Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


46th Annual Convention; Washington DC; 2020

Event Details

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Symposium #351
CE Offered: BACB
Selection in Phylogeny, Ontogeny, and Sociogeny: Progenitors, Properties, and Implementations
Sunday, May 24, 2020
4:00 PM–5:50 PM
Marriott Marquis, Level M1, University of D.C. / Catholic University
Area: PCH; Domain: Theory
Chair: Nancy A. Neef (The Ohio State University)
Discussant: Jack J. McDowell (Emory University)
CE Instructor: Jack J. McDowell, Ph.D.

Organisms are selected based on what they can do, so behavior is fundamental at every level of selection, in the sense that anatomies and physiologies evolved in the service of behavior. We look at the founding selectionists, and then we examine selection as it operates in phylogeny (Darwinian evolution), ontogeny (operant behavior), and sociogeny (cultural selection, selection of verbal behavior). Selection as a causal mode differs fundamentally from classic causal modes (as in Aristotle's material, formal, efficient and final causes); it is not reducible to causal chains because, as in the three-term contingency in behavior analysis, it relates the outcomes of variations to their antecedent environments. The three levels of selection differ in what is selected and in mechanisms of selection, but it nevertheless remains appropriate to explore parallels among them. We consider some parallels, such as competing effects of short-term and long-term contingencies at each level of selection, and use them to interpret findings in sexual selection, evo-devo or evolutionary development, epigenesis, and horizontal gene transfer (among others), that have challenged the generality of Darwinian selection.

Instruction Level: Intermediate
Keyword(s): causality, Darwinism, evolution, selection
Target Audience:

The target audience for the symposium is behavior analysts, graduate students, and post-docs who seek to learn more about the history and theory of selectionism as it relates to the three levels of selection highlighted by Skinner (e.g., 1981).


The Progenitors: Charles Darwin, B. F. Skinner, E. O. Wilson

WILLIAM DAVID STAHLMAN (University of Mary Washington), A. Charles Catania (University of Maryland, Baltimore County)

Darwin developed his theory of natural selection to account for the fact of evolution; he extended it from phylogeny to sociogeny when treating the evolution of human languages. Skinner discussed operant behavior as an ontogenic parallel and later included sociogenic selection as one of three varieties of selection by consequences; the sociogenic variety embraced both verbal behavior and cultural practices. Wilson, in his sociobiology, integrated phylogenic with sociogenic selection. In a little-known interaction, Wilson and Skinner discussed similarities between their approaches. We therefore cannot identify any one innovator with any particular level of selection, but we can explore their various contributions to each. As we shall show, each was a brilliant theorist, each was a consummate observer, and each was an incisive experimentalist. Their work, well-received by many, also aroused strong counter-reactions, most notably with accusations of fascism (e.g., Chomsky's attacks on Skinner; Gould's attacks on Wilson). The most prominent attacks on Darwin came not in his lifetime, but rather in the context of early twentieth-century social Darwinism, when natural selection was conflated with eugenics and racist theories. But in our behavior analytic environments selection thrives: within them it has been selected.


Reinforced Variability and Darwinian Divergence


Variations provide the necessary substrates for both Darwinian evolution and Skinnerian shaping. When differential consequences (e.g., survival and procreation in one case; food or sex in the other) are based on individual members of the substrate, then new species or operant responses can emerge. Thus, for example, by reinforcing only the largest 20% of beak openings in a pigeon, one can shape a larger opening than was ever before observed. Importantly but less well appreciated, consequences also select the levels and characteristics of variability itself, e.g., variability of species phenotypes and response topographies. Darwin referred to selected variability as "divergent" and explained it by differential survival; in operant studies, it is referred to as "operant, or reinforced variability." Thus, just as the current size of beak openings is a function of past reinforcement, the current level of beak variability may be due to past variability-contingent consequences. I will provide some of the copious evidence for selection of levels and characteristics of variability in evolution and operant conditioning.I will also discuss how applications of reinforced variability can assist those involved in teaching and skills-training as well as in therapeutic situations, e.g., with behavior along the autism spectrum.

Rapid Adaptation at Small Timescales in a Selectionist System
CYRUS CHI (Emory Laney Graduate School)
Abstract: The Evolutionary Theory of Behavioral Dynamics (ETBD) is a computational selectionist theory that predicts behavior in ontogenetic time. The theory utilizes the principles of evolution (i.e. selection, recombination, and mutation) to generate simulated behavior that constitute the theory’s predictions for a given environment. Predictions of behavior generated by various schedules of reinforcement can be derived from the theory and be compared with data (Corrado et al., 2005) produced by real organisms (rhesus monkeys). This presentation reviews such comparisons as they have been studied within dynamic schedule environments, across different schedule parameters, and at three different levels of analysis. At macro levels, data from virtual organisms animated by the ETBD fit well to the generalized matching law (GML; Baum, 1974) and return parameters comparable to those derived from rhesus monkey data. At the level of transitions, virtual organisms adapted more quickly than rhesus monkeys to schedule transitions. At a level within schedules, the predictions of the ETBD showed rapid adaptations of behavior to within-schedule maxima and minima and were comparable to data from the behavior of rhesus monkeys.
Long-Term and Short-Term Contingencies in Phylogenic, Ontogenic and Sociogenic Selection
A. CHARLES CATANIA (University of Maryland, Baltimore County), William David Stahlman (University of Mary Washington)
Abstract: The analysis of contingencies at any level of selection may benefit from comparisons with analogous contingencies at other levels. Our main example will be the effects of short-term versus long-term contingencies. At the ontogenic level, taking a smaller reinforcer now rather than a larger one later is called impulsivity, whereas doing the opposite is called self-control. Analyses in terms of delay-of-reinforcement gradients have been applied to addiction treatments and abstinence programs. Time scales differ, but similar issues arise for short-term versus long-term contingencies at phylogenic and sociogenic levels. For example, sexual selection involves short-term consequences, as when mating follows from the peahen's response to a peacock with a particularly spectacular tail, but as long-term consequences make this species more specialized relative to competing generalists, it may become more vulnerable to environmental change. Darwin's sexual selection did not include an argument that females selected males based on features correlated by fitness; that argument came from Darwin's selectionist contemporary, Wallace. Politics involves obvious analogous contingencies at the level of sociogeny, as when political systems allow the short-term consequences of election and re-election to outweigh the long-term consequences of the decisions of those in office.



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