Bryan Caplan  

Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 1

Jonathan Gruber and Me... Belongia and Roberts on the Fe...
"I want you to observe, that those who cry the loudest about their disillusionment, about the failure of virtue, the futility of reason, the impotence of logic - are those who have achieved the full, exact, logical result of the ideas they preached, so mercilessly logical that they dare not identify it."
                           Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

The new Rand bio, Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made, is almost hypnotic.  I read over two hundred pages yesterday, finished the book at 1 AM, and woke up two hours early thinking about it.  While I already knew all the main facts and most of the details, Heller's a great storyteller, especially after the first two chapters. 

The highlight is her account of the rise and fall of the New York Objectivist movement.  It's a story of scary contrasts between theory and reality.  The most striking: Rand and her closest followers were supposed to be amazingly happy because of their uniquely rational philosophy, but in practice they were openly angry and secretly miserable.

What went wrong?   It is easy to account for some of the facts on strictly Randian lines.  Nathaniel and Barbara Braden were Rand's closest followers.  Nathaniel began an affair with Rand, and Barbara consented, even though Barbara hated the idea from the start and Nathaniel quickly lost interest in his aging mistress.  In so doing, the Brandens betrayed their principles: they failed to stand up for their own interests, and wound up habitually lying to her.  Rand's view of happiness ("Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy--a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction") specifically predicts that the Brandens would be anguished as a result.

So far, so good.  But why would the Brandens feel the slightest temptation to deviate from Objectivist principles? And why was Rand herself so unhappy?  Heller writes:
Most of the time, she was adamant that her emotional condition was a natural response to intolerable circumstances.
She leaned more heavily on her heir [Nathaniel Branden], for aid in untangling her "premises," some of which she sometimes conceded must be wrong...
I have a simple explanation for all of these patterns: Objectivists defied the many truisms about human nature that evolutionary psychology later came to explain.  Truisms like:

1. Good looks and youth are very important for sexual attraction - especially from a male point of view.

2. People feel jealous when their mates have sex with other people.

3. Lying is often a convenient way to avoid your mate's jealousy.

On the Randian view, "a man's sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions."  So why wouldn't her affair with Nathaniel be a great success?  Their shared "fundamental convictions" should cause enduring love - never mind the 25-year age difference! Barbara has no reason to resent sharing her husband; in fact, she should be flattered that the great Rand so admires him.  And of course, if Nathaniel wanted to end the affair, he would have no motive to lie, because Rand would not be jealous of any woman fit to replace her.

Unfortunately for Rand, her theory smashes against billions of years of evolution.  Yes, mutual admiration and shared values have something to do with sexual attraction.  But humans with Rand-approved emotions would have been at a massive reproductive disadvantage.  Men don't get descendants by pursuing fifty-year-old women, no matter how brilliant they are.  Jealousy also serves a vital evolutionary function: It protects men from cuckoldry, and women from sharing or losing the support of the father of her children.

Trying to argue people out of these extremely adaptive feelings - or pretend they don't exist - is absurd.  Heller shows that even Rand wasn't able to completely ignore common sense.  She brought up the age difference before she started the affair, and occasionally wondered whether it bothered Nathaniel.  But when he said it didn't matter, she took his word for it.  Surely her greatest disciple wouldn't lie merely to avoid her jealous wrath?

So how exactly does evolutionary psychology explain the misery, the jealousy, the lying?  When Rand and her followers tried to wish away obvious facts about humans' emotional constitution, their feelings didn't change.  But they made each other miserable pretending that they felt the way they were supposed to feel.  Rand and Nathaniel had to pretend that Nathaniel was attracted to Rand.  Their spouses had to pretend that they weren't jealous.  Rand and Nathaniel had to pretend that they believed that their spouses weren't jealous.  The more they tried to talk themselves into having feelings contrary to human nature, the worse they felt.  Nathaniel coped not by admitting error, but by finding a mistress and lying to cover it up.  Since Rand had already ruled out the obvious explanation for Nathaniel's behavior, she went on a wild goose chase to find the "real" explanation.  Etc.

Sigh.  As Rand says, "[F]acts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher."  I give her a lot of credit for emphasizing that human beings are potentially rational animals.  But she evaded (yes, evaded!) the fact that human beings are invariably animals - and paid the price.

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COMMENTS (15 to date)
RL writes:

"Unfortunately for Rand, her theory smashes against billions of years of evolution."

Now, Bryan...If she boasted of taking on two millennia of ethical and political belief, why do you think she'd hesitate to take on billions of years of evolution? :-)

Jesse writes:

These arguments prove too much, as usual.

Are any human beings near-sighted? Of course not, because billions of years of evolution have eliminated useless nerds who couldn't possibly have survived on the veldt.

Has Professor Caplan ever met a woman he didn't attempt to have sex with? Of course not, because billions of years of evolution have created an irrepressible sexual being with an unlimited sexual appetite. Basic logic indicates that any attempt whatsoever to limit human sexual behavior is doomed to fail. You can't argue with BILLIONS OF YEARS of human nature. That's a really long time!

tom writes:

Rand's description of attraction was accurate if limited to the more all-inclusive way women make sexual choices in men. Undone by her sex!

