Animals with rudimentary innate abilities require substantial learning to transform those abilities into useful skills, where a skill can be considered as a set of sensory–motor associations. Using linear neural network models, it is proved that if skills are stored as distributed representations, then within-lifetime learning of part of a skill can induce automatic learning of the remaining parts of that skill. More importantly, it is shown that this “free-lunch” learning (FLL) is responsible for accelerated evolution of skills, when compared with networks which either 1) cannot benefit from FLL or 2) cannot learn. Specifically, it is shown that FLL accelerates the appearance of adaptive behaviour, both in its innate form and as FLL-induced behaviour, and that FLL can accelerate the rate at which learned behaviours become innate.
Some behaviours are purely innate (e.g., blinking), whereas other, “apparently innate,” behaviours require a degree of learning to refine them into a useful skill (e.g., nest building). In terms of biological fitness, it matters how quickly such learning occurs, because time spent learning is time spent not eating, or time spent being eaten, both of which reduce fitness. Using artificial neural networks as model organisms, it is proven that it is possible for an organism to be born with a set of “primed” connections which guarantee that learning part of a skill induces automatic learning of other skill components, an effect known as free-lunch learning (FLL). Critically, this effect depends on the assumption that associations are stored as distributed representations. Using a genetic algorithm, it is shown that primed organisms can evolve within 30 generations. This has three important consequences. First, primed organisms learn quickly, which increases their fitness. Second, the presence of FLL effectively accelerates the rate of evolution, for both learned and innate skill components. Third, FLL can accelerate the rate at which learned behaviours become innate. These findings suggest that species may depend on the presence of distributed representations to ensure rapid evolution of adaptive behaviours.