Transient Phenomena in Learning and Evolution

Genetic Assimilation and Genetic Redistribution

Janet Wiles*, James Watson*, Brad Tonkes** and Terrence W. Deacon***

*School of Information Technology & Electrical Engineering
University of Queensland
Queensland 4072 Australia

**The University of New South Wales

***University of California, Berkeley

Citation: J. Wiles, J. Watson, B. Tonkes and T.W. Deacon [2005]. Artificial Life. Vol. 11, Issues 1-2, pp. pp. 177 - 188 - Winter-Spring 2005. Special Issue on Embodied and Situated Cognition. Preprint available in pdf format.

Abstract: Deacon has recently proposed that complexes of genes can be integrated into functional groups as a result of environmental changes that mask and unmask selection pressures. For example, many animals endogenously synthesize ascorbic acid (vitamin C), but anthropoid primates have only a nonfunctional version of the crucial gene for this pathway. It is hypothesized that the loss of functionality occurred in the evolutionary past when a diet rich in vitamin C masked the effect of the gene, and its loss effectively trapped the animals in a fruit-eating lifestyle. As a result, the complex of abilities that support this lifestyle were evolutionarily bound together, forming a multilocus complex. In this study we use evolutionary computation simulations to explore the thesis that masking and unmasking can transfer dependence from one set of genes to many sets, and thereby integrate the whole complex of genes. We used a framework based on Hinton and Nowlan’s 1987 simulation of the Baldwin effect. Additional gene complexes and an environmental parameter were added to their basic model, and the fitness function extended. The simulation clearly demonstrates that the genetic redistribution effect can occur in silico, showing an initial advantage of endogenously synthesized vitamin C, followed by transfer of the fitness contribution to the complex of genes that together allow the acquisition of vitamin C from the environment. As is well known in the modeling community, the Baldwin effect only occurs in simulations when the population of agents is ‘‘poised on the brink’’ of discovering the genetically specified solution. Similarly, the redistribution effect occurs in simulations under specific initial conditions: too little vitamin C in the environment, and its synthesis it is never fully masked; too much vitamin C, and the abilities required to acquire it are not tightly integrated. The Baldwin effect has been hypothesized as a potential mechanism for developing language-specific adaptations like innate universal grammar and other highly modular capacities. We conclude with a discussion of the relevance of genetic assimilation and genetic redistribution to the evolution of language and other cognitive adaptations.

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Last Modified: May 27, 2005