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OnWords: Behavior, A Product Of Environment Or Evolution?


When I was a kid, the word “behavior” still had a mostly neutral meaning. You might hear the word when Marlin Perkins on Wild Kingdom described the doings of a parched hippo during the dry season, for example.

But even then another, much more accusatory, meaning of the word behavior was establishing itself. This behavior referred to things kids did that grown-ups didn't like. “You'd better change your behavior, junior!” an evil vice-principal might yell, when we thought we were just having fun.

Now, you rarely hear the neutral form of behavior, and so-called “problem behaviors” have graduated to an entire field of study: the behavioral sciences, which encompasses not just most psychology and social work, but much of psychiatry as well.

This title indicates that the field of behavioral sciences is in danger of making the same mistake the vice-principal did: when you focus exclusively on behaviors, you miss the complex and important interrelationships between people and their social and physical environments.

Marlin Perkins was way ahead on this. Biologists would never look at the behavior of a tiger or a meal worm without asking how it works for the creature ecologically. Behavior, they note, is a product of evolution, a form of long-term learning at the species level.

Why, then, don't those in the behavioral sciences more often ask how what people do represents what they have learned? Instead of assuming the obsessive compulsive-disorder spontaneously generated in the life of a person in order to cause him annoyance and harm, why not ask how that behavior was at one time adaptive to the person, allowing him to deal with some inner turmoil?

But then we'd have to confront behavior in terms of the human environment, and we may discover just how seriously polluted it is.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.