the real James Mark Baldwin stand up?:
A comment on Griffiths
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3
©2003 by Christopher D.
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.
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.
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
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
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. 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.
 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.
 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
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
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
Richards, Robert J.
(1987). Darwin and the
emergence of evolutionary theories of mind and behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
(1997). Baldwin, Cattell, and the Psychological Review: A
collaboration and its discontents.
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