September 14, 2006
Walden Two and Nature versus Nurture
Walden Two is a depiction of what B. F. Skinner’s ideal community would look like. Skinner, a prominent behavioral psychologist, believed that human nature could be perfected by training children from birth and removing any situation which would reinforce negative attitudes such as jealousy and selfishness. The fictional community Walden Two is the environment he envisioned for this perfection of humanity.
The novel chronicles a visit to Walden Two made by Burris, a psychology professor, Castle, a philosophy professor, Rogers, their former pupil, Jamnik, Rogers’ army buddy, and Barbara and Mary, Rogers’ and Jamnik’s girlfriends. Since the end of World War II, Rogers and Jamnik have become disenchanted with the American way of life and have decided to explore another option, in the form of Walden Two. Burris attended graduate school with Frazer, the founder of Walden Two.
The group’s first impressions of Walden Two are of unusual but hardly revolutionary practices such as wearing sensible clothing rather than following fashion trends and drinking tea from large glasses to prevent spilling. Further innovation is revealed at dinner time. Trays are made of clear glass so that each side can be checked for cleanliness without turning it over. There are no dinner crowds; residents eat at staggered, but not assigned, times. After dinner Frazer explains the labor credit system and the system of government in place at Walden Two. Each member must earn four labor credits per day in order to earn the privileges of living in the community, with less pleasant jobs being worth more credits per hour of work. Frazer illustrates that, with a combination of more motivated workers, improved technology, and no unemployment, four hours of work can be as productive as eight. The government system is a Planner-Manager system. A council of Planners oversees the operation of the entire community while Managers supervise specific areas, such as the dairy farm. Neither is chosen democratically, a fact which appalls Castle.
The next day, after earning some of the credit hours required of them as visitors, the group is introduced to the childcare practices of Walden Two. Children are raised together, not individually by their parents. In fact, most children do not even have special relationships with their parents, but are instead children of the entire community. From an early age they undergo behavioral modification training designed to eliminate jealousy, selfishness, and unethical behavior entirely. This behavioral modification is the ultimate purpose of Walden Two, as all children born in the community would be free of these undesirable behaviors and impulses. Castle accuses Frazer and his associates of being sadists because of the seemingly cruel nature of the training. The visitors also learn that teenagers are encouraged to marry and have children as young as possible. They lack financial and cultural disincentives, and marrying young allows women to finish bearing children at a young age and move on to other aspects of their lives. Married couples are encouraged to live in separate quarters, which Frazer claims actually leads to happier marriages and fewer divorces. The subject of genetic modification is mentioned as a future goal of Walden Two experimentation.
in the day
Later in the day, Castle accuses Frazer of Fascism and of devaluing humans as individuals. Frazer retorts that democracy is imperfect because of its dependence on inherent human goodness and argues that free will is an illusion; all behavior is controlled by external forces. He eventually wins the argument by demonstrating that, whether free or not, the people of Walden Two are undeniably happy, but he fails to sway Castle’s opinion of Walden Two. Burris, however, is increasingly intrigued by the idea of remaining there.
The next day is the final day of the visit. Frazer and Burris go to the area called the Throne, a ledge on a hill overlooking the community. Burris realizes that Frazer is in complete control of Walden Two, although he carefully maintains the illusion that he is not. Frazer claims that he is similar to God, but that he planned his society even more carefully. Burris dislikes the comparison, but Frazer is adamant that it is the case.
After lunch Castle, Burris, Rogers, and Barbara begin their journey back to the outside world. Although he is leaving, Burris has yet to reach a final decision about remaining in Walden Two. At the train stop, he abruptly decides to return. He leaves everything behind except toiletries and a copy of Walden by Thoreau. As a dramatic gesture, he chooses to walk back to Walden Two, a journey of three days.
At the end of the novel it becomes apparent that it has, in fact, been Burris’ account of his initial impressions of Walden Two. Frazer and Burris are discussing the ending—Burris wants to end that narrative at the beginning of his walk back to Walden Two. Frazer insists that he not end with his trek back, as it is so inconclusive. Apparently Burris decides he is right.
