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The phylogeny and ontogeny of behavior

  • B. F. Skinner (a1)

Responses are strengthened by consequences having to do with the survival of individuals and species. With respect to the provenance of behavior, we know more about ontogenic than phylogenic contingencies. The contingencies responsible for unlearned behavior acted long ago. This remoteness affects our scientific methods, both experimental and conceptual. Until we have identified he variables responsible for an event, we tend to invent causes. Explanatory entities such as “instincts,” “drives,” and “traits” still survive. Unable to show how organisms can behave effectively under complex circumstances, we endow them with special abilities permitting them to do so.

Behavior exhibited by most members of a species is often accepted as inherited if all members were not likely to have been exposed to relevant ontogenic contingencies. When contingencies are not obvious, it is perhaps unwise to call any behavior either inherited or acquired, as the examples of churring in honey guides and following in imprinted ducklings show. Nor can the relative importance of phylogenic and ontogenic contingencies be argued from instances in which unlearned or learned behavior intrudes or dominates. Intrusions occur in both directions.

Behavior influenced by its consequences seems directed toward the future, but only past effects are relevant. The mere fact that behavior is adaptive does not indicate whether phylogenic or ontogenic processes have been responsible for it. Examples include the several possible provenances of imitation, aggression, and communication. The generality of such concepts limits their usefulness. A more specific analysis is needed if we are to deal effectively with the two kinds of contingencies and their products.

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J. T. Bonner , ed. (1982) Evolution and development. Springer Verlag [SNS]

J. S. Clowes & G. D. Wassermann (1984) Genetic control theory of developmental events. Bulletin of Mathematical Biology, in press. [GDW]

C. Darwin (1872) The expression of the emotions in man and animals. R. West. [taBFS]

C. B. Ferster & B. F. Skinner (1957) Schedules of reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts. [taBFS]

E. Haeckel (1891) Anthropogenie oder entwicklungsgeschichte des Menschen: Keimes- und Stammes-Geschichte. 4th rev. enl. ed.Engelmann. [GG]

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K. Lorenz (1981) The foundations of ethology. Simon and Schuster. [DW]

E. Mayr (1963) Animal species and evolution. Harvard University Press. [JERS]

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Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • ISSN: 0140-525X
  • EISSN: 1469-1825
  • URL: /core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences
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