And in response to Jesse, I think Bryan is saying Rand was a fool because she denied the nature of the male urge. That's unrelated to the question of whether there are dozens of good reasons for a man to restrain himself from acting on them.

Dennis Gildea writes:

Although a radical in many areas of her thought, Rand seems to have accepted the prevailing view that humans are born tabula raza, with no inate ("hardwired")dispositions. On that premise, sexual attraction would be either a conscious choice or the result of social influences which one may consciously choose to reject or readjust. Either way, Rand would hold the actor accountable.

If she were alive, it would be interesting to hear her reaction to Steven Pinker's excellent book, The Blank Slate. In fact, it's quite interesting to hear everyone's reaction to the book. It's startling how effectively most of us were persuaded of the "blank slate" view.

Jesse writes:

I understand what Bryan was saying, tom; he was saying, "An old hag can't keep a young guy interested." This has surely been perfectly obvious to old hags for thousands of years, even illiterate ones who never had a chance to read any Steven Pinker.

The evo-psych psycho-babble is just a pseudo-explanation, basic "it is what it is" folk wisdom re-stated in pop-science form. One would think that Professor Caplan, with his prestigious economics PhD and world-class training in rigorous thinking, would want to avoid that type of babble. Or maybe not.

As far as Pinker goes, almost every undergraduate understands that neither "nature" nor "nurture" have exclusive control over our destinies. All the hard stuff is in figuring out exactly what is possible and what is not. Pinker for some reason thinks that changing gender roles is difficult and not worthwhile, but he also thinks that bringing a science education to the masses is difficult but worth doing -- these are judgments based on personal preference disguised as scientific law.

RL writes:

BC: "She brought up the age difference before she started the affair, and occasionally wondered whether it bothered Nathaniel. But when he said it didn't matter, she took his word for it. Surely her greatest disciple wouldn't lie merely to avoid her jealous wrath?"

Perhaps that's a simplistic view of the matter. A man had created, in part by hard work and creative effort, but in part by playing a role, a life for himself that involved (relative) power and (relative) wealth. And he did this in an area of teaching the human sciences without yet having obtained a degree or publishing anything on his own. And the person that made this possible, a person he deeply respected and also a person he deeply benefitted from being associated with, asked him if their age difference was an obstacle to intimacy. Out of context, the question is a reasonable one. But Branden knew the context clearly, and Rand probably did as well. He chose to play his role.

The pain Heller describes on both their parts relates less, I think, to not following Objectivist principles, but to knowing they are not following Objectivist principles but feeling they had to pretend they were. Neither saw this as an opportunity to expand, change, or modify their thoughts on important issues, just as Rand would not take the questions raised in Roy Childs' Open Letter as an opportunity to rethink her defense of limited government.

David Landy writes:


I only have time to provide this link:

It reviews not Heller's book, but another that has come out recently. However I think it is likely to make points pertinent to both books.

hacs writes:

I cannot disagree.

title:A Natural History of Rape : Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion
author:Thornhill, Randy.; Palmer, Craig T.
publisher:MIT Press

Steve Sailer writes:

Sociology is perhaps a better lens for studying cults like Rands':

Here's Murray Rothbard's 1972 article "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult:"

RL writes:

David Landy,

I realize you are rushed for time, but were you simply providing the link or were you suggesting that was actually a thoughtful review?

Jerry Biggers writes:

In the wake of all the renewed interest in Atlas Shrugged, and the recent biographies, some have responded by renewing their vows of fealty (Professor Harry Binswanger repeats that Rand never made a significant error in her philosophy, her friendships, - or her subsequent "purges"!), some have expressed a measured criticism, and quite a number are "dancing on her grave" (or engaging in a much more graphic display of their contempt).

In my opinion, she was neither a god or an ogre. However, I do think that the rage shown by some recent "liberal" reviewers reflects their fear that she has struck at the moral foundation of collectivism in a way that many other libertarians or conservatives have missed. Or, more colloquially, she's "got their number."

How else to explain the extraordinary level of rage against her. If her arguments did not strike a chord, then they would not bother. A cascade of ad hominems against her is not very convincing.

I do think, however, that an analysis made by Nathaniel Branden about the critical onslaught against her, rings as true today as it did fifty years ago:

"It is hard to say which is the more eloquent proof of its signal relevance to the crucial issues of our age: the widespread admiration and enthusiasm it has inspired – or the hysteria of the attacks unleashed against it. The nature of those attacks is an instructive index of the current intellectual condition of our culture.

Rand’s antagonists have unfailingly elected to pay her what is, perhaps, the greatest tribute one can offer to a thinker whom one opposes: they have all felt obliged to misrepresent her ideas in order to attack them.

No one has dared publicly to name the essential ideas of Atlas Shrugged and to attempt to refute them. No one has been willing to declare: “Ayn Rand holds that man must choose his own values and actions exclusively by reason, that man has the right to exist for his own sake, that no one has the right to seek values from others by physical force – and I consider such ideas wrong, evil, and socially dangerous.”

