Perspectives on Behavior Science

, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 269–281 | Cite as

B.F. Skinner and the Metaphysics of Darwinism

  • Michael T. GhiselinEmail author


B. F. Skinner viewed behaviorism not as the science of behavior, but a philosophy of that science. Such philosophizing is a legitimate part of a scientist’s investigative behavior. He sought to eliminate confusion and error by getting rid of objectionable posits such as homunculi, vital forces, intentionalities, purposes and essences, sticking to overt behavior and spurning “mentalism.” Skinner believed that there are hard analogies between learning and natural selection, such that what is appropriate in the study of one may be appropriate in the study of the other. Dispensing with teleology is but one example. Where there is selection by consequences, variation has to be taken seriously. Essentialism or typology screens out variation and leads to stereotypes. It may be viewed as treating individuals (in a broad, philosophical sense) as if they were classes. Individuals are concrete, particular things, including species and many other groups, whereas classes are abstract. Individuals can engage in processes, such as behavior. But they do not have definitions (or essences), and there are no laws of nature for them. Trying to find a definition, or an essence, for the human species is trying to find a definition for an indefinable instead of a description for a describable. Idealism has introduced a kind of mentalism into behavioral discourse that behavior analysts should scrupulously avoid. There are no laws for individuals, only for kinds of individuals, and care needs to be taken to avoid confusing laws of nature with contingent, historical fact. Skinner was a (perhaps somewhat inconsistent) realist who presupposed the uniformity of nature in his investigations. Investigative behavior may be more lawful than even he maintained.


Essentialism Functional analysis Variation Selection Realism Idealism 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.California Academy of SciencesSan FranciscoUSA

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