B.F. Skinner, Revisited

David P. Barash in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

SkinnerI am not now, nor have I ever been, a devotee of behaviorism, radical or otherwise. Moreover, when I teach or write about animal behavior, I often counterpoise B.F. Skinner’s work in particular as the intellectual antipode of my own perspective, which emphasizes the importance of built-in, prewired, evolutionarily generated mechanisms. For Skinner and his disciples, living things (including human beings) are tabula rasa, blank slates upon which the contingencies of reinforcement write as they will, thereby constituting the crucial — indeed, the only — determinant of behavior: the experience of each individual…

Into my own comfortable conceptual dichotomy (“behaviorism bad; evolutionism good”), there came an apple of discord when I happened to reread Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, published more than three decades ago.

Please don’t misunderstand: I haven’t become a convert to behaviorism. But I have emerged with a deeper respect for B.F. Skinner and his work, and a recognition that in his legacy, not just evolutionary biologists but all scientists have a potent intellectual ally. His research didn’t encompass neurobiology, sociobiology, or, indeed, biology at all. But there is no doubt that he “did” science, and moreover, that he provided the rest of us with some conceptual tools and arguments that will help us along our way.

More here.

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