Behavior and Social Issues

, Volume 16, Issue 2, pp 134–169 | Cite as

Opinion: Notes From a Radical Behaviorist

Are Women, People of Color, Asians, and Southern Europeans Inherently Inferior to North-European Males? A History of Biological Determinism—A Cultural, Spiritual and Intellectual Disgrace—And the Implications for Understanding “Mental Illness”
  • Richard W. MalottEmail author


Biological determinism is the view that biological or genetic factors are the main or even the sole cause of important behavioral differences between people, even when those behavioral differences involve complex behavior-environment interactions. However, biological determinism has a disgraceful history, a history involving scientific racism, scientific sexism, scientific classism, and what I call scientific mentalism. Furthermore, an appreciation of that disgraceful history can provide perspective for evaluating the contemporary emphasis on the biological and genetic basis of “mental illness” so well critiqued by Wong (2006) and Wyatt (2006). The present article is an attitude-laden summary of that disgraceful history, followed by a few guidelines for a behavioral approach to the analysis of complex behavior-environment interactions, and finally a glance at a couple current “mental-illness” issues from the behavior-analytic perspective developed in this article.


behaviorism biological determinism scientific racism scientific sexism intelligence mental illness mental health biological behavior analysis 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. American Psychiatric Association (2000). Practice guidelines for the treatment of psychiatric disorders: Compendium 2000. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  2. Aylward, E. H., Minshew, N. J., Field, B. F., Sparks, B. F., & Singh, N. (2002). Effects of age on brain volume and head circumference in autism. Neurology, 59, 175–183. Scholar
  3. Bateson, T. G., & Reese, E. P. (1969). The reinforcing properties of conspicuous stimuli in the imprinting situation. Animal Behaviour, 17, 692–699. Scholar
  4. Campbell, T. C., & Campbell, T. M. (2004). The China study: Startling implications for diet, weight loss, and long-term health. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books.Google Scholar
  5. Caruano, R. M. (2006). An historical overview of standardized educational testing in the United States. (p. 2) [On-line]. Available:
  6. Courchesne, E., Karns, C. M., Davis, B.S., Ziccardi, B. S., Carper, R. A., Tigue, Z. D., Chisum, H. J., Moses, P., Pierce, K., Lord, C., Lincoln, A. J., Pikzzo, S., Schreibman, L., Haas, R. H., Akshoomoff, N. A., & Courchesne, R. Y., (2001). Unusual brain growth patterns in early life in patients with autistic disorder: An MRI study. Neurology, 57, 245–254.
  7. Encarta Staff, (2006). Encarta [DVD], Redmond, WA: Microsoft.Google Scholar
  8. Gould, S. J. (1981). The mismeasure of man. New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  9. Greger, M. & United Progressive Alumni (2006). Appendix 43—Drapetomania. [On-line]. Available:
  10. Hubbard, R. & Wald, E. (1999) Exploding the gene myth: How genetic information is produced and manipulated by scientists, physicians, employers, insurance companies, educators, and law enforcers. Boston: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  11. Malott, R. W. (2005a). Autistic behavior, behavior analysis, and the gene—Part II. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 21, 175–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Malott, R. W. (2005b). Behavioral Systems Analysis and Higher Education. In W. L. Heward, T. E. Heron, N. A. Neef, S. M. Peterson, D. M. Sainato, G Cartledge, R. Gardner, L. D. Peterson, S. B. Hersh, J. C. Dardig. Focus on behavior analysis in education (pp. 211–236). Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Pearson Education.Google Scholar
  13. Malott, R. W. & Suarez-Trojan, E. W. (2004). Principles of behavior (5th ed.). (Chapter 26: Moral and Legal Control). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. [On-line]. Available:
  14. Lang, T (1973). The difference between a man and a woman. New York: Bantam Books.Google Scholar
  15. Michael, J. (2004). Special autism issue. The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 20, 1–2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Moore, D. S. (2001). The dependent gene: The fallacy of “nature vs. nurture.” New York: Henry Holt.Google Scholar
  17. Satinover, J. B. (2005). The Trojan couch: How the mental health guilds allow medical diagnostics, scientific research and jurisprudence to be subverted in lockstep with the political aims of their gay sub-components. National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality Conference Reports, 2005. [On-line]. Available:
  18. Sorisio, C. (2002). Fleshing out America: Race, gender, and the politics of the body in American Literature, 1833–1879. Athens: University of Georgia Press.Google Scholar
  19. Swartz, C. M. & Abrams, R. (1994). What you need to know about electroconvulsive therapy. Lake Bluff, IL: Somatics.Google Scholar
  20. Tavris, C. (1992) The mismeasure of woman. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  21. Whitaker, R. (2002). Bad science, bad medicine, and the enduring mistreatment of the mentally ill. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.Google Scholar
  22. Wikipedia (2006). Drapetomania. [On-line]. Retrieved December 17, 2007, from
  23. Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  24. Wong, S. E. (2006). Scientific dead end or casualty of the mental health political economy? Behavior and Social Issues, 15, 152–177. Scholar
  25. Wyatt, J., & Midkiff, D. (2006). Biological psychiatry: A practice in search of a science. Behavior and Social Issues, 15, 132–151. Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard W. Malott 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Behavior Analysis Program, Department of PsychologyWestern Michigan UniversityKalamazooUSA

Personalised recommendations