The Baldwin Effect: An Old Idea from Biology that Explains Organizational Learning

In biology, the Baldwin Effect was proposed in 1896 to suggest that learned behaviors could become a part of the biology of individuals and populations. Although this hypothesis did not stand the test of empirical observation and has been discredited as an effect in biology, it has been resurrected as a model helpful for understanding the evolution of human culture, especially the adoption of and adaptation to ICT by the digital generations. Technology is quickly adopted by members of those generations; they begin using devices as soon as they arrive on the market and they adapt their patterns of interaction and media consumption to align with that technology. They use the technology in the manner that was intended by the designers and marketers. The digital generations also exapt technology; they use tools for purposes other than those intended by the designers and they have discovered and created forms of human communication using ICT that did not exist previously.

In order to become responsive to the changes in the sociocultural context in which they work and in order to prepare students for a wicked future, educators in the 21st century are anticipated to find it necessary to assume a stance towards professional knowledge that resembles the digital generations’ stances towards ICT. Educators’ professional learning in all aspects of knowledge related to their work—including content, the nature of human learning and communication, the use of ICT, and pedagogical design—will resemble the Baldwin Effect as it will become deeply embedded in what is natural to educators.

Those who sought support for the Baldwin Effect in living systems posited that organisms that modified their biology for the environments gained advantage through flexibility. With the discovery of genes in DNA, biologists recognized that what is learned cannot be inherited, but in cultural systems, what is learned by one generation can be shared with others, and the advantage of flexibility is realized. In drawing parallels between the history of life and the history of societies (including our 21st century society), biologist Geerat Vermeij observed, “the most effective adaptation for dealing with unforeseen circumstances is adaptability” (2010, 81). The organisms that can change as the environment changes are most able to survive the changes; for organisms, that adaptability must exist in their physiology, for educators that adaptability can arise from their ability to learn especially by adopting new technology and finding exaptations for technology.


Vermeij, Geerat. 2010. The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.