Ayn Rand vs. the Natural Evolution of Human Altruism

Picture: Pauline Eccles (CC)

The natural history of mankind’s development seems to differ greatly with the psychopathic philosophy of Ayn Rand, a ‘virtue of selfishness’ in which her heroes, such as John Galt, strive for their individual supremacy and autonomy over a collective view of public good. The fact that anthropological evidence refutes her premises would hardly have deterred Rand, who referred to the “primordial savages” of the world, “unable to conceive of individual rights.” As if the rights of individuals are mutually exclusive from such goals as sharing, or showing compassion, working in tandem or exercising a collective group intelligence (with a social awareness) to meet goals.

Indeed, Ayn Rand framed her moral arguments as if the individualists were the persecuted minority, using drastic examples like Stalinist Russia to make her invective criticisms of much more centrist or moderate positions, while ignoring the rich history of robber barons, feudal states and serfdoms. Unfortunately for her, it is not only history, philosophy, culture and economics that have shown her to be wrong, but science as well.

 writes in Slate:

Christopher Boehm has been studying the interplay between the desires of an individual and that of the larger group for more than 40 years. Currently the director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of anthropology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, he has conducted fieldwork with both human and nonhuman primates and has published more than 60 scholarly articles and books on the problem of altruism. In his newest book, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, Boehm synthesizes this research to address the question of why, out of all the social primates, are humans so altruistic?

“There are two ways of trying to create a good life,” Boehm states. “One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue.” Boehm’s theory of social selection does both. The term altruism can be defined as extra-familial generosity (as opposed to nepotism among relatives). Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls “Late-Pleistocene Appropriate” (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.

What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand’s selfish ideal. For example, in 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in these societies always follow these values. In 100 percent of LPA societies there was at least one incidence of theft or murder, 80 percent had a case in which someone refused to share, and in 30 percent of societies someone tried to cheat the group (as in the case of Cephu).

What makes these violations of moral rules so instructive is how societies choose to deal with them. Ultimately, it all comes down to gossip. More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species (though this could change if we ever learn to translate the complex communication system in whales or dolphins). Gossip is intimately connected with the moral rules of a given society, and individuals gain or lose prestige in their group depending on how well they follow these rules. This formation of group opinion is something to be feared, particularly in small rural communities where ostracism or expulsion could mean death. “Public opinion, facilitated by gossiping, always guides the band’s decision process,” Boehm writes, “and fear of gossip all by itself serves as a preemptive social deterrent because most people are so sensitive about their reputations.” A good reputation enhances the prestige of those individuals who engage in altruistic behavior, while marginalizing those with a bad reputation. Since prestige is intimately involved with how desirable a person is to the opposite sex, gossip serves as a positive selection pressure for enhancing traits associated with altruism. That is, being good can get you laid, and this will perpetuate your altruistic genes (or, at least, those genes that allow you to resist cheating other members of your group).

Sometimes gossip is not enough to reduce or eliminate antisocial behavior. In Boehm’s analysis of LPA societies, public opinion and spatial distancing were the most common responses to misbehavior (100 percent of the societies coded). But other tactics included permanent expulsion (40 percent), group shaming (60 percent), group-sponsored execution (70 percent), or nonlethal physical punishment (90 percent). In the case of expulsion or execution, the result over time would be that traits promoting antisocial behavior would be reduced in the populations. In other words, the effect of social selection would be that altruists would have higher overall fitness and out-reproduce free riders. The biological basis for morality in our species could therefore result from these positive and negative pressures carried out generation after generation among our Pleistocene ancestors. Who is John Galt? He refused to participate in society and no one has seen him since.

And it seems that altruistic humankind are not the only primates offended by cheating; earlier this month we saw how Capuchin monkeys respond to unequal pay. So while I’m not advocating public executions or exile, perhaps we should utilize more gossip, bad publicity and group shaming against the ruling elite classes who for far too long have existed in a bubble of their ‘virtuous selfishness.’

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  • http://twitter.com/TedHeistman Ted Heistman

    Strong and Gifted individuals are at a disadvantage if they flout the mores of the local masses, or even if they simply stand out against them in bold relief due to personal excellence. There is something to that. Envy is the “evil eye”
    Think of a bad ass red tailed hawk being mobbed by crows. She could kick any one crows ass, with her talons and beak but not ten at once.

