argues, the importance of the Baldwin effect in evolutionary history -- if it has truly occurred -- has not been established.  I will not dispute these claims here.

Griffiths, however, incorrectly portrays Baldwin as having been an obscure figure. For instance, he writes that Baldwin "is remembered today almost exclusively for his paper, 'A New Factor in Evolution'" (p. 1).  He later further implies that Baldwin was an amateur when he writes that Baldwin's priority claims "would not have stood up to the scrutiny generated by a debate with two established scientists" (p. 6).

Although Baldwin may not be well-known to biologists or philosophers today, he was by no means an obscure amateur.  He had been a student of Princeton philosopher James McCosh who, although a Scottish realist and a theologian, was an early advocate of evolution (Arner, 1967). Baldwin's undergraduate thesis was on evolution.  Before starting work on his doctorate, Baldwin traveled to Germany for a year to study with a number of scholars, among them Wilhelm Wundt who had, less than a decade before, founded the first laboratory dedicated explicitly to experimental psychological research. After completing his PhD under McCosh, Baldwin taught briefly at Lake Forest College in Illinois and at the University of Toronto, where he founded the first experimental psychology laboratory in the British Empire. In 1893 he landed his first major job at Princeton, where he opened another experimental psychology laboratory. A decade later he moved to Johns Hopkins where he re-opened the first experimental psychology laboratory in the U.S., which had closed when G. Stanley Hall had left Johns Hopkins in late 1880s to take up the presidency of Clark University.  Baldwin remained at Johns Hopkins until 1908 when he was forced out by a politically-motivated scandal concerning his brief arrest in a saloon the year before.  He went on to assist in the founding of the National University of Mexico, and thereafter lived mainly in France until his death in 1934. He continued to write, though, in the wake of World War I, he turned primarily to international affairs.

During his early career, Baldwin virtually founded the discipline of experimental developmental psychology, publishing a number of papers, and later books, on the topic. His work in this area had a profound impact on the thought of Jean Piaget who was, without doubt, the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century. Baldwin was also a key figure in the founding of the American Psychological Association in 1892.  He co-founded (with James McKeen Cattell) the still-prestigious journal Psychological Review, which he later bought from Cattell and continued to edit by himself for a number of years.  He went on to found the highly-regarded Psychological Bulletin, and he was the guiding hand behind the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology.  In a 1903 survey that James McKeen Cattell conducted among his fellow psychologists, Baldwin was rated as the fifth most important psychologist on the continent, behind only William James, Cattell himself, Hugo Münsterberg, and G. Stanley Hall (Cattell, 1947). In short, he was an "established scientist" alongside Morgan and Osborn and his interest in evolution was not new, but dated back at least decade to his undergraduate years.[1]

Second -- and this actually speaks against Baldwin's priority rather than in favor of it -- Baldwin was not, as Griffiths claims, the first to give a conference address on what would later be called the "Baldwin effect."  According to Richards (1987, p. 399), Morgan was at the same 1896 meeting of the New York Academy of Science at which Baldwin is said to have made his first public statement on the matter, and Morgan's presentation on the topic was immediately before Baldwin's. It is true, as Griffiths claims, that Henry F. Osborn published ahead of them both -- ahead of Baldwin by only a few days.

This brings us to the matter of the priority dispute among Baldwin, Morgan, and Osborn.  First, I do not know that priority disputes should be taken with the degree of seriousness they are, especially when we are speaking of different people having arrived at the same conclusion independently within weeks of each other.  In any case, the scientific importance of the Baldwin effect certainly does not depend on whether Baldwin was the first ot articulate it or not.  Second, it is not clear that "priority" is really at issue here because the three figures here came up with somewhat different versions of the same idea and in the service of significantly different agendas: Baldwin was anti-Lamarckian from the start, Morgan was attempting to cleanse what he saw as a Lamarckian residue from the work of George Romanes which he was in the process of editing (Richards, 19987, p. 402), and Osborn was proponent of Lamarck.

Third, it is not as clear as Griffiths would have it that Baldwin's earlier work on "organic selection" (as Baldwin called it) was "quite different" (Griffiths, 2001, p. 6) from the work presented in the 1896 American Naturalist article (see also Baldwin 1895a which Griffiths does not mention).  Let me be clear: Baldwin was no saint.  He engaged in overt self-promotion frequently during his career and he could be downright nasty when he felt he was not getting his due, but being self-centered is not the same as being wrong.  Even if Baldwin overstated his case, he may have been the first off the mark nonetheless.

More important, however, it is right here, while attempting to give a definitive answer to the question of priority, that we see what most historians of science learn early on -- the question of the origin of a particular idea is usually a rather messy affair, typically involving a fairly arbitrary decision as to what is to "count" as an clearcut instance, rather than being a purely empirical matter.  Perhaps ironically, something like organisms themselves, ideas do not simply "appear." They develop and grow out of earlier forms. The line between a "juvenile" and a "mature" form is rarely a clear one.

