Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Expanding the Explanatory Base of Behavior Analysis Via Modern Connectionism: Selectionism as a Common Explanatory Core

Academic journal article The Behavior Analyst Today

Expanding the Explanatory Base of Behavior Analysis Via Modern Connectionism: Selectionism as a Common Explanatory Core

Article excerpt


Selection is an important component of Darwin's functional explanation of the origin and extinction of species. It is an equally important component of Skinner's functional explanation of the origin and extinction of behavior. Darwin's functional explanation was marginalized within biology on the basis that it was an incomplete explanation because it lacked any plausible proximal causal mechanism for how variation was instantiated and for how natural selection could operate on this variation. Population genetics completed Darwin's evolutionary explanation by providing the required proximal causal mechanism information. Skinner's functional explanation of behavior has been marginalized within psychology for the same general reason that Darwin's theory was marginalized within biology. No proximal causal mechanisms are available to explain behavioral variation and how contingent consequences can selectively reinforce or strengthen target behaviors. Arguments that the experimental analysis of behavior can proceed without this information are correct in the same way that Darwin could continue his research in the absence of population genetics. However, history demonstrates that marginalization will remain until proximal causal information is provided. Parallel Distributed Processing Connectionist Neural Networks provide the requisite proximal causal explanations. This article demonstrates how this explanatory approach is fully compatible with the experimental analysis of behavior. Expansion of the explanatory basis of behavior analysis could potentially promote it within psychology to the same degree that population genetics promoted evolution within biology.


This article notes that applied behavior analysis and its selectionist orientation have been marginalized but that selectionism is gaining acceptance at an exponential rate in the form of Parallel Distributed Processing (PDP) connectionism (10) which is theoretically consistent with radical behaviorism because it is a superset of radical behaviorism. It therefore follows that applied behavior analysis may be able to expand its appeal by extending its explanatory base to include the new selectionist explanations used by PDP connectionism.

The first section of this article summarizes the selectionist approach that underlies the experimental analysis of behavior and its behavior therapeutic applications. This is done to emphasize the importance and value of this explanatory approach and to demonstrate my commitment to this perspective so that there can be no doubt as to my sincerity in this matter. Another reason for beginning with this section is that PDP connectionism supports selectionism.

The second section of this article notes that explanation based on selection outside of PDP connectionism has become severely marginalized within psychology. A future consequence of this trend, if left unchecked, is that fewer and fewer proponents of applied behavior analysis will have less and less impact on science, clinical practice, and education. Representation and influence in professional societies will continue to wane. It is time to act in new more effective ways before extinction fully occurs.

The third portion of this article proposes a "recovery plan" based on PDP connectionism. The main reasons are: 1) this form of connectionism fully embraces selectionist explanation, 2) it constitutes a superset of behaviorism that is compatible with mainstream psychology, and 3) its growth is exponential. Empirical support for these three claims is provided by the work of John Donahoe, a "card-carrying" behaviorist.


The word operant means to operate on the physical and/or social environment. Operants refer to theoretical distributions that describe slight variations in how the same behavior recurs in the same situation. We shall refer to them as response variations to highlight explanation by selection. …

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