Updating the Baldwin effect: The biological levels behind Piaget's new theory

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


In 1964, Conrad Waddington (1905-1975) presented a paper in Geneva that led to an internal reassessment of the biological underpinnings of Jean Piaget's (1896-1980) theory. This in turn resulted in an overhaul of the theoretical framework upon which his stage theory of child development had been based, including his appeals to James Mark Baldwin's (1861-1934) "circular reaction." In addition to leading to the emergence of what has elsewhere been called "Piaget's new theory," this renovation also resulted in the update of the famous "Baldwin Effect." Because aspects of the subsequent framework are of contemporary significance, this essay will review some of the work leading up to those updates. In reaching behind the translations to trace the sources of the arguments to which Piaget appealed, the resulting examination fills some of the gaps found in the secondary literature without quibbling over the "correct" English interpretation of translated French terms. We also go beyond how Piaget's writings have been understood in English and extract some useful additional ideas from his sources, including how to conceive of the social context in which development takes place. We see as a result how Waddington and his colleagues, including Paul Weiss (1898-1989), provided a constructive "existence proof" for the formal hierarchy of levels that Piaget had come to by other means.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)363-373
Number of pages11
JournalNew Ideas in Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec-2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Baldwin effect
  • Constructivism
  • Epigenetic epistemology
  • Evo-devo
  • Levels of incompleteness
  • Piaget (Jean)
  • Jean Piaget Society

    Jeremy Burman (Keynote speaker)


    Activity: Talk and presentationProfessional or public presentationProfessional

  • Block Talk

    Jeremy Burman (Keynote speaker)


    Activity: Talk and presentationProfessional or public presentationProfessional

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