B. F. Skinner, the author of Walden Two, was a prominent behavioral psychologist. He believed that observable behavior was the only legitimate area of study for a psychologist. He also theorized that all behavior is controlled by external forces. In Walden Two he laid out plans for a community which would allow for controlled behavioral conditioning from birth onward. Skinner believed that the conditions depicted would allow a behaviorist to condition the residents from birth to eliminate jealousy, selfishness, and other undesirable traits. He claims that in a perfect society these are not needed and can be eliminated through a series of exercises beginning with very young children. Skinner thought that personality and behavior were entirely controlled by training and environment, and that genes had very little to do with causing behavior.
The nature versus nurture debate has been a major force in the study of psychology for many years. Skinner and other behaviorists make up one extreme of this issue. They believe that any inherited tendency can be eliminated through training. However, this theory has not withstood the test of science. For instance, Susan Mineka conducted a study of monkeys and their fear of snakes. Her results showed that, although monkeys are not born afraid of snakes, they very easily learn this behavior from their mothers or other monkeys. This may appear to corroborate Skinner’s claims, but her further research proved that monkeys have an inherited predisposition to fear snakes. Mineka altered a video so that the monkey on the television appeared to be afraid of a flower. This technique had resulted in monkeys afraid of snakes, so if Skinner was correct in his attribution of all behavior to training, Mineka should have a group of monkeys terrified of flowers. However, this was not the case. The monkeys displayed no fear of flowers despite watching other monkeys react to them in terror. Mineka’s experiment has been repeated many times and other objects have been used in place of flowers, but the results have been the same. Monkeys simply cannot be trained to fear flowers and other harmless objects (Ridley 192-94).
Most studies show that heredity and environment play an almost equal, or perhaps joint, role in determining personality and behavior. Adoptions studies are particularly useful because the adopted child can be compared to both adoptive and biological parents. One such study, focused on intelligence, found that the correlations between adopted children and both biological and adoptive children was 0.24 (Weiten, 79). Clearly, the behavior of a human being is determined by millennia of evolution combined with experience, not just one or the other.
Evolution is the factor that Skinner neglected. His belief that undesirable attributes such as jealousy and selfishness can simply be trained away goes against everything we know about natural selection. Humans have a predisposition for selfishness because it aids in our survival, and it will not disappear after one, or even several, generations. Selective breeding, which is mentioned in Walden Two by Frazer, the designer of the community, could be successful, but only after hundreds of years. It is doubtful that humans would even consent to selective breeding. Perhaps those who are truly enthusiastic about Walden Two would agree, but the majority would most likely consider reproduction a purely personal issue. Frazer exerts almost total control over those currently in Walden Two, but these residents chose to live at Walden Two. The current population would be much too small to facilitate selective breeding; it would almost certainly lead to inbreeding. Frazer’s plans to expand to incorporate the entire country would bring in many not committed enough to the Walden Two way of life for their procreation to be dictated.
Frazer mentions, vaguely and in passing, the possibility of genetic engineering. The reference is so indefinite that he may have meant selective breeding, but genetic modification could also have been the intent. At the time Walden Two was written, DNA had yet to be discovered, making any sort of gene therapy a science fiction dream. Over sixty years later, our understanding of genetics has been greatly increased. However, genetic modification to the extent of changing entire personalities is still far in the future. There is no evidence of a “jealousy gene”; such a trait is almost certainly controlled by multiple genes interconnected in a way we cannot currently envision. The perfection of the human species is, thankfully, an unattainable goal.
Skinner’s behaviorism is no longer a leading force in the study of psychology. New information on inheritance has simply not substantiated his claim that environment and conditioning alone determine behavior. It has instead shown that our genes and our environments work together to make us who we are. Skinner and Walden Two present only half the picture, neglecting millions of years of natural selection which also contributes to the formation of a personality. Frazer and his vision of Walden Two communities encompassing the entire, newly perfected human race will have to remain in the fiction section.
Ridely, Matt. Nature
Weiten, Wayne. Psychology:
Themes and Variations.
Outside Help: My father proofread this paper for grammar and style.