Saturday, May 17, 2014

Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change

From the journal Behavioral and Brain Science, this is a very interesting and long article on the process of creating intentional change in people. Two of the authors are the evolutionary sociobiologist, David Sloan Wilson, and the creator of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Steven C. Hayes. I am only including the abstract and introduction, along with the first section - the whole paper is 91 pages.

Full Citation:
Wilson, DS, Hayes, SC, Biglan, A, Embry, DD. (2014, May 15). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences; pp 1-99. DOI: 

Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change

David Sloan Wilson [a1 c1], Steven C. Hayes [a2], Anthony Biglan [a3] and Dennis D. Embry [a4]
a1. SUNY Distinguished Professor, Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY 13903. Email: Home page:
a2. Foundation Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0062. Email: Home page:
a3. Senior Scientist, Oregon Research Institute, 1715 Franklin Boulevard, Eugene, OR 97403. Email: Home page:
a4. CEO, PAXIS, Inc. Tucson, Arizona. Email: Home page:


Humans possess great capacity for behavioral and cultural change, but our ability to manage change is still limited. This article has two major objectives: first, to sketch a basic science of intentional change centered on evolution; second, to provide examples of intentional behavioral and cultural change from the applied behavioral sciences, which are largely unknown to the basic scientific community.

All species have evolved mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity that enable them to respond adaptively to their environments. Some mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity count as evolutionary processes in their own right. The human capacity for symbolic thought provides an inheritance system with the same kind of combinatorial diversity as genetic recombination and antibody formation. Taking these propositions seriously allows an integration of major traditions within the basic behavioral sciences, such as behaviorism, social constructivism, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology, which are often isolated and even conceptualized as opposed to each other.

The applied behavioral sciences include well-validated examples of successfully managing behavioral and cultural change at scales ranging from individuals, to small groups, to large populations. However, these examples are largely unknown beyond their disciplinary boundaries, for lack of a unifying theoretical framework. Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, they are examples of managing evolved mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity, including open-ended processes of variation and selection.

Once the many branches of the basic and applied behavioral sciences become conceptually unified, we are closer to a science of intentional change than one might think.

1. Introduction

Change is the mantra of modern life. We embrace change as a virtue but are desperate to escape from undesired changes that appear beyond our control. We crave positive change at all levels: individuals seeking to improve themselves, neighborhoods seeking a greater sense of community, nations attempting to function as corporate units, the multinational community attempting to manage the global economy and the environment.

Science should be an important agent of change, and it is; but it is responsible for as many unwanted changes as those we desire. Even the desired changes can be like wishes granted in folk tales, which end up regretted in retrospect. Despite some notable successes, some of which we highlight in this article, our ability to change our behavioral and cultural practices lags far behind our ability to manipulate the physical environment. No examples of scientifically guided social change can compare to putting a man on the moon.

In this article we ask what a science of positive behavioral and cultural change would look like and what steps might be required to achieve it. We begin with the basic suggestion that evolution must be at the center of any science of change. After all, evolution is the study of how organisms change in relation to their environments, not only by genetics but also by mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity that evolved by genetic evolution, including some that count as evolutionary processes in their own right (Calvin 1987; Jablonka & Lamb 2006; Richerson & Boyd 2005). A solid foundation in evolutionary theory can also help us understand why some changes we desire, which count as adaptations in the evolutionary sense of the word, can turn out to be bad for long-term human welfare. Left unmanaged, evolutionary processes often take us where we would prefer not to go. The only solution to this problem is to become wise managers of evolutionary processes (Wilson 2011c).

The first step – appreciating the central importance of evolution – reveals how many steps remain to achieve a mature science of behavioral and cultural change. The study of evolution in relation to human affairs has a long and tortuous history that led many to abandon and even oppose the enterprise altogether (Ehrenreich & McIntosh 1997; Sahlins 1976; Segerstrale 2001). Using evolution to inform public policy earned such a bad reputation that “social Darwinism” came to signify the justification of social inequality (Hofstadter 1959/1992; Leonard 2009). Evolution became a pariah concept to avoid as a conceptual foundation for the study of human behavior and culture for most of the 20th century. The implicit assumption was that evolution explained the rest of life, our physical bodies, and a few basic instincts such as the urge to eat and have sex, but had little to say about our rich behavioral and cultural diversity.

The reception to E. O. Wilson’s 1975 book Sociobiology provides an example of this intellectual apartheid. The purpose of Sociobiology was to show that a single science of social behavior could apply to all species, from microbes to insects to primates. It was celebrated as a triumph except for the final chapter on humans, which created a storm of controversy (Segerstrale 2001). Only during the late 1980s did terms such as evolutionary psychology and evolutionary anthropology enter the scientific language, signifying a renewed attempt to place the study of human behavior and culture on an evolutionary foundation.

