The following presents two sources for the philosophy underlying behavior analysis as it has come to be represented in the tradition of the later B. F. Skinner's radical behaviorism--Darwinian selectionism and pragmatism primarily in the Peircean tradition. Both show organizations according to probabilistic three-term contingencies, but at different levels, Darwin for species, pragmatists for meaning. Peirce shows key similarities with Darwin, and the later Skinner shows key similarities with Darwin and Peirce. In contrast to his early S-R behaviorism supported by mechanism and positivism, the philosophy that characterized Skinner's later work was a pragmatic selectionism.
Keywords: Darwin, Dewey, evolution, James, Peirce, positivism, pragmatism, selectionism, Skinner
To the extent that behavior analysts support Skinner's radical behaviorism in contrast to his earlier S-R behaviorism, the following presents the philosophy of behavior analysis as a philosophy of pragmatic selectionism. The early Skinner (1931/1999, pp. 478-487) traced the reflex back to Descartes in a history of physiology that included Marshall Hall and Pavlov. Later, Skinner (1963/1969, pp. 223-226) traced his radical behaviorism from Darwin to Romanes to Morgan to Thorndike, all of whom advanced connections with natural selection, and to others who did not ("In his article in the Encyclopedia Britannica Watson [had also] traced a concern with the consequences of behavior to C. Lloyd Morgan and Edward L. Thorndike," Skinner, 1981/1987, p. 188). The originator in each historical series is revealing. Descartes advanced the if-then stimulus and response reflex, and Skinner (1931/1999) saw that by definition the relation between the stimulus and the response was one of "necessity" (p. 449) and an essential part of the mechanistic theory he was then advancing. Skinner said, "The stimulus is an essential part of a mechanistic theory of behavior, whether the notion is arrived at through observation ... or argued from physical necessity or mechanical analogy, as it was with Descartes" (p. 480). In contrast, Darwin advanced an analysis according to a three-term probabilistic contingency of the conditions of life, variation, and selection. Darwin's views soon influenced the views of Peirce and other pragmatists, and eventually the later Skinner. Against the background of his early S-R behaviorism, an outline of Skinner's subsequent pragmatic selectionism follows.
Modernism and Its Support for Early Behaviorism
S-R behaviorism fits in with a cluster of ideas referred to as modernism, a period extending mainly from the 17th to the 20th century (cf. Toulmin, 1983). The sciences and their philosophy in the early years of this period were commonly characterized as mechanistic. Highlighting the Cartesian values of modernism, Toulmin (1990) said, "All the protagonists of modern philosophy promoted theory, devalued practice, and insisted equally on the need to find foundations for knowledge that were clear, distinct, and certain" (p. 70). Modernist values in philosophy reached a high point of abstraction in logical positivism, which became the dominant philosophy of science. According to Day (1980), this dominance extended to psychology: "In the 1930s psychology assumed an epistemological orientation that was dominated by logical positivism" (p. 235). A prominent advocate of such an epistemology was Bertrand Russell, who (1950) said, "I am, as regards to method, more in sympathy with the logical positivists than with any other existing school" (p. 9); and he (1919, pp. 7-8; 1926; 1926/1960, pp. 57-59; 1927/1970) advanced the stimulus and response behaviorism of John Watson. Skinner (e.g., 1976/1977, pp. 298-99; 1979/1984, p. 10; 1989, pp. 121-122; 1977/1978, p. 113) credited Russell, a particularly strong influence on his early views (Moxley, 2003; Wood, 1986), for leading him into behaviorism and giving him (1931/1999, p. 475) the clue to the definition of the reflex. In line with Russell and logical positivism, Skinner (1938/1966) said of his scientific method, "It is positivistic" (p. 44). Looking back, Skinner (1979/1984) said, "As far as I was concerned, there were only minor differences between behaviorism, operationism, and logical positivism" (p. 161); and Skinner (1989, p. 122) saw a common source for his early views and those of logical positivism in the views of Ernst Mach. Later, in a seeming continuation of his S-R behaviorism, Skinner (1969) said, "Man is a machine" (p. 294), and analogies between factory psychology and Skinner's work have been made (e.g., Schwartz, Schuldenfrie, and Lacey, 1978). But Skinner's 1969 analogy was to a "very complex" machine with feedback (which requires a three- term conception of input, output, and feedback) that is presently "far beyond the powers of men to construct" (p. 294). Perhaps reflecting that his point about complex machines might be misunderstood as defending his early reflexology (and perhaps it was to some extent), Skinner (1981) later said, "Living things are not machines" (p. 504). Skinner's fundamental conception for operant behavior was no longer in terms of the S-R reflex.
In brief, the dominant modernist philosophy was an if-then philosophy in a tradition from Descartes and mechanists to Russell and logical positivists. In an if-then analysis, the particularly problematic issue as far as empirical evidence goes is establishing the if and its certainty. What is? This translates into What is to be assumed? The then follows automatically by logic or mathematics. The troublesome if is dealt with by assumptions such as assuming an underlying determinism and assuming positively certain elements of sensation. Contexts, including consequences, can be left out or relegated to a subordinate position. Stimulus and response (S-R) psychology exemplified an if-then approach and was explicitly supported, if with reservations, by some logical positivists and those with affinities to the logical positivists such as Hans Neurath and Bertrand Russell (Moxley, 2001a).
Natural selection presented a different method of explanation. In his autobiography, Darwin (1887/1958) indicated he needed three concepts for his theory. The first concept was variation:
During the voyage of the Beagle I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals ... secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent; and thirdly by the south American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island.... [S]uch facts ... could be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me. (pp. 118-119)
Extensive variations support evolution, but they do not give the means for it. Darwin recounted how he had pursued this means and discovered it in the second concept of selection:
After my return to England.... I soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man's success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me. 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. (pp. 119-120)
However, Darwin found that he still needed a third concept to complete his theory:
But at that time I overlooked one problem of great importance .... the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under suborders, and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature. (pp. 120-121)
These places provided the niches for adaptation and explained the tendency for diversification in a changing environment. Otherwise, natural selection would weed out the unfit and tend toward uniformity and a perfection of sorts. The variation of organisms and the selection of the fittest could not be explained without taking the environment, or The Conditions of Life, into account. Darwin (1872/1958) said, "Natural Selection [emphasis added].... implies only the preservations of such variations as arise and are beneficial to the being under its conditions of life [emphasis …