    So here is an idea. You consider yourself a rare and beautiful flower a step above the “unwashed masses” how do you protect yourself? By aligning yourself with money and power and eschewing egalitarian values.

    I get it, even if I don’t always agree with it. There is something to it. Are all popular ideas good?

    • kowalityjesus

      I think you have a very poignant postulation.
      Gelotophobia is the fear of being laughed at. Worldwide, it is least prevalent on average in Western European societies, specifically least prevalent in the Danish nationality. What does it mean that Arabs and Persians, Chinese and Indians are more fearful of being found the object of hilarity? Is it an inherent libertarianism of the Western mind? The thought of “whatever you dumbfucks, I am going to go do this and we will see who is laughing during the winter.”

      There is just so many ideas that this post is not touching on.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    There am arguments to be made in either direction.

    On one hand, she did have a face like a horse trying to take a dump through a sewn up bum. Could be a biological signal warning potential mates that she was a misanthropic buffoon.

    On the other hand, have you got yourself a look at some of them ones with 10 or more kids? Alcohol is the world’s most powerful aphrodisiac, don’t kid yourself.

  • todd southern

    Didn’t Ayn Rand complain when somebody’s else’s individualism negatively impacted her? I seem to recall she getting bent out of shape over just about everything that profited off her name even if she had nothing to inspire but criticism. And didn’t she count on US taxpayers to rid her of lung cancer from her smoking habit?

    • phasegen

      Her name is her own. How would you feel if I copied all of your posts, included them in a book, and made money off of it? What if it was a book that espoused ideas you didn’t agree with?
      Oh, and by the way, if you’re forcibly taxed for something, you might as well use it. It’s the same with Social Security. You don’t just give money away without expecting a return on investment.

      • Jin The Ninja

        you know ayn rand collected social security, right?

        • phasegen

          She paid in. She actually started paying in at the inception of the program. It was mandatory. The only way to get your money back is to collect it. She could have done better if she had been allowed to invest that money in Coca-Cola instead.

          • Jin The Ninja

            because you know, investing your money with nazis and resource thieves, that give nothing back to the communities they plunder, is a so much better social investment.

          • phasegen

            It was just an example. There are good companies to invest in that aren’t a train-wreck-happening. It’s better than giving it to Congress so they can put it in a savings account that they change their mind and raid constantly.
            Social Security was supposed to be for people who hit life expectancy and kept on living. It was not for everyone who got hurt, or was born with a problem that keeps them from making a living. If Congress had kept their fingers out of the pie, it would have stayed solvent. I’m not saying Congress shouldn’t help people, just that they should have used a different savings account for it.

  • Lou Prusodovich

    Zorp willing, she’s been melted down and used as fuel.

  • saint_al

    The Libertarian Party membership as a whole tends to have a queer near-worship of Ayn Rand. Too bad for them, on the surface they have some good ideas- y’know, like liberty?

    • Jack Benny

      …y’know, like… no taxes to maintain the country’s infrastructure, fire departments, law enforcement…

      …Doorknob

      • Jin The Ninja

        well i can say one thing for the libertarian party, they don’t support imperialism abroad, which in my view is better than supporting the fascists in the police department,

        • mannyfurious

          I mean, yeah, in general the police are a bunch of mutant enforcers of the oligarchy. They tend to be mean, vile, sniveling, dumb little weasels, with very little capacity for individual though. But recently there was this guy running around exposing himself at the local supermarkets. The cops took care of that guy. Or also when my home and car were broken into, it was nice having someone to call to figure out what happened. Also, before I met my wife, an ex-boyfriend was stalking and harassing her. The cops were pretty helpful in that case as well.

          What I’m saying, I think, is that, like most things, cops can be helpful or destructive, and I have mixed feelings about what to do with them.

          • Jin The Ninja

            i understand, and i have mixed feelings about them as well. i tend to view it like this:
            if the police were mandated to protect civilians (as opposed as state and economic interests)- great! but until they lean back from the brown shirt code (and in all honesty i don’t know if they can inherently be reformed)- i just can’t get down with them.

