Modern Perspectives on B. F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism

By James T. Todd; Edward K. Morris | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
Selection in Biology and Behavior

A. Charles Catania

In both operant conditioning and the evolutionary selection of behavioral characteristics, consequences alter future probability. Reflexes and other innate patterns of behavior evolve because they increase the chances of survival of the species. Operants grow strong because they are followed by important consequences in the life of the individual. ( Skinner, 1953, p. 90)

This opening quotation is one of B. F. Skinner's earliest references to the analogy between phylogenic and ontogenic selection. There is substantial continuity between the research that he brought together and presented in The Behavior of Organisms ( Skinner, 1938) and his later writings, but this citation is a significant marker of his transition from a treatment of behavior that took physics as its reference science to one that emphasized behavior as fundamentally a part of the subject matter of biology. The learning theories of the 1930s attempted to formulate laws and to derive principles from those laws, and, like other learning theorists of the time, Skinner included such components in his early work (e.g., his Laws of the Reflex: Skinner, 1938, pp. 12-33).

In Science and Human Behavior ( Skinner, 1953), however, the ties to biology became explicit in the many references to evolutionary contingencies, and those ties were strengthened and expanded in later works ( Skinner, 1966a, 1975, 1977a, 1984a, 1984b). For example, Skinner's discussion of phylogenic selection shifted from the selection of species to the selection of organs and organ systems ( Skinner, 1988), and his treatment of the nature of the units that were selected represented an integration of selection with some of his earliest concerns about behavioral units ( Skinner, 1935). He elaborated on the nature of selection and its operation in the three realms of phylogeny, ontogeny, and culture in a paper entitled "Selection by Consequences" ( Skinner, 1981b).

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