How Darwin and Skinner got it wrong and what it means for ABA.


By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor,

In a sense, Darwin was wrong…and for that matter Skinner was too. Both men regarded biological traits as constants that affected survival and reproduction, or that served as a basic infrastructure for operant susceptibilities.  

Ok, saying they were wrong might be a bit strong, but they at least didn’t have the whole story, and a whole new field has sprung up, called epigenetics, to fill in the gaps.  Epigeneticists study the processes by which one’s lifetime experiences change the expression of one’s DNA.  Note the key word “expression.”  We have a lot of DNA in our body, and most of it is “junk” DNA that doesn’t code proteins, but different chromosomes can be turned off and on depending on what we do.  

An article in Medical Daily succinctly summarizes four different ways our behavior can actually alter how are genes are expressed and, in some cases, pass on to our children.

1) Exercise: The old expression that athletes are born and not made may not be entirely true.  Your genes aren’t necessarily a limiting factor — endurance training in particular can change DNA related to skeletal muscle.

2) Diet: The phrase “you are what you eat” might now take on a whole new meaning.  Research on humans and animals have found that different foods affect fur color, weight, risk for chronic disease, and sperm and egg cells.

3) Trauma: This one specifically relates to food-related trauma in the form of famine.  For example, during WWII Nazi Germany blockaded several towns in the Netherlands resulting in massive starvation.  Not surprisingly, the children born during the famine were very underweight and susceptible to all sorts of health issues.  However, researchers found that the children of those children had similar characteristics.

4) Mind: More specifically, mindfulness meditation has been shown to affect telomeres, or the ends of our chromosomes.  As we age, telomeres shrink and chromosomes deteriorate.  However, research has found that meditation serves to prevent this deterioration.

This has implications for ABA across the board — from our philosophers and theoreticians to our practitioners.  Selection by consequences, as described by Darwin’s theory and extrapolated by Skinner to behavior, forms the bedrock foundation of behavior analysis (see “Do you really understand selection by consequences?”).  The field of epigenetics suggests that selection by consequences isn’t the whole story, and may actually be a bit inaccurate. This opens space for a fundamental conceptual shift in the field, but we will not attempt to predict what that may look like here.  

Moreover, from the standpoint of the ABA practitioner designing behavior plans, an understanding of how operant principles contribute to changes in DNA could open up an exciting new interdisciplinary approach to treatment.  

This is a provocative topic that I’m sure will evoke discussion.  Please share your comments below and consider subscribing to via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns and  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at [email protected].

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4 Comments on "How Darwin and Skinner got it wrong and what it means for ABA."

  1. Paula Lovell | May 13, 2015 at 8:43 pm | Reply

    Studying behaviorism, I concede. With the advances of technology we must understand this is a theory that works for some, not all. I like the way you acknowledge this fact. I know controversy will approach the operant theory. Nice seeing you on LinkedIN and I will spread the word. I have been enjoying your articles for quite some time, as always great perspective.

  2. Hi! First of all, I would like thank you for your texts. I learn so much with them, about the field. About this text, I don’t see how the epigenetics research can show that Darwin and Skinner was wrong, specially Skinner, regarding operant behavior. All this process, biological traits, selection by consequences and chromosomes modifications while a organism is in interaction with environment can be complementary, with no overlap each other. Then, Darwin started the understanding about the species and your characteristcs toward the evolution. Skinner increased understanding by applying it to the behavior of an individual. Epigenetic research are now investigating new processes, but do not override those already described by Darwin and Skinner. What do you think about this?

    • Thanks for the comment! I think you said it yourself — there are “new processes” that were previously unknown here that Skinner and Darwin didn’t know about. Thus, one could argue theirs wasn’t the whole story.

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