World History for Behavior Analysts: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel

By Vyse, Stuart A. | Behavior and Social Issues, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

World History for Behavior Analysts: Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel


Vyse, Stuart A., Behavior and Social Issues


Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, contains two important messages for behavior analysts, one a statement of theoretical (and perhaps social-political) kinship and the other a suggestion about scientific methodology and subject matter. First, Guns, Germs, and Steel presents an environmentalist explanation of the dramatically different fates of the world's cultures that is compatible with the views of many behavior analysts, past and present. Second, Diamond's discussion of the book's methodology suggests useful new ways for behavior analysts to investigate important but currently neglected forms of individual behavior.

NATURE, NURTURE, AND HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT

Among psychological theorists, behavior analysts tend to emphasize environmental causes. There is no inherent reason why behavior analysts should be found on the nurture end of the traditional nature-nurture continuum (nor, for that matter, on the liberal end of the liberal-conservative continuum). One might toil in the behavioral laboratory articulating the laws of learning, while granting those laws relatively little influence on the achievements of the species. Indeed, Richard Herrnstein's behavior analytic research contributed enormously to our understanding of the law of effect while his more widely read works emphasized the role of heredity in social problems and in the differing accomplishments of social groups (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Wilson & Herrnstein, 1985). Nonetheless, behavior analytic research highlights the power of environmental variables in the control of behavior. Genetic endowment is acknowledged as an important source of behavior in human and non-human species (Skinner, 1966), but relative to most other behavioral scientists, behavior analysts are more likely to attribute behavior to environmental contingencies than to lasting behavioral tendencies internal to the organism. Watsonian omnipotentiality is no longer widely endorsed; however, behavior analysts continue to reject theories of behavior that rely on traits and temperaments, arguing that these are circular constructs-explanatory fictions that have no reality beyond the behavior they seek to explain (Michael, 1993). Behavior analysts seek the sources of behavior in the environment; whereas to varying degrees, other behavior theorists look for the sources of behavior in the biology of the individual.2

Those who attempt to explain the successes or failures of various cultures of the world play out a similar nature-nurture conflict on a larger stage. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel is a four hundred-page answer to a question posed to him by a New Guinean friend and politician named Yali. As the two men walked on the beach, Yali asked, "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?" (p. 14). Diamond, a biophysiologist who often traveled to New Guinea to conduct field research, had long thought the New Guinea people to be extremely intelligent, yet they live as hunter-gatherers, tribal farmers, and fishing people. The traditional answer to Yali's question, and one consistent with Herrnstein and Murray's (1994) The Bell Curve, would attribute differences in the success of cultures to genetics: Yali's people are less intelligent and less creative than Diamond's people, and the difference lies in the phylogeny of the two groups. By tracing what he modestly calls, "a brief history of everybody for the last 13,000 years," Diamond argues very compellingly that the great gulfs among cultures throughout the world are largely due to accidents of geography: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves" (p. 25). Just as the immediate environment affects an individual's behavior, the local habitat dramatically influences the development of a social group. …

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