The evolution of associative learning: A factor in the Cambrian explosion

Simona Ginsburg, Eva Jablonka

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Cambrian explosion is probably the most spectacular diversification in evolutionary history, and understanding it has been a challenge for biologists since the time of Darwin. We propose that one of the key factors that drove this great diversification was associative learning. Although the evolutionary emergence of associative learning required only small modifications in already existing memory mechanisms and may have occurred in parallel in several groups, once this type of learning appeared on the evolutionary scene, it led to extreme diversifying selection at the ecological level: it enabled animals to exploit new niches, promoted new types of relations and arms races, and led to adaptive responses that became fixed through genetic accommodation processes. This learning-based diversification was accompanied by neurohormonal stress, which led to an ongoing destabilization and re-patterning of the epigenome, which, in turn, enabled further morphological, physiological, and behavioral diversification. Our hypothesis combines several previous ideas about the dynamics of the Cambrian explosion and provides a unifying framework that includes both ecological and genomic factors. We conclude by suggesting research directions that would clarify the timing and manner in which associative learning evolved, and the effects it had on the evolution of nervous systems, genomes, and animal morphology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-20
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 2010


  • Associative learning
  • Cambrian explosion
  • Epigenome re-patterning
  • Genetic accommodation
  • Neurohormonal stress


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