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Evolutionary Psychology and the Standard Social Science Model: Regaining the Middle Ground
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

One of the greatest wrong turns in modern evolutionary thought took place when two pioneers of Evolutionary Psychology, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, drew a distinction between their new school of thought and what they called the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)1. This aggregate term included the tradition of behaviorism in psychology represented by B.F. Skinner and traditions in anthropology and sociology that emphasized the open-ended nature of human cultural change, represented by figures such as Margaret Mead and Clifford Geertz. It was the concept of mind and culture as a “blank slate” that Cosmides and Tooby—soon to be joined by the powerful voice of Steve Pinker2— wanted to exorcize from Evolutionary Psychology. According to them, the human mind is anything but a blank slate. Instead, it is a dense collection of special-purpose cognitive modules that evolved by genetic evolution to solve specific problems of survival and reproduction encountered in ancestral environments. Behavior in modern life was the triggering of these modules by environmental stimuli, often with maladaptive results based on the mismatch between ancestral and modern environments. The study of cultural change in modern life must reflect these revolutionary insights about the mind.

In academic psychology, the Skinnerian tradition had already been largely exorcized by the so-called cognitive revolution of the 1970’s, which imagined the mind as like a single all-purpose computer3. Thus, Cosmides, Tooby, and Pinker were hammering the final nail on the coffin of behaviorism while also challenging the root assumptions of the cognitive revolutionaries. Despite all the hammering, however, the tradition of behaviorism did not go away. Instead, it remained alive and well in the applied psychological sciences, where the pragmatic goal of influencing the behavior of people in the real world, at the level of both individuals (e.g., therapy) and whole societies (e.g., public health) takes priority over the shifting winds of academic science. At the individual level, behavior therapy was supplemented (not replaced) by cognitive therapy, which in turn was supplemented (not replaced) by mindfulness-based therapeutic techniques4.

What this means for the discipline of Evolutionary Psychology is that B.F. Skinner and the tradition of behaviorism got something right about the open-ended nature of animal and human behavior5. Yet, the fact that change methods based on behaviorism need to be supplemented by change methods labeled “cognitive” and “mindfulness-based” means that Skinner also got something wrong. In particular, his efforts to explain the capacity for human symbolic thought (including but not restricted to language) in terms of operant conditioning were overreaching. The behaviorist tradition needs to be included within the discipline of Evolutionary Psychology, although it is not sufficient. It was precisely this middle ground that was lost when Cosmides and Tooby drew their polarizing distinction between EP and the SSSM.

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Not everyone interested in psychology from an evolutionary perspective agreed with this distinction. In fact, many did not and the burgeoning study of cultural evolution pioneered by figures such as Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson6 began to make a case for open-ended behavioral and cultural change from a modern evolutionary perspective. Books such as The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon7 and Evolution in Four Dimensions by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb8 began to explain human symbolic thought as an inheritance system with a combinatorial diversity rivaling genetic recombination. A recent book by the sociocultural anthropologist Robert Paul9shows how the tradition represented by Mead and Geertz can be reconciled with modern evolutionary theory after all—not as sufficient but as necessary, just like the tradition of behaviorism in psychology.

Despite these welcome developments, which go a long way toward reclaiming the middle ground between EP and the SSSM, two major problems remain. First, the term “Evolutionary Psychology” is still largely associated with the narrow school of thought propounded by Cosmides, Tooby and Pinker. This leads to the confusing spectacle of experts who study psychology from an evolutionary perspective but don’t call themselves (and often deride) evolutionary psychologists. Labels matter and ad hoc distinctions between “capital” and “lower-case” EP aren’t good enough. The middle ground won’t be fully regained until the term “Evolutionary Psychology” is understood to mean “the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective”10.

The other problem is that the applied psychological sciences, where much of the action has been taking place, are largely ignored by the academic scientists attempting to construct a more fully rounded conception of human psychology and culture from an evolutionary perspective. I became aware of this fact when I started to work in real-world settings in 2006, first in my home town of Binghamton New York and then by helping to found the Evolution Institute11. Once I became an applied scientist, entire communities of scientists came to my attention who were already doing what I aspired to do, although typically without using the E-word. They were methodologically rigorous, with randomized control trials as their gold standard. Three of them—Steven C. Hayes, Anthony Biglan, and Dennis Embry, became among my closest colleagues12, resulting in a major review article titled “Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change”, which was published with commentaries in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 201413.

