Misrepresentation: Behavior analysts ignore the behavioral influence of genetic endowment. Instead, all behavior is said to be acquired within the lifetime of the individual.
Clarification: Behavior analysis’ position is that evolution clearly does influence behavior in at least these areas:
#1. Response sequences and reflexes.
The behavior of bees making honey, for example, is a response sequence that clearly results from evolutionary processes.
Another example is found in Skinner’s “Genes and Behavior” where he describes wasps catching, paralyzing, and burying a grasshopper that will serve as nourishment for eggs the wasp then lays. These responses are products of evolutionary processes creating complex
Reflexes are yet another example of behaviors created phylogenically (e.g., salivating, eyes tearing when irritated, patellar reflexes, etc.) Evolution creates entire unlearned repertoires that prepare individuals for specific situations that repeatedly presented themselves during the species’ past.
Of course Pavlov demonstrated that reflexes can be brought under the control of other stimului by classical conditioning. The point above refers to the reflexive response itself, not its stimulus control.
#2. Susceptibility to reinforcement.
Besides producing specific responses, evolution creates organisms susceptible to reinforcement–both operant and respondent forms. This product of our phylogenic history is a major issue in behavior analysis.
Behavior analysis focuses on how individuals acquire behavior during a lifetime whereas evolutionary biology focuses on how species acquire behaviors over generations. Behavior analysis appreciates both of these complementary and interacting processes.
Several Related Points
#1. Regarding instinct: Phylogenic selection can result in behavior (possibly
species-specific behavior) but this is not a reason to state that the organism has a “genetic instinct”. The history of phylogenic selection is the cause; the species-specific behavior is the result of that history, not a genetic instinct (See page 40 of B.F. Skinner’s About Behaviorism).
#2. Regarding genetic explanation by default: Genetic endowment is often cited as a cause of behavior by default because the selective operation of the environment was not identified. A current example is “innate grammar” that was hypothesized because of structural consistencies between numerous languages. Behavioral consistency can result from consistent contingencies of reinforcement affecting individuals as well as phylogenic contingencies affecting species.
#3. Regarding cognitive structure of mind: A philosophical tradition exemplified by Kant in the 18th century and today by cognitivists suggests that genetically given behavior or mental mechanisms preordain our organization of information. For example, “Not only is verbal behavior said to show the operation of innate rules of grammar, but ‘innate ideas such as size, shape, motion, position, number, and duration’ are said to ‘give form and meaning to the confused fragmentary data that we experience everyday in our lives'” (B.F. Skinner’s About Behaviorism, p. 129). To a behavior analyst, this is merely another example o f moving the environment inside the organism: “Size, shape, motion, position, number, and duration are features of the environment …It may be true that there is no structure without construction, but we must look to the constructing environment, not to a constructing mind” (About Behaviorism, p. 129).
To suggest that a mind organizes, contains, or causes behavior via “organizing experience” merely “Shows that we have not yet accounted for the behavior in terms of contingencies, phylogenic or ontogenic” (Contingencies of Reinforcement, p. 182).
1. Genes and Behavior (Chapter 5) in Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior (B.F. Skinner, 1989, Merrill Publishing Company) introduces key points for a general audience. It also touches on phylogenic behavior, reinforcement susceptibility, and the role of reinforcement-vs-genes in evolution of social behavior and culture. This chapter offers learning theory alternatives to genetic explanation-by-default.
2. B.F. Skinner. About Behaviorism. An excellent introduction to all facets of
3. B.F. Skinner. Contingencies of Reinforcement, Chapter 7. This is a more
technical account that distinguishes phylogenic and ontogenic contingencies and discusses their interactio n.
4. B.F. Skinner. Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, 1978, chapter 2, p. 32. Skinner discusses the interplay between our genetic endowment and social contingencies.
5. Steven Harnad and A.C. Cantania’s (1988) The Selection of behavior: The
operant behaviorism of B.F. Skinner–Comments and consequence. Cambridge University Press. This is a wonderful tour of all aspects of behaviorism with Skinner.