    • Anarchy Pony

      They aren’t libertarian, they are right-libertarian, a political philosophy that asserts that the source of liberty is private property and that everything everywhere should be privately owned by some person or corporation. Its assertions and assumptions are utterly paradoxical and contradictory. The intellectual forebears are those from the Austrian “school” of economics, Von Mises and Hayek, and the American Murray Rothbard(not to forget that it also claims influence from the founding fathers of the USA, namely Jefferson, who did envision a sort of agrarian minarchist society). All of whom reach totally absurd conclusions of what constitutes freedom and liberty, and whose overall philosophy reaches end conditions not unlike feudalism, and has no problem with slavery. It seeks to be a part of the overall anarchist/libertarian tradition/schools by appropriating the titles of Anarcho-capitalism, and Right-libertarianism, even to the point that the term libertarian, which was once practically synonymous with anarchist, has come to mean right-libertarian specifically, at least in the United States.

      • Calypso_1

        Thank you.

      • mannyfurious

        One of my bigger problems with the libertarians is that they fall into the false-dichotomy (as did Rand) that you either value the individual or you value the group. You cannot value both. Of course, this isn’t true. Personally, I think if you value the importance of the individual, you also value the group[s] that person belongs to. If you value the group, then must value each individual of that group. To neglect one is to neglect the other. The concept of the group and the concept of the individual are not mutually exclusive.

        • Andrew

          “The” group and the “individual” cannot, in fact, exist without “one” “another.”

  • Ethyrael

    A quote from John Michael Greer’s Encyclopedia of Occultism: “The first public Satanic religious organization did not surface until 1966, when Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan in San Francisco. As much a work of showmanship as a serious religion, the Church of Satan derived much of its philosophy from the writings of Ayn Rand and used the trappings of Satanism mostly as a source of publicity. LaVey’s media presence, however, spawned plenty of copycat groups who took their Devil worship more literally, and also gave rise to a schismatic group, the Temple of Set, dedicated to the serious practice of the Left Hand Path.”

    Safe to say, Ayn Rand is the core philosophic inspiration for Satanism.

    • Breshvic

      Wow. More Republicans need to hear about that association. Makes Bill Ayres seem like Fozzy Bear. Their widdle heads would probably explode with cognitive dissonance.

  • rtb61

    Ayn Rand, celebrating the selfish greedy parasite feeding upon the social body of humanity. A diseased mind promoting the genetic defects of narcissism, a lack of an autonomic empathic response and psychopathy which is a lack of an autonomic empathic response combined with extreme shallowness of emotions.
    The insane minority screaming they are sane and that the rest of humanity, caring sharing humanity is insane.

  • alizardx

    There is a growing body of scientific evidence that says Rand is wrong as well as being annoying, of which this is only a part.

  • Roger Mexico

    I’m not sure how this necessarily refutes the premise stated in the introduction. (“brute savages… unable to conceive of individual rights”). It seems to state that altrusim evolved under threat of punishment for deviance from social norms. While differently value-loaded, I don’t see the refutation of the Rand quote in the study’s evidence. Apparently “refusal to share” and other self-serving behavior had some pretty dire consequences in these groups, so it would actually follow from that logic that these groups did NOT seem to view individuals as having rights vis-a-vis the group. Am I misunderstanding this?

    I’m not a Randian, I disagree with Objectivists on all manner of things–including the nature of altruism and collectivism–and I think the influence of some of her ideas on our political culture has been toxic, but I wonder if this article misrepresents her views. I don’t think she argued that altruism has no biological basis–she just views it as a negative influence on society.
    As I recall (I haven’t really read much of her stuff) her point is more along the lines of saying that individuals come closer to realizing their potential when they are less constrained by obligations to put others’ preferences ahead of their own. This includes creative potential such as technological innovation, so she argues that societies often end up benefitting more from the efforts of individuals if they grant those individuals a greater amount of autonomy to be “selfish.” (i.e. to pursue what they personally value as opposed to what “society” values, or wants them to value) Observing that less technologically advanced societies have a greater tendency to punish non-altruistic behavior than more technologically advanced ones hardly seems to disprove that, in and of itself.

    The Orlov article on Kropotkin did a much, much better job of making the case for evolutionary BENEFITS of altruism, without even mentioning Rand. This just seems to be saying THAT altruism evolved. I think most of us knew that.

    D-

    • kowalityjesus

      well said!!

      Many socialists active in today’s political culture believe that it is a better idea to legislate resources to the public rather than let individuals donate what they can. It is largely a paranoid, ignorant, and faithless philosophy, in my opinion. People who fail to engage in charity will meet their own miserable fate even in this world. Raising taxes is going to do nothing but feed the war machine.