Steven C. Hayes is an example of someone who has reached a pinnacle of success in the applied psychological sciences while remaining virtually unknown among my academic colleagues. With roots in the behaviorist tradition, he has gone beyond it by developing a theory of symbolic thought called Relational Frame Theory (RFT). Simultaneously, he developed a version of mindfulness-based therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as one word) that is now being used around the world. His self-help book “Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life14” has sold over a quarter million copies and was featured in a five-page article in TIME magazine in 2006. Over 200 randomized control trials demonstrate the efficacy of ACT for a diverse array of problems covering not just a nearly comprehensive list of the usual mental health and substance use areas (depression, anxiety, smoking, opiate use), but also a dozen or more behavioral health problems (e.g., diet, exercise, facing a cancer diagnosis, managing diabetes), and areas you might not ever expect such as academic success, prejudice, organizational functioning, or sport. He is one of the most widely cited psychologists in the world, authoring over 43 books and 600 academic articles. He also helped to found a society called the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), numbering over 7,800 members worldwide, including both applied scientists operating in university settings and practitioners working with individuals and groups in real-world settings. I have asked many of my academic colleagues if they have heard of Steve or terms such as “Relational Frame Theory” or “Contextual Behavioral Science” and the answer is almost invariably “no”. This is not a comment against my colleagues, of course, but a sad commentary on the chasm that separates basic and applied research in the human behavioral sciences.

Thanks in part to our collaboration, Steve has been working to bridge the chasm in his own thinking and field-wide by inviting evolutionists such as myself, Eva Jablonka, and Frans deWaal to attend ACBS conferences as keynote speakers. We are editing a volume titled “Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science—a Reunification” (due out next year from New Harbinger Publications) that brings evolutionists and contextual behavioral scientists together on a range of topics. We have also combined our backgrounds to help create, a practical framework for improving the efficacy of groups that also results in a scientific database.

A new article by Steve and his students Brandon T. Sanford and Frederick T. Chin titled “Carrying the Baton: Evolution Science and a Contextual Behavioral Analysis of Language and Cognition” provides his view of the broad trends and history that I have recounted from my own perspective in his article, and tries to show how 30 years of research on RFT has addressed evolutionary processes of relevance. The Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science has generously made the article available without charge through mid-October 2017 by using this link I highly recommend it as an important step toward regaining the middle ground between Evolutionary Psychology and the Standard Social Science Model.


  1. Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological fo3.undations of culture. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 19–136). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
  3. Bruner, J. S. (1973). Beyond the Information Given: Studies in the Psychology of Knowing. New York: Norton.
  4. Hayes, S. C. (2004). Acceptance and commitment therapy, relational frame theory and the third wave of behavioral and cognitive therapies. Behavior Therapy, 35, 639–665.
  5. In this article, Skinner clearly describes operant conditioning as a product of genetic evolution and evolutionary process in its own right: Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by Consequences. Science, 213, 501–504.
  6. Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Deacon, T. W. (1998). The Symbolic Species. New York: Norton.
  8. Jablonka, E., & Lamb, M. (2006). Evolution in Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of LIfe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  9. Paul, R. A. (2015). Mixed Messages: Cultural and Genetic Inheritance in the Constitution of Human Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  10. This special issue of TVOL titled “What’s Wrong (and Right) About Evolutionary Psychology” helps to establish a more fully rounded conception of EP.
  11. Wilson, D. S. (2011). The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. New York: Little, Brown.
  12. Chapters 12 and 13 of The Neighborhood Project relate my encounter with Biglan, Hayes, and Embry.
  13. Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. (2014). Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37, 395–460.
  14. Hayes, S. C., & Smith, S. (2005). Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland CA: New Harbinger.

Join the discussion


  1. Glen M. Sizemore says:

    Too bad Wilson can’t be bothered to talk to any behaviorist other than Steve Hayes. Even if Hayes is right and Skinner’s view needs to be supplemented by the kinds of things Hayes talks about (and is also talked about by Sidman – i.e., equivalence classes and emergent relations) Hayes’ view is still, AFAICS, about operant conditioning. And, make no mistake, a great many behaviorists that actually understand Skinner’s book “Verbal Behavior” do not think that it overreached. And, needless to say, Wilson is not among those that have read Verbal Behavior (I am guessing), right David? Still, it is good that Wilson is trying to practice honest scholarship but it would have been better if he actually succeeded.


  2. Glen M. Sizemore says:

    P.S. The worst thing that happened to mainstream psychology was the conceptual cesspool called cognitive psychology. Evolutionary Psychology is, in many ways, just another handmaiden to it. Also, the fact that Applied Behavior Analysis is flourishing while the basic science, behavior analysis, is moribund, should be cause for great alarm; the basic science is no less important now that Applied Behavior Analysis has proven the cogency of itself as well as the basic science. If biology departments were like mainstream psychology, almost all of the faculty positions would be held by creationists. And Skinner was right: cognitive psychology is the creationism of psychology.