What is the Metacontingency? Deconstructing Claims of Emergence and Cultural-Level Selection

Jonathan V Krispin


Skinner (1981) proposed that selection by consequences, such as is represented by natural selection on a biological level and operant selection on the level of individual behaviors, plays a significant role in the change dynamics and adaptation of systems in the physical world. He suggested that there might be a third level of selection by consequences—cultural-level selection—that might complement the other two selection processes he explicated. The metacontingency was proposed as a process that might describe such a cultural-level of selection. In the present article, two competing definitions (a three-term definition and a five-term definition) of the metacontingency are compared and contrasted, and several criticisms of the metacontingency are considered. Proponents of the metacontingency have argued that it is an emergent process, possessing characteristics that differ substantively from phenomena at lower-levels of analysis, while critics of the metacontingency have argued that there are more parsimonious theories that account for everything that the metacontingency is intended to address. Theorists have claimed four particular areas of emergence for the metacontingency, each of which is examined through comparison of metacontingent selection with a similar, albeit behavioral-level phenomenon—the production of a complex product via a chain of behaviors performed by a single individual—concluding that the claims of emergence do not appear to be substantiated.


metacontingency, emergence, cultural-level selection

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5210/bsi.v25i0.6186

Published by the University of Illinois at Chicago Library

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