As a result, an enormous amount of integration must occur before a science of human behavioral and cultural change can center on evolution. This integration needs to be a two-way street, involving not only contributions of evolutionary theory to the human-related disciplines but also the reverse. For example, core evolutionary theory needs to expand beyond genetics to include other inheritance systems, such as environmentally induced changes in gene expression (epigenetics), mechanisms of social learning found in many species, and the human capacity for symbolic thought that results in an almost unlimited variety of cognitive constructions, each motivating a suite of behaviors subject to selection (Jablonka & Lamb 2006; Penn et al. 2008).

We will argue that the first steps toward integration, represented by a configuration of ideas that most people associate with evolutionary psychology, was only the beginning and in some ways led in the wrong direction. In particular, the polarized distinction between evolutionary psychology and the standard social science model (Pinker 1997; 2002; Tooby & Cosmides 1992) was a wrong turn we must correct. A mature EP needs to include elements of the SSSM associated with major thinkers such as Emile Durkheim, B. F. Skinner, and Clifford Geertz. Only when we depolarize the distinction between EP and the SSSM can a science of change occur (Bolhuis et al. 2011; Buller 2005; Scher & Rauscher 2002; Wilson 2002b).

In section 2 of this article we will attempt to accomplish this depolarization to provide a broader evolutionary foundation for the human behavioral and social sciences. In section 3 we will review examples of scientifically based and validated programs that accomplish change on three scales: individuals, small groups, and large populations. We draw these examples from branches of the applied behavioral sciences that, like diamonds in the sand, have remained largely hidden from evolutionary science and the basic human behavioral sciences. The examples provide a much needed body of empirical information to balance evolutionary theorizing, which is frequently criticized for remaining at the speculative “just so” storytelling stage. Indeed, the randomized control trials and other high-quality real-world experiments described in section 2 can be regarded as a refined variation-and-selection process with faster and more accurate feedback on effectiveness than other mechanisms of cultural evolution. When viewed from an evolutionary perspective, they emerge as examples of wisely managing evolutionary processes to accomplish significant improvement in human well-being. We are closer to a science of intentional change than one might think.

2. Toward a basic science of change

The ability to change behavioral and cultural practices in practical terms can profit from a basic scientific understanding of behavioral and cultural change. The human behavioral sciences are currently in disarray on the subject of change. Every discipline has its own configuration of ideas that seldom relate to other disciplines or to modern evolutionary science. We will focus on a major dichotomy that all human-related disciplines must confront: On the one hand, human behavior and culture appear elaborately flexible. On the other, as with all species, the human brain is an elaborate product of genetic evolution. These two facts often appear in opposition to each other, as if evolution implies genetic determinism, which in turn implies an incapacity for change over short time intervals. Once this misformulation is accepted, then the capacity for short-term change becomes conceptualized as outside the orbit of evolutionary theory.

Although the tension between genetic innateness and the capacity for short-term change exists in all branches of the human behavioral sciences, we will focus on two major branches: the behaviorist tradition associated with B. F. Skinner and the configuration of ideas that arose in the late 1980s under the label evolutionary psychology (EP). These merit special attention because of the history of the behaviorist tradition in academic psychology, even before EP made the scene, and because EP came about in a way that seemed to exclude the standard social science model (SSSM) centered on behaviorism in psychology and so-called blank slate traditions in anthropology associated with figures such as Durkheim and Geertz (e.g., Pinker 1997; 2002; Tooby & Cosmides 1992). Reconciling the differences between the behaviorist tradition and EP can go a long way toward reconciling the apparent paradox of genetic innateness and the capacity for short-term change in all branches of the human behavioral sciences.

2.1. B. F. Skinner: Evolutionary psychologist

In the abstract of his influential article “Selection by Consequences,” Skinner (1981) framed his version of behaviorism in terms of evolution:
Selection by consequences is a causal mode found only in living things, or in machines made by living things. It was first recognized in natural selection, but it also accounts for the shaping and maintenance of the behavior of the individual and the evolution of cultures. In all three of these fields, it replaces explanations based on the causal modes of classical mechanics. The replacement is strongly resisted. Natural selection has now made its case, but similar delays in recognizing the role of selection in the other fields could deprive us of valuable help in solving the problems which confront us. (p. 501)
Although the term evolutionary psychology had not yet been coined, Skinner’s passage leaves no doubt that he regarded the open-ended capacity for behavioral and cultural change as both (1) a product of genetic evolution and (2) an evolutionary process in its own right. It is therefore ironic that when Tooby and Cosmides (1992) formulated their version of EP, they set it apart from the SSSM that included the Skinnerian tradition (see also Pinker 1997; 2002). 

