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Book Review: Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science

A couple of years ago, I reviewed a book called Advances in Relational Frame Theory: Research and Application, edited by Dymond and Roche. One of the editors of the book being reviewed today, Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science, Steven C. Hayes, was a developer of relational frame theory which is based in contextual behavioral science.

The other editor, David Sloan Wilson, wrote Darwin’s Cathedral and Evolution for Everyone. Psychologist Hayes and evolutionary biologist Wilson were introduced to each other over ten years ago by Anthony Biglan who also wrote the foreword to this book. Biglan is the author of The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve Our Lives and Our World. Reading about how they came together felt remarkably like serendipity met synergism. It also added to my list of more books I want to read.

Biglan sums up the purpose of the book nicely at the beginning. “This volume attests to the fact that science can be done within a framework that is guided by a set of explicit values. The community of scientists writing in this book are focused on ensuring the well-being of every person. They are doing this through the pursuit of basic principles that we can use to evolve more nurturing societies.”

The coming together of contextual behavioral science and evolutionary science has been a long time coming, which is a bit odd in a way. Darwin looked at context in evolutionary theory and Skinner included evolution in his behaviorist theory. Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science gives a good history of why these two schools were so far apart for so long and how they are now joining together.

The book has an interesting and engaging format. It begins with Wilson and Hayes telling the history involved in the disciplines and how they have begun to come together. Evolutionary science has moved beyond being gene focused. There are at least four or more “mechanisms of inheritance,” such as genetic, epigenetic, social learning, symbolic thought, and adaptation of the immune system. Currently the contextual behavioral science community has been more open to and involved in evolutionary science than vice versa according to the editors, but that is changing. They reference an online evolutionary magazine, This View of Life, to which contextual behaviorists have contributed.

The book is divided into eight areas with each area addressed separately by contextual behavioral scientists and by evolutionary scientists, and this is followed by a conversation among the writers. The initial chapters on theories of learning and of language are interesting, but at times somewhat difficult.

The book in general is written in academic style, and explaining the foundation and interplay of contextual behavioral science, relational frame theory and evolution is a daunting task. The authors do an excellent job. To me, the three C’s are a good part of the summation — cognition, culture and cooperation.

I think there is something relevant among the topics for everyone with an interest in psychology or just in how we live our lives and get along. They are Learning, Symbolic Thought and Communication, Development and Adolescence, Emotions and Empathy, Organizational Development, Behavioral and Physical Health, Small Groups, and Psychopathology and Behavior Change.

This book is empowering especially to people in mental health. For example, in discussing risky adolescent behavior, the writers say, “We do not follow the clinical approach of comparing ‘disordered’ adolescents to ‘normal’ adolescents and trying to make the disordered ones look more normal. Instead, we view all adolescent behavior as an adaptation to adolescents’ contexts. Thus, we look at how adolescents can grow strong and flexible, and how principles of variation, selection, and retention contribute across streams, from biology to learning to cultural transmission. We never lose sight of the context in which young people grow.”

The authors also explain, “What is the use of teaching young people that mental health is a ‘brain problem’ if we fail to consider how this message may demotivate young people? In many contexts, anxiety and depression are not the fault of a defective brain, but an adaptation within a deficient environment.” I love this approach. It is the very definition of mindfulness — look with nonjudgmental curiosity. Rather than diagnose and pathologize, you look at context, you consider how the behavior evolved in the context and work toward positive change. If the mental health movement truly wants to encourage destigmatizing mental health issues, this paradigm will go a long way towards that goal.

This book covers so much (I took pages of notes but could not hope to address all the points of interest here) and has so much to teach from an individual level (with the self as a process) to a cultural level and more. There are also suggested solutions such as living well as the first medicine. Some of the authors work with Prosocial World and also the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy comes from relational frame theory and contextual behavioral science.

In addition, New Harbinger has made a series of videos of the contributors discussing their topics which you can find here. This takes the discussions at the end of the sections into more depth and are worth checking out as well.

I strongly recommend this book. The ideas are backed by well thought out empirical research, and I like that there is a commitment throughout to cooperation and to kindness. The authors practice what they study and teach.

Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science: An Integrated Framework for Understanding, Predicting, & Influencing Human Behavior

Context Press, September 2018

Paperback, 344 pages

Book Review: Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science

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Stan Rockwell, PsyD

Stan Rockwell, PsyD, LPC has been working in the mental health field for over 40 years. He has worked as a therapist at a state hospital, a community mental health center and has been in private practice since 2009. He has also worked in disaster mental health, crisis intervention, as a client rights investigator and advocate, training and research, and graduate student supervision. He is a past chair of professional development for the Virginia Counselors Association. He has been a volunteer field tester for the World Health Organization in the development of the ICD 11 since 2013 and has been reviewing books for since 2012. He also teaches a class at the College of William and Mary that combines taijiquan and qigong with science and Chinese philosophy. He uses eastern and western methods in his counseling psychology practice. You can find him online at and

APA Reference
Rockwell, S. (2019). Book Review: Evolution & Contextual Behavioral Science. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 Jun 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 Jun 2019
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