Skinner, B F

Tagged: Author

Working name of Burrhus Frederick Skinner (1904-1990), US psychologist and author whose vehemently argued (and as vigorously refuted) brand of behaviourism dominated that version of Psychology for many years in America, and provides the basic tenets for his one published work of fiction, Walden Two (1948), which depicts a Utopia whose inhabitants grow up as successful experiments in behavioural engineering on lines consistent with the work of his mentor John B Watson. Though the tale is ostensibly set around 1948, the maturity of the project as described (it seems to have been in existence rather longer than the ten years referred to) gives a sense that the novel must take place in an indefinite Near Future. The title refers, of course, to Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854) by Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), now, according to Skinner, obsoleted.

In a symposium style reminiscent of the British Scientific Romance, Walden Two is conducted in the main as a colloquy featuring Frazier, an old colleague of the narrator, Professor Burris, who from his name alone is a clear stand-in for the author himself, and the recalcitrant Castle, a professional philosopher and humanist. As founder of and spokesman for the colony, Frazier dismisses – as did Skinner himself later in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1972) – the traditional notions of free will, and disparages democratic forms of government, in favour of transparently Skinnerian forms of behaviour modification; his opponent, Castle, argues for the time-tested liberal solutions to the problems of human happiness. Burris seems neutral, but the colony, whose crèches are busy creating transparently happy residents through operant conditioning and reinforcement regimens, is obviously intended to represent the power of Frazier/Skinner's ideas. These ideas are intriguingly though mercilessly promulgated (in contrast, his attempts to incorporate even the debilitatingly mild form of Feminism on offer are gingerly), and deploy some of the seductively skewed rhetorical devices that sf authors like Robert A Heinlein had begun to master around this time (the portly Castle's arguments are as full of feeble bluster as those of most Heinlein liberals). A conviction that what might seem inherently broken in human behaviour can be fixed is indeed typical of 1940s sf, as is the eyes-averted naïveté about Sex which fatally undercuts the ultimate plausibility of Skinner's schema, just as it crippled his mentor Watson's speculations a few decades earlier. In a late fictionalized essay, "News from Nowhere, 1984" (Spring 1985 The Behavior Analyst), George Orwell, having faked his death, joins the community.

A later writer like Gene Wolfe may namecheck Skinner on occasion – as in "The Death of Dr Island" (in Universe 3, anth 1973, ed Terry Carr), where he depicts experiments in Psychology that depend on the engineering of behaviour – but such namechecks seem ironical. [JC]

see also: Scientific Errors; Sociology.

Burrhus Frederick Skinner

born Susquehanna, Pennsylvania: 20 March 1904

died Cambridge, Massachusetts: 18 August 1990

works

  • Walden Two (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948) [hb/F G Kuttner]

links

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