Baldwin's early work on developmental psychology focused on the role of imitation in learning.  Using imitation, Baldwin was able to lift the critical Darwinian triad of inheritance, variation, and selection out of the realm of the biological and apply it at the psychological level.  Mere imitation allows behavior to be passed on from parent to child -- "inherited," as it were, by the child.[2] The more or less random imperfection of imitation creates the variability that is required for natural selection to operate.  Whether or not the imperfectly reproduced behavior results in the desired outcome (or, at least, in a desirable outcome) selects it "into" or "out of" the child's future behavioral repertoire.  Most variations lead to worse results than near-perfect reproductions of the behavior being imitated.  Occasionally, however, a random variation results in a better outcome, and is, thus, retained and possibly passed on to others. Baldwin was not alone in advocating this sort of scheme -- somewhat similar ideas had been put forward by Gabriel Tarde, George Romanes, and even Morgan himself -- but Baldwin was certainly an early leader in their development and promotion.

Note that this process is wholly Darwinian in structure, it just takes place at the psychological level of analysis rather than at the biological level.  (Would Darwin himself have approved?  It is hard to say, but given that his own crucial insights were derived from the behavioral sciences -- economics in particular -- there is little reason that he would have believed his basic mechanism to be exclusively biological.)  In principle, behaviors could be maintained and evolve across generations in this way, but if the chain of imitation from parent to child were ever broken, the behavioral innovations would be lost just as surely as if the adult had had no offspring in the biological realm. The question for Baldwin, then, was whether behavior that had evolved through imitation in this way, could somehow make its way back down into the "germ line" without resorting to Lamarkian mechanisms.  Baldwin thought it could and his talks and papers of 1896 (and later) were the result.  Morgan had ideas about "conceptual evolution" as well, but appears not to have seen how such a process might "descend" into germ line until after a talk of August Weismann's he is thought to have seen in May 1894 at which closely related ideas were expressed.  Even at that, it does not appear that Morgan made mention of his intellectual debt to Weismann in the January 1895 talk at the New York Academy, but only in his publications later that year.  So, ignoring Baldwin and Osborn for the moment, should Morgan properly have gotten priority, or should the credit have gone to Weismann himself?  It is simply not clear.  Baldwin knew of Weismann's work as well and thought Weismann to have been vague on the crucial point of whether behavioral or the biological evolution was the primary "mover," so to speak.  So he championed the claim that the behavioral form can lead the way, but without having to resort Lamarckian mechanisms (see Richards, 1987, esp. p. 401, for historical details on the above account).

Thus, it is not, as Griffiths (pp. 3-4) insinuates, that Baldwin underhandedly re-deployed his term "organic selection," post hoc, to make it seem as though he had been concerned with the question of how acquired behaviors can evolve without resorting to Lamarkism.  He had been concerned with the question for some time.  The talks and papers of 1896 were an extension of a long-running theoretical and empirical research program of his.  Did he have the mechanism clearly in place before 1896?  No.  Neither did anyone else.  Indeed it doesn't appear that it was clearly articulated by any of the three principals even after 1896 (otherwise we wouldn't still be having the debate about exactly how the effect is supposed to play out).  Did he have parts of it in place before 1896?  Yes.  And so did others as well.

Our opinion of the Baldwin effect itself should not be allowed to color our view of Baldwin the man and his work.  His character, whether spotless or not, has no bearing on the truth of his claims one way or the other.  It may be the case that the "Baldwin effect" might have more accurately been named the "Baldwin-Morgan-Osborn effect," but there is no reason for animus against Baldwin for having fought for what he thought was his due and for the influential Simpson having (much later) agreed with him about this.



[1] Perhaps ironically, Morgan's reputation is in the almost exact same position with respect to psychologists that Baldwin's is with respect to biologists. Were it not for "Morgan's canon" (or, rather, a debased form of it that was taught by behaviorists), his name would be virtually unknown to psychologists today.

[2] Of course, it does not have to be a parent and child. The parent is just typically the model that the child imitates.  The process could, in principle, take place between two adults or two children, or any two people. Griffiths refers mainly to chapter 7 of Baldwin's Mental Development of the Child and the Race, but one should also examine chapter 9 on "Organic Imitation." Also, note that Griffiths seems to cite the 2nd edition of 1900 rather than the first edition of 1895.



Arner, Douglas. (1967). James McCosh. In P. Edwards (Ed.). The encyclopedia of philosophy (vol. 5, pp. 225-226). New York: Macmillan and the Free Press.

Baldwin, James Mark. (1895a). Consciousness and evolution. Science, 2 (34), 219-223.

Baldwin, James Mark. (1895b). Mental development in the child and race. New York: Macmillan.

Baldwin, James Mark. (1896a). Consciousness and evolution. Psychological Review, 3, 300-309.

Baldwin, James Mark. (1896b). A new factor in evolution. American Naturalist, 30, 441-451, 536-553.

Cattell, James McKeen (1947).  James McKeen Catell, Man of Science: Vol. 2. Addresses and Formal Papers. Lancaster, PA: Science Press.

Griffiths, Paul E. (2001). Beyond the Baldwin effect. James Mark Baldwin's 'social heredity,' epigenetic inheritance and niche-construction. PhiSci Archive (http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/), ID code 446.

Richards, Robert J. (1987).  Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sokal, Michael M.  (1997). Baldwin, Cattell, and the Psychological Review: A collaboration and its discontents.  History of the Human Sciences, 10, 57-89.