      • phasegen

        Hear, Hear! or Amen! or whatever floats your boat! There’s a book that says that somewhere, and it had that part written in red so you’d pay attention to it.

        • kowalityjesus

          “I am totally for the freedom of expression, except for Christians, who are too accepted for me to look cool not decrying.” is what that virtually substanceless comment says to me.

      • Roger Mexico

        Well, thank you for the compliment, but I don’t know if I’d go as far this. Ironically, the “Cephu” story contains a pretty good metaphor for an inherently problematic aspect of capitalist social structures. (It also applies to socialist societies, or any society really) But the author of the piece did nothing to explore the real distinction.

        Cephu is hardly a rugged, self-sufficient individualist. Arguably he really IS a thief, or at least a cheater of sorts. He’s profiting off of the labor of others (the people scaring the animals into the nets) without sharing the proceeds with the people who did the work. His bright idea was to sneak out and put his net somewhere he could get privileged access to the animals being driven into the nets, and then keep whatever ended up in his net as “his own” haul instead of putting it into the pool of product to be divvied up amongst all the participants in the hunt.
        A TRUE “individualist” would have gone off to some other part of the forest, put up his own net, and then driven animals into it himself. Then he could legitimately claim that he’d “earned” every animal he caught, and the others would be stealing if they forced him to share with them.
        In an industrialized society, very few of us ever get the chance to be true individualists, and a lot of us wouldn’t choose to. (We can usually get more meat by working together.) As long as we have to sell our skills for other people’s skills, we’re all participants in a massive, vastly complex group hunt. The combined output of all our individual labors are the animals. Our “nets” are whatever system we have in place for allocating property rights. (Remember that the people chasing the animals into the nets have to be paid out of whatever ends up in the nets–they don’t have their own nets, so the people with net-stringing skills have to decide how much the chasers’ chasing skills are worth to them)
        Personally I think it’s fine to say that if you end up with a bigger share of the collective take just because you managed to get your net in front of everyone else’s, you should have to kick something back into the pool that keeps the whole group fed, whether or not you feel like it. Because otherwise you’re getting a free ride.

        But I do agree that people who act miserly when they should be charitable often get what’s coming to them, one way or another, if everyone else in the tribe is free to decide whether they’re worth keeping around.

      • Breshvic

        That would be great in practice! Unfortunately, I feel that many “engines of the economy” would mostly prefer to risk eternal damnation, or distort religion to their twisted vision of austerity, self-interest, and greed, and happily not pass through the “eye of the needle” if it means they can keep trillions of dollars in untaxable income in secret, offshore accounts.

  • phasegen

    I’m with Ayn Rand. A person can’t always pick the societies around them, but they most certainly have the right to opt out of the parts they disagree with. It’s far more acceptable than wiping those societies out, like most other societies try to do to competing societies.
    With the exception of my friends and family, I owe nothing to anyone. As far as friends and family go, I don’t owe them enough to sacrifice my happiness. When I choose to do a “good” deed, it’s my choice, not through compulsion or compromise. It’s to benefit me, and my ends.
    That is what people don’t get about Ayn Rand. It’s not about shunning all society for self. It’s about supporting the parts of society you want to see thrive for self.
    Compulsory participation in the offensive parts of society are why the Founders agreed on and passed a “Bill Of Rights”, and is the biggest reason why you and I are not forced to be Catholic or Presbyterian.
    Forced group participation is not okay. Self determination is a good thing. Think about it.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if you could designate exactly what your tax dollar was or wasn’t spent on?

    • Jacky Boy

      Someone is clearly projecting, and is not very familiar with Rand’s work.

    • Breshvic

      Have you read Ayn Rand? The Virtue of Selfishness?

      And I don’t even agree with your premise. If you don’t agree with something about our collective society, you fight with direct action (both within and outside the system) to change it. You don’t just ‘opt out’. What would that even mean? You’d just sit in denial and ignorance of law, rule, and/or the social contract? I understand criticizing any of these, even striving to change them, since they were agreed upon over generations by many other without your personal consent. But you can’t just cross your arms and pretend that the undesirable parts of society don’t pertain to you. If everyone did this with the wide variety of things we all disagree with, it would be anarchy.

      Self determination is a good thing. So is civilization. They are not mutually exclusive, but do tend to butt heads at times.