Long before Tooby and Cosmides’s version of EP made the scene, the so-called cognitive revolution had largely displaced behaviorism in academic psychology. Cognitive theorists stressed that the enormous complexity of the mind needed direct study, in contrast to Skinner’s insistence on focusing on the functional relations of environment and behavior (Brewer 1974; Bruner 1973). The central metaphor of the cognitive revolution was that the mind is like a computer that we must understand in mechanistic detail to know how it works. However, those who study computers would never restrict themselves to input-output relationships: They would study the machinery and the software. Cognitive psychologists faulted behaviorists for not following the same path.

One of the seeds of the cognitive revolution, which took root in Tooby and Cosmides’s version of EP, was a challenge to what most perceived to be the extreme domain generality of behavioral approaches. An example is Martin Seligman’s (1970) influential article on the “generality of the laws of learning.” Seligman reviewed a body of evidence showing that the parameters of learning processes had to be viewed in light of the evolutionary preparedness of organisms to relate particular events. For example, taste aversion (Garcia et al. 1966) challenged the idea that immediacy per se is key in stimulus pairings in classical conditioning, as illness could follow by tens of hours and still induce aversion to ecologically sensible food-related cues. Seligman recognized that this kind of specialized learning could evolve by altering the parameters of classical conditioning, but his preferred interpretation was that general learning processes themselves were not useful: “[W]e have reason to suspect that the laws of learning discovered using lever pressing and salivation may not hold” (p. 417).

Even more important was the conclusion that no general process account was possible in the area of human language and cognition. Pointing to evidence that seemed to show that human language requires no elaborate training for its production, Seligman concluded, “instrumental and classical conditioning are not adequate for an analysis of language” (p. 414). What interests us in this context is how these concerns quickly led to abandoning the idea that general learning process accounts were possible. For example, in an influential chapter that helped launch the “cognitive revolution,” William Brewer (1974) concluded, “all the results of the traditional conditioning literature are due to the operation of higher mental processes, as assumed in cognitive theory, and … there is not and never has been any convincing evidence for unconscious, automatic mechanisms in the conditioning of adult human beings” (p. 27, italics added).

The concern over the limits of domain generality in cognitive psychology redoubled as EP arrived as a self-described discipline, including the influential volume The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (Barkow et al. 1992; see also Pinker 1997; 2002). The thrust of EP was that the mind is neither a blank slate nor a general-purpose computer. The mind is a collection of many special-purpose computers that evolved genetically to solve specific problems pertaining to survival and reproduction in ancestral environments. This claim became known as “massive modularity” (Buller 2005; Buller & Hardcastle 2000; Carruthers 2006; Fodor 1983; 2000).

Tooby and Cosmides’s (1992) chapter in The Adapted Mind, titled “The Psychological Foundations of Culture,” which did much to define the field of EP, described domain-general learning (the applicability of general cognitive processes, whether viewed behaviorally or cognitively) as nearly a theoretical impossibility. Too many environmental inputs can be processed in too many ways for a domain-general learning machine to work, whether designed by humans or by natural selection. The most intelligent machines humans have designed are highly task specific. Tax preparation software provides a good example: It requires exactly the right environmental input, which it processes in exactly the right way, to calculate one’s taxes accurately. It is impressively flexible at its specific task but utterly incapable of doing anything else. According to Tooby and Cosmides, natural selection is constrained just as human engineers are in creating complex machines or programming software, leaving massive modularity as the only theoretical possibility for the design of the mind.

In discussing cultural evolution, Tooby and Cosmides observed that behavioral differences among human populations do not necessarily signify the cultural transmission of learned information. Instead, they can reflect massively modular minds responding to different environmental cues without any learning or social transmission whatsoever. They called this instinctive response to the environment “evoked” culture, in contrast to the social transmission of learned information, or “transmitted” culture. They did not deny the existence of transmitted culture, but had little to say about it.

An article titled “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer” (Cosmides & Tooby 1997) pares their vision to its bare essentials. The human mind is described as “a set of information processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” Because our modern skull houses a Stone-Age mind, “the key to understanding how the modern mind works is to realize that its circuits were not designed to solve the day-to-day problems of a modern American – they were designed to solve the day-today problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.” Evolutionary psychology is described as “relentlessly past-oriented” – meaning our genetic past, not our cultural or individual past.

In this fashion, the concept of elaborate innateness that became associated with EP sat in opposition to the open-ended capacity for change that became associated with what Tooby and Cosmides branded the SSSM. In our opinion, this is a profound mistake needing correction to achieve an integrated science of change.
Read the whole article.
Post a Comment