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Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2014

David Sloan Wilson
Departments of Biology and Anthropology, Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY 13903dwilson@binghamton.edu
Steven C. Hayes
Department of Psychology, University of Nevada, Reno, NV 89557-0062stevenchayes@gmail.com
Anthony Biglan
Oregon Research Institute, Eugene, OR 97403tony@ori.org
Dennis D. Embry
PAXIS Institute, Tucson, AZ 85751dde@paxis.org


Humans possess great capacity for behavioral and cultural change, but our ability to manage change is still limited. This article has two major objectives: first, to sketch a basic science of intentional change centered on evolution; second, to provide examples of intentional behavioral and cultural change from the applied behavioral sciences, which are largely unknown to the basic sciences community.

All species have evolved mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity that enable them to respond adaptively to their environments. Some mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity count as evolutionary processes in their own right. The human capacity for symbolic thought provides an inheritance system having the same kind of combinatorial diversity as does genetic recombination and antibody formation. Taking these propositions seriously allows an integration of major traditions within the basic behavioral sciences, such as behaviorism, social constructivism, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology, which are often isolated and even conceptualized as opposed to one another.

The applied behavioral sciences include well-validated examples of successfully managing behavioral and cultural change at scales ranging from individuals to small groups to large populations. However, these examples are largely unknown beyond their disciplinary boundaries, for lack of a unifying theoretical framework. Viewed from an evolutionary perspective, they are examples of managing evolved mechanisms of phenotypic plasticity, including open-ended processes of variation and selection.

Once the many branches of the basic and applied behavioral sciences become conceptually unified, we are closer to a science of intentional change than one might think.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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