      • phasegen

        Opt out means “to no longer be a part of or participate in”. If everyone in my neighborhood goes to the local Baptist Church it doesn’t mean I have to. Denial and disregarding of law, yes, when that law violates my right to keep what I earn by taxing me dispropotionately, or violating any of many other rights I retain through Natural Law. And believe me, you’d much rather I ignore what I don’t like about the society that surrounds me, than take direct action to change it. When someone violates your rights, it is your right to take equal measure to protect yourself, escalating resistance quid pro quo.

        • Breshvic

          There are both legal and illegal forms of resistance. If you refuse to pay taxes, the reality is they’ll throw you in jail just as easily as if you take up arms against them.

          On the other hand, impassioned writing, petitioning, protest, civil disobedience, lobbying and vocalizing your rights are very important direct actions. If you don’t like the way things are, change them. Thousands of years of that have gotten us where we are now, for both better and worse.

          For further clarification, if you opt out of our collective society by no longer paying social security or taxes, would you still be allowed to use roads? Would you get any sort of rescue if a natural disaster struck? Would firefighters douse your home in flames? Can the courts defend you if you’re being taken advantage of by your boss? Just wondering.

          • phasegen

            First, I would posit that not paying your taxes is a form of civil disobedience. Second, unless I produced my own fuel, then taxes on the roads are paid when I buy gasoline as taxes are included in that price. Sales taxes pay for the fire fighters and police in my area (and probably yours), and my state doesn’t levy an income tax. Third, my boss is me, and I don’t need a court to handle that jerk. The federal government (from whom I see little if any positive result in anything it does) is the only one taxing what I earn, and it is what I take issue with.
            Don’t forget, we are not a Democracy. We are a Republic. Individual rights trump everything except the next persons rights. This means you have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but only as long as it doesn’t impede my right to the same. The federal government has very limited rights afforded it by the Constitution. We allow it to expand it’s actions beyond that allowed it by the Constitution through our collective inaction. The problem is the collective of individuals that make up our society who vote without thinking, don’t educate themselves, and roll over and surrender their rights like the good little domesticated animals they are. (Whoever it was that said, “The sum of the intelligence on the planet is a constant; the population is growing” was telling the truth.) According to it’s own rules of existence, it is illegal for the government to disobey the Constitution. It is my inherent right to ignore and disobey that which is unconstitutional , regardless of how many other surrender monkeys have rolled over and shown their bellies to it before me. It is my responsibility to defend myself when that disobedience garners a response. No defensive response to an illegal action can be classified as illegal.

          • Breshvic

            To your first point; that’s fine, if you’re willing to be Nelson Mandela and carry on your peaceful protest or civil disobedience from a prison cell. Disacknowledgement of the legitimacy of the law does not negate the fact that the law is on the books. Only a jury nullification would help you, but that still wouldn’t change the law and you also can’t count on it. Sadly, your final statement is not true. They would absolutely classify your actions as illegal on whim.

            BTW, are you seriously telling me that you don’t think the American people garner any benefits from taxes? The post office? Interstate? Nothing? I understand if you are saying that the current government is inadequate, corrupt, lazy, greedy, etc.. but that’s an indictment of them, not of the system itself. If your problem is with the income tax, then challenge it in court. Write your representatives. Petition the government.

            We are a representative democracy. We are great because we do value individual rights, but we are also great because we know that it wasn’t just individuals who made this country great, it was the hard work and sacrifice of Americans as a group. Our teamwork over generations built roads, bridges, fought the Nazis, ended slavery, fed the starving, gave women the right to vote, built cities, airplanes, and spacecraft. We all benefit when we all help each other. We are the Public. We are the United States, and the government is accountable to us. We need to remind people of that, and remind everyone to hold them accountable.

            The current legislative, executive and judicial branches are corrupt, or at least faulty. They have been co-opted by corporate interests and their own flaws. Much of what they do is unconstitutional and illegal. But we don’t just do away with the whole thing, after all, what would stop some demagogue from coming up from the ashes and building something worse? We need to educate people and remind them of their core values and rights. We need to help each other enable change-making and progress. Humans are demonstrably smarter and more effective in groups. Many of our countrymen are complacent. We need to always challenge them and ourselves to be held to higher standards or ethics and evidence.

  • illuminatus

    Any psychpaths emerging in the societies examined would quickly have a hunting accident or fall off the ice floe.
    Unfortunately, in our ‘modern’ societies they get to run the whole show so I don’t think they are comparable environments.
    Here, alturism in others is exploited by the elite who just don’t feel it.