Rand’s opponents have found it preferable to debate with strawmen, to equate her philosophy with that of Spencer or Nietzsche or Spinoza or Hobbes and thus expose themselves to the charge of philosophic illiteracy – rather than identify and publicly argue against that for which Rand actually stands.

Were they discussing the ideas of an author whose work was not known to the general public, their motive would appear obvious. But it is a rather grotesque spectacle to witness men seemingly going through the motions of concealing from the public the ideas of an author whose readers number in the millions.

When one considers the careful precision with which Rand defines her terms and presents her ideas, and the painstaking manner in which each concept is concretized and illustrated – one will search in vain for a non-psychiatric explanation of the way in which her philosophy has been reported by antagonists. Allegedly describing her concept of rational self-interest, they report that Ayn Rand extols disregard for the rights of others, brutality, rapacity, doing whatever one feels like doing and general animal self-indulgence. This, evidently, is the only meaning they are able to give to the concept of self-interest. One can only conclude that this is how they conceive their own self-interest, which they altruistically and self-sacrificially renounce. Such a viewpoint tells one a great deal about the man who holds it – but nothing about the philosophy of Rand." from The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged, 1961. Reprinted by The Atlas Society, around 2004.

Silas Barta writes:

Rand never found a way for her political philosophy to handle the problem of children (their rights and parents' obligations).

Yeah, she was a little lacking in insights on fitness from biology...

RL writes:

Jerry Biggers, quoting from The Moral Revolution in Atlas Shrugged, 1961 [written by the Brandens]: "Rand’s opponents have found it preferable to debate with strawmen, to equate her philosophy with that of Spencer or Nietzsche or Spinoza or Hobbes and thus expose themselves to the charge of philosophic illiteracy..."

If JB could direct me to detailed articles by either Nathaniel or Barbara Branden analyzing the philosophies of Spencer, Nietzsche, Spinoza, or Hobbes--seemingly a pre-requisite for knowing whether or not equating any of their philosophies with Rand's was "philosophical illiteracy"--it would be much appreciated. It is unclear to me whether either Branden had read much of any of these authors.

Jerry Biggers writes:

You ask whether the Brandens had written "detailed articles...analyzing the philosophies of Spencer, Nietzsche, Spinoza, or Hobbes." Aren't you asking the wrong set of people about claims of their knowledge of these other philosophers? This question should be aimed at those critics of Rand making that claim, not to the Brandens who are commenting on that unfounded assertion.

If the critics can cite chapter and verse demonstrating that Rand is just rephrasing or in other ways imitating these earlier philosophers, then there would at least be material that can be judged regarding this claim. However, the critics have not done so, and that is why Branden questions their degree of philosophic literacy. That is the main issue.

But, I suppose one could ask whether Rand, the Brandens, and other Objectivists have also read these philosophers and can say with some assuredness that Objectivism is not a restatement of the views of these other philosopers. As far as I know, they have not published papers on each of these authors. However,that would not invalidate Branden's assertion. It is the CRITICS who are making the claim.

However, the Brandens ran an institute (1958-1968), NBI, that gave courses on Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff who had a Ph.D. in philosophy (his dissertation advisor was Sidney Hook), gave a series of courses which were surveys of the history of philosophy and the philosophers in question were covered (By the way, these courses are still available on CD, if you wish to examine them).
Other philosophy professors were associated closely with Rand at that time, including Allan Gotthelf, George Walsh, John O. Nelson, and John Hospers. None of them have claimed that Objectivism is merely "recycled" Nietzsche/Hobbes/Spinoza/Spencer.

Is it possible that Rand and or Branden would have no knowledge of the courses taught at NBI? Highly unlikely, since Rand was present for Q&A at the end of many of these lecture sessions. Additionally, Branden has commented elsewhere that no word was published in their journals or presented in lecture format that Ayn Rand did not personally read and edit for content (as you are probably aware, she was sort of a "control freak," and was always concerned that her views not be mis-represented).

O.K., how about Niezsche? As the recent biographies have pointed-out, Rand was at one time enamored with Nietzsche, but had moved away from key aspects of his views by the time that she wrote "The Fountainhead." Professor Stephan Hicks has written and lectured on this. This issue is also covered, in great detail, in Chris Sciabarra's "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical" (Pennsylvania State Univ. Pr., 1995), a critical examination of her philosophy that still finds considerable value in many aspects of her work.

So, now I ask you: please provide evidence from the published critics of Objectivism that validates their assertion that her philosophy is merely a restatement of Niezsche and/or Spencer (the usual authors that such a claim is made)?

Thank you.

Lindsey Abelard writes:

You guys should try to dig up the Summer 1989 issue of Liberty magazine that has the article about how Murray Rothbard quit what he calls the the Ayn Rand Cult. It is a truly priceless and hilarious story.

I second Steve Sailor's endorsement of Murray Rothbard's "The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult".

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