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A Game-Theoretic Analysis of the Baldwin Effect

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The Baldwin effect is a process by which learnt traits become gradually incorporated into the genome through a Darwinian mechanism. From its inception, the Baldwin effect has been regarded with skepticism. The objective of this paper is to relativize this assessment. Our contribution is two-fold. To begin with, we provide a taxonomy of the different arguments that have been advocated in its defense, and distinguish between three justificatory dimensions—feasibility, explanatory relevance and likelihood—that have been unduly conflated. Second, we sharpen the debate by providing an evolutionary game theoretic perspective that is able to generalize previous results. The upshot of this paper is that the mechanism envisaged by Baldwin is less puzzling than commonly thought.

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  1. Strictly speaking, mutations are not necessary for the Baldwin effect, because even in the absence of new mutations, Baldwinian selection could operate on already existing genetic variation as long as this variation affects the likelihood of acquiring a phenotype. Consequently, the scarcity of mutations is not an argument against the Baldwin effect.

  2. There are different aspects of the Baldwin effect that must be mentioned (Ancel 1999, 2000; Zollman and Smead 2009). First, in the Baldwin-Simpson Effect the focus is on the role of plasticity—first selected for and then selected against—in the assimilation of acquired traits. Second, in the Baldwin Expediting Effect the crucial issue is the role of plasticity in speeding up the process of identifying optimal behavior. Last but not least, in the Baldwin Optimizing Effect the existence of plastic individuals directs the population away from sub-optimal equilibria and toward global optimum. The main focus of our paper is on the Baldwin-Simpson Effect.

  3. It is of no relevance whether the original new trait emerges out of a genetic or a cultural mutation.

  4. We exclude the time subscripts to simplify notation since they all refer to the same period.

  5. In this case, stochastic stability is the appropriate tool (Foster and Young 1990). We should note that there are several models of selection dynamics as well as concepts of evolutionary stability. We do not engage in the discussion about dynamic models since it falls beyond our purposes. Which model better fits a certain living system is, after all, an empirical matter.

  6. This effect could for instance be caused by a fixed supply of coconuts. The payoffs to adoption and non adoption assume that the new technology to open coconuts allows adopters to eat more than non-adopters per unit of time and that this larger intake enhances their reproductive survival.

  7. When the basin of attraction of an asymptotic equilibrium (i.e., the set of initial conditions which converge to an equilibrium) is equal to the entire state space, then it is globally stable. Since “do not adopt the trick” is strictly dominated, the replicator dynamics will eventually eliminate it (Weibull 1995).

  8. Negative frequency dependent phenotypes need not be dominating. Depending on the payoff structure of alternative behaviors, selection may lead to the coexistence of different phenotypes or mixed populations.

  9. A neutrally stable strategy satisfies the first condition for ESS given above and the second condition with a weak inequality (Maynard Smith 1982). The concepts of ESS, NSS and Nash equilibrium (NE) relate as follows: ESS → NSS → NE. Evolutionary stability implies asymptotic stability in the replicator dynamics and neutral stability implies Lyapunov stability (Weibull 1995).

  10. See Huttegger (2010) for an analysis of the impact of nonselective processes upon evolutionary trajectories for games in extensive form.

  11. In the two-player games analyzed in this paper, a strategy that exhibits positive frequency dependence yields higher payoffs if both players choose it than when only one player does.


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We had the opportunity to discuss some of the issues explored in this paper with different scholars in congresses and seminars. We would like to thank Pablo Abitbol, Nicolas Claidière Till Grüne-Yanoff, Tommi Kokkonen, Jaakko Kuorikoski, Jason Alexander Mackenzie, David Papineau, Dan Sperber, and Petri Ylikoski as well as two reviewers of Erkenntnis for their stimulating objections and comments. None of them should be held responsible for the ideas advocated here.

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Correspondence to Diego Rios.

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Kuechle, G., Rios, D. A Game-Theoretic Analysis of the Baldwin Effect. Erkenn 77, 31–49 (2012).

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