Selectionism is a mind-blower when it comes to the conceptual and philosophical framework of behavior analysis, behaviorism, and even psychology as a whole. Like the Lawfulness of Behavior, it was also a concept B. F Skinner wrote about, but there are countless contributions from prior philosophical works that contributed to its conceptualization.
Think of it like this; Behavior is like dinosaurs. Or humans. Or rabbits. Anything alive really. It only keeps “happening” (continuing to exist) if it can adapt in its environment. It is selected either by adaptation or consequences, thus the term Selectionism.
What we are going to be drawing parallels to here is the work of Charles Darwin in evolution. Adaptation. Survival of the fittest. He introduced a concept to the world called “natural selection”, in which species were selected through random traits that served to aid them in survival. This was his theory of evolution. He describes this discovery:
“In October 1838, that is fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work.” (Darwin, 1887)
But what does that mean for behavior? These same things that apply to evolution, and continuation of species, Skinner believed also apply to how our behaviors are shaped and maintained. Our behaviors are very much like living creatures, and we can even see terminology in behavioral science that hearkens back to it. Take these examples:
Dinosaurs that survived through cataclysm and successfully reproduced are said to have adapted. This is Darwinian terminology, and is called phylogenic adaptation. It involves a species. All the little dinosaur survivors who eventually passed on their genetic traits and “became” birds.
An operant behavior, that undergoes reinforcement, is more likely to happen again under the same antecedent conditions in the future. That is to say, a behavior that “works”, is more likely to happen again. It is a foundation of learning. This is called ontogenic adaptation, and happens within a single lifetime.
Do you see the parallels? Dinosaurs that survived the cataclysm passed on their genes. A behavior that successfully achieves or gets something, happens again in the future in those same conditions, most likely.
Now this isn’t just unidirectional. It can also be stopped. For both theories, the term extinction is used.
Dinosaurs that did not adapt through cataclysm and could not pass on their genes eventually died out. Their species underwent extinction. There were no more of those dinosaurs.
An operant behavior, which does not receive reinforcement, is less likely to continue in the future and eventually becomes extinguished. It undergoes extinction. If it does not work under those antecedent conditions, repeatedly, it “dies out” in very much the same way. That behavior does not occur again in those situations.
The choice of those words were not just coincidental. When B.F Skinner was formulating his theories of human behavior that went beyond simple stimulus-response conditions, he wanted to explain how certain behaviors came about, maintained, and eventually were lost. We see this within a single individual’s lifetime, and it seems like common sense: If it doesn’t work, you just don’t keep doing it. Now this may happen at varying rates of loss, which is why the terminology of behavior focuses on a scale of reduction in probability rather than complete loss immediately, but it follows the same route of “passing on” due to “usefulness”.
Do you remember those words phylogenic and ontogenic used above? Phylogenic regarding species, ontogenic regarding individual. This terminology can also describe behavior. You could say a phylogenic behavior, is one that all human beings have. It is a species-wide set of behaviors. The “nature” part of nature and nuture. So, blinking, for example is a phylogenic behavior. It is also a reflex, but one humans in general share. It would not take any learning to acquire or shape. Now, an ontogenic behavior, one shaped through reinforcement in a lifetime, say writing a great speech, is something that not all human beings would have from birth. It was learned through successive experiences of language being reinforced, then public speaking being reinforced, then the combining of the two to make a solid speech. Behavior shaped within a lifetime. Behavior can also take on shaping from broader aspects of contingencies in our society, or metacontingencies in culture as well. Culture, rules, laws, other people, can shape our behavior as well through these same processes.
Skinner would describe this in his book “Science and Human Nature”:
“Reflexes, conditioned or otherwise, are mainly concerned with the internal physiology of the organism. We are most often interested, however, in behavior which has some effect upon the surrounding world. Such behavior raises most of the practical problems in human affairs and is also of
particular theoretical interest because of its special characteristics. The consequences of behavior may “feed
back” into the organism. When they do so, they may change the probability that the behavior which produced them will occur again. The English language contains many words, such as “reward” and “punishment,” which refer to this effect, but we can get a clear picture of it only through experimental analysis.” (Skinner, 1953)
Behaviors, are a lot like dinosaurs. The most fit, and adaptive, survive. We often call this process learning. We learn to do things better. Behaviors, skills, what have you, continue and shape themselves because they are reinforced (rewarded), and become more successful, and continue to receive reinforcement under those right conditions. If they don’t, they undergo extinction. Just like dinosaurs.
Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Give them to me.
COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.
Darwin, C. (1958). The autobiography of Charles Darwin (N. Barlow, Ed.). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1887)
Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (2012). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.
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