Selection, Darwinism, & B.F. Skinner

Selection is found in both Darwin’s explanation of the origin and the extinction of species as well as in behavior analysis. The idea of selection, or selectionism, is part of B.F. Skinner’s explanation for the origin and extinction of behavior (Tryon, 2002).

Behavioral Selection

Selectionistic explanations of behavior are based on the experiences of the organism. Behavior is selected to continue or to be extinguished based on that individual’s experiences, based on the consequences to their behavior.

Selectionism is Often Social

Behavioral selection also often occurs in the context of other people. It is often a social experience that strengthens or weakens a behavior (although that is not always the case). Selectionism, as a social construct, is important to social, family, community, and group experiences.

Selectionism is Connected to Biology, Neurology, and Behavior

Selectionism changes the individual physically as well as behaviorally. It is often found that biologists or neuroscientists can even measure the impact of the behavioral selection that has occurred.

Fields like biology, neuroscience, and developmental psychology can all align with selectionism, even with the way that selectionism is represented in the field of behavior analysis.

Three Types of Selectionism

There are three primary ways that the environment can affect living things through selectionism. These include phylogenic selectionism, ontogenic selectionism, and cultural selectionism.

Phylogenic selectionism is about how the natural evolution of a species occurs particularly in ways that are based on contingencies necessary for survival of the species. This is basically the concept of Darwinism which is about how a species changes over time through small modifications that help the species to survive. Phylogenics is about how a group of organisms evolves over time.

Ontogenic selectionism is about the development of an organism based on individual experiences with contingencies that result in punishment or reinforcement. In contrast to how phylogenics refers to the development of a group, ontogenics is about the development of an individual.

Cultural selectionism involves the transference of behaviors from one member to another within a group of individuals. This typically happens through learning principles such as imitation and modeling. Culture and cultural norms help advance a group of people including helping the group to survive as an identity.

Selectionism & ABA

Selectionism is an important concept in applied behavior analysis. It provides explanation for how people as individuals and people as groups change over time.


Tryon, W. W. (2002). Expanding the explanatory base of behavior analysis via modern connectionism: Selectionism as a common explanatory core. The Behavior Analyst Today, 3(1), 104-118.