Walden Two

Walden Two is a utopian novel written by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, first published in 1948. In its time, it could have been considered to be science fiction, since science-based methods for altering people’s behavior did not yet exist. (Such methods exist now and are known as applied behavior analysis, formerly behavior modification).

‘Walden Two’ is controversial because it includes a rejection of free will, the proposition that human behavior is controlled by a non-corporeal entity, such as a spirit or a soul. The book embraces the proposition that the behavior of organisms, including humans, is determined by genetic and environmental variables, and that systematically altering environmental variables can generate a sociocultural system that very closely approximates utopia.

Walden Two is an experimental community located in a rural area and ‘has nearly a thousand members.’ The community encourages its members ‘to view every habit and custom with an eye to possible improvement’ and to have ‘a constantly experimental attitude toward everything.’ The culture of Walden Two can be changed if experimental evidence favors proposed changes. The community emulates the simple living and self-sufficiency that Henry David Thoreau practiced at Walden Pond. T. E. Frazier and five other people constitute the governing body of Walden Two. These leaders live as modestly as the other members of the community; ostentatious displays of wealth and status are not compatible with Walden Two’s egalitarian culture.

The community members are happy, productive, and creative; happiness derives from the promotion of rich social relationships and family life, free affection, the creation of art, music, and literature, opportunity for games of chess and tennis, and ample rest, food, and sleep. The community is self-governed; the members subscribe to the ‘Walden Code’ of self-control techniques, which allow maintaining a happy, productive life in Walden Two with minimal strain. Self-governance, however, is supplemented with community counselors who supervise behavior and are available to help the members with their problems in following the Code.

In the novel, the Walden Community is mentioned as having the benefits of living in a place like Thoreau’s Walden, but ‘with company.’ It is, as the book says, ‘Walden for two’ – meaning a community and not a place of solitude. Originally, Skinner indicated that he wanted to title it ‘The Sun is but a Morning Star,’ a quote of the last sentence of Thoreau’s ‘Walden,’ but the publishers suggested the current title as an alternative. In theory and in practice, Thoreau’s Walden experiment and the Walden Two experiment were far different from one another. For instance, Thoreau’s book espouses the virtues of self-reliance at the individual level, while ‘Walden Two’ espouses (1) the virtues of self-reliance at the community level, and (2) Skinner’s underlying premise that free will of the individual is weak compared to how environmental conditions shape behavior.

Skinner published a follow-up to ‘Walden Two’ in an essay titled ‘News From Nowhere, 1984.’ It details the discovery of Eric Blair in the community who seeks out and meets Burris, confessing his true identity as George Orwell. Blair seeks out Frazier as the ‘leader’ and the two have discussions which comprise the essay. Blair was impressed by Walden Two’s ‘lack of any institutionalized government, religion, or economic system,’ a state of affairs that embodied ‘the dream of nineteenth-century anarchism.’

Many efforts to create a Walden Two in real life are detailed in Hilke Kuhlmann’s ‘Living Walden Two’ and in Daniel W. Bjork’s biography of Skinner. Some of these efforts include: 1955, a New Haven, Connecticut a group led by Arthur Gladstone tries to start a community. 1966, Waldenwoods conference is held in Hartland, Michigan, comprising 83 adults and 4 children, coordinated through the Breiland list (a list of interested people who wrote to Skinner and were referred to Jim Breiland). 1966, Matthew Israel forms the Association for Social Design (ASD), to promote a Walden Two, which soon finds chapters in Los Angeles, Albuquerque, and Washington, D.C. 1967, Israel’s ASD forms the Morningside House in Arlington, Massachusetts. 1967, Twin Oaks Community (website) is started in Louisa County, Virginia. 1969, Keith Miller in Lawrence, Kansas founds a ‘Walden house’ student collective that becomes The Sunflower House 11. 1971, Roger Ulrich starts ‘an experimental community named Lake Village in Kalamazoo, Michigan.’ 1971, Los Horcones (website) is started in Hermosillo, Mexico. 1972, Sunflower House 11 is (re)born in Lawrence, Kansas from the previous experiment. 1973, East Wind (website) in south central Missouri.

Twin Oaks is detailed in Kat Kinkade’s book, ‘A Walden Two experiment: The first five years of Twin Oaks Community.’ Originally started as a Walden Two community, it has since rejected its Walden Two position, however it still uses its modified Planner-Manager system as well as a system of labor credits based on the book. Los Horcones does not use the Planner-Manager governance system described in ‘Walden Two.’ They refer to their governance system as a ‘personocracy.’ This system has been ‘developed through ongoing experimentation.’ In contrast to Twin Oaks, Los Horcones ‘has remained strongly committed to an experimental science of human behavior and has described itself as the only true Walden Two community in existence.’ In 1989, B. F. Skinner said that Los Horcones ‘comes closest to the idea of the ‘engineered utopia’ that he put forth in Walden Two.’

Skinner wrote about cultural engineering in at least two books, devoting a chapter to it in both ‘Science and Human Behavior’ and ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity.’ In the former, a chapter is titled ‘Designing a Culture’ and expands on this position as well as in other documents. In the latter, there are many indirect references to Walden Two when describing other cultural designs.

Hilke Kuhlmann’s ‘Living Walden Two’ possesses many subtle and not-so-subtle criticisms of the original ‘Walden Two’ which are related to the actual efforts that arose from the novel. One criticism is that many of the founders of real-life Walden Twos identified with, or wanted to emulate, Frazier, the uncharismatic and implicitly despotic founder of the community.

In a critique of ‘Walden Two,’ Harvey L. Gamble, Jr. asserted that Skinner’s ‘fundamental thesis is that individual traits are shaped from above, by social forces that create the environment,’ and that Skinner’s goal ‘is to create a frictionless society where individuals are properly socialized to function with others as a unit,’ and to thus ‘make the community [Walden Two] into a perfectly efficient anthill.’ Gamble writes, ‘We find at the end of Walden Two that Frazier [a founding member of Walden Two]… has sole control over the political system and its policies. It is he who regulates food, work, education, and sleep, and who sets the moral and economic agenda.’ However, contrary to Gamble’s critique, it should be noted that neither Frazier nor any other person has the sole power to amend the constitution of Walden Two.

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