As president of the Evolution Institute, I have been applying evolutionary science to the solution of real-world problems for the last six years. With three members of the EI’s Scientific Advisory Board, Steven C. Hayes, Anthony Biglan, and Dennis D. Embry, we have written a review article titled “Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change”, which will be published in the commentary journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS).

BBS is one of the most influential academic journals. With an impact factor of 25.056, it is ranked first among 48 Behavioral Science journals and third among 244 Neuroscience journals. The last article that I published in BBS, co-authored with Elliott Sober in 1994, was titled “Reintroducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioral Sciences” and helped to launch the revival of multilevel selection.

BBS is a commentary journal, which means that target articles are followed by comments by roughly two dozen peers along with the authors’ reply. Once a target article is accepted, it is made available in pre-publication form and those who wish to write a commentary are invited to submit proposals outlining the points they intend to make. The pre-publication version of our article is available here and the deadline for submitting a commentary proposal is May 28 *.

My co-authors are leaders in the applied behavioral sciences. Steve Hayes is a clinical psychologist at the University of Nevada Reno and best known for a therapeutic method called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and its underlying theoretical framework called Relational Frame Theory. Tony Biglan is a Senior Scientist at the Oregon Research Institute and past president of the Society for Prevention Research. Dennis Embry is a scientific entrepreneur and CEO of the Paxis Institute, which markets evidence-based practices. I encountered them when I was just starting the EI and was amazed by their research, as I describe in my book The Neighborhood Project. They and their colleagues were actually accomplishing positive behavioral and cultural change in the real world, at scales ranging from single individuals to large populations, which is what I aspired to do. Yet their work was little known beyond their disciplinary boundaries. Most of my own colleagues with evolutionary training had never heard of them or even their entire disciplines.

Over a period of years, the four of us worked together with an increasing sense of excitement. They found it exhilarating to reframe their ideas in term of evolution, especially the concept of symbolic thought as an inheritance system with a combinatorial diversity of “symbotypes” rivaling the diversity of genotypes caused by genetic recombination and antibodies caused by the vertebrate immune system. I found it exhilarating to think of their methods as a way of managing variation-and-selection processes to produce desired outcomes.

The target article is a distillation of our progress. The first part sketches a basic science of intentional change by addressing an apparent paradox: On one hand, human behavior and culture are elaborately flexible. On the other hand, as with all species, the human brain is an elaborate product of genetic evolution. Reconciling this paradox requires a new synthesis of academic disciplines that currently are often conceptualized as being opposed to each other.

The second part of the article describes outstanding examples of positive intentional change from the applied behavioral sciences that are validated by the best assessment methods (such as randomized control trials) but are largely unknown beyond their disciplinary boundaries. As a teaser, did you know that some severe mental problems can be alleviated in just a few hours with the right kind of intervention? Or that a simple classroom intervention implemented in the 1st and 2nd grades can have lifelong beneficial consequences? Or that Dennis and Tony were able to reduce the incidence of convenience stores selling cigarettes to minors in the states of Wisconsin and Wyoming in only 60 days?

Thanks to the BBS procedure of making target articles available at a pre-publication stage, our article can be read now rather than waiting for formal publication with the commentaries and our reply. I hope you will agree that once the many branches of the basic and applied behavioral sciences become conceptually unified from an evolutionary perspective, we are closer to a science of intentional change than one might think.

* Readers who wish to submit a commentary proposal should go here and click on “calls for commentary proposals”. Be aware that many more proposals are submitted than can be accepted.

READ: Evolving the Future: Toward a Science of Intentional Change

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


  • Lisa Coyne says:

    So excited to see this, David. May I please read a pre-print of the article?

  • Michael Allen Fox says:

    Dear David:

    Do you have any idea when your BBS article (with Hayes, Biglan and Embry) will appear?  I am one of your commentators and would really like to know.  It’s a wonderful project.

    Best wishes,

    Michael Fox
    Adjunct Professor, University of New England (Australia) &
    Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Queen’s University (Canada)

Leave a Reply