Biology & Philosophy

, Volume 28, Issue 6, pp 933–955 | Cite as

Learning, evolvability and exploratory behaviour: extending the evolutionary reach of learning

  • Rachael L. Brown


Traditional accounts of the role of learning in evolution have concentrated upon its capacity as a source of fitness to individuals. In this paper I use a case study from invasive species biology—the role of conditioned taste aversion in mitigating the impact of cane toads on the native species of Northern Australia—to highlight a role for learning beyond this—as a source of evolvability to populations. This has two benefits. First, it highlights an otherwise under-appreciated role for learning in evolution that does not rely on social learning as an inheritance channel nor “special” evolutionary processes such as genetic accommodation (both of which many are skeptical about). Second, and more significantly, it makes clear important and interesting parallels between learning and exploratory behaviour in development. These parallels motivate the applicability of results from existing research into learning and learning evolution to our understanding the evolution of evolvability more generally.


Evolvability Learning Plasticity Behaviour Facilitated variation 



I am particularly grateful to Kevin Laland for his detailed comments and encouragement on the material in this paper. I would also like to acknowledge Brett Calcott, Ellen Clarke and Kim Sterelny along with audiences at the Australian National University and the 2011 Philosophy of Biology at Dolphin Beach Workshop in Moruya, NSW for their comments on earlier iterations the work. Funding for this research was provided through the generous support of an Australian National University PhD scholarship and a writing-up fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research in Altenberg, Austria.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Philosophy and Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology: Tempo and ModeAustralian National UniversityCanberraAustralia

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