Atlas Shrugged: The Descent of Man

Atlas Shrugged: The Descent of Man January 15, 2016


Atlas Shrugged, part III, chapter VII, The Speech

John Galt is still talking. In this section of his doorstopper monologue, he lectures about Rand’s views on human nature:

“Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without a knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch — or build a cyclotron — without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.

But to think is an act of choice. The key to what you so recklessly call ‘human nature,’ the open secret you live with, yet dread to name, is the fact that man is a being of volitional consciousness. Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival — so that for you, who are a human being, the question ‘to be or not to be’ is the question ‘to think or not to think.'”

Despite its claim to be a complete philosophy of life and existence, there’s a remarkable breadth of areas about which Objectivism has nothing to say. We’ve previously seen how Rand ducked the question of gun control, how she remained intentionally ambiguous about the importance of education, how she never explained how to fund a voluntary government, how she glossed over vital questions of parenting and child-rearing. This section sheds light on another of those gaps.

A philosophy of how humans ought to act should begin by setting out a position on human nature, i.e., what kind of beings are we and why are we that way rather than some other way? As we’ve just seen, Rand’s only answer to this is that humans are “beings of volitional consciousness” whose only choice is to think or not to think; everything else is detail.

As a full explanation of human origins and nature, this is scanty and unsatisfying. Given her stated advocacy of reason, you might think that Rand would just defer to the scientists. But you’d be wrong.

The theory of evolution was another of those topics that Rand was uncomfortable with. As with the other subjects I mentioned, she strategically evaded taking any position on it. She proclaimed that she was “neither its supporter nor opponent”, although according to Nathaniel Branden, as quoted by this Objectivist site, she had serious misgivings:

I remember being astonished to hear her say one day, “After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.” I asked her, “You mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms — including humans — evolved from less complex life forms?” She shrugged and responded, “I’m really not prepared to say,” or words to that effect. I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God’s creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable.

It’s not too hard to see why the idea of evolution unsettled Ayn Rand. She insisted that human beings were born as blank slates who have to learn through experience what’s good and what’s bad for them. She not only denied that instinct can tell us how to survive; she denied that human beings possess any instincts at all.

In this respect, Rand’s philosophy committed her to the belief that there’s an unbridgeable gap between humans and all other species of living things. John Galt says so:

“An animal is equipped for sustaining its life; its senses provide it with an automatic code of action, an automatic knowledge of what is good for it or evil. It has no power to extend its knowledge or to evade it. In conditions where its knowledge proves inadequate, it dies. But so long as it lives, it acts on its knowledge, with automatic safety and no power of choice, it is unable to ignore its own good, unable to decide to choose the evil and act as its own destroyer.

Man has no automatic code of survival. His particular distinction from all other living species is the necessity to act in the face of alternatives by means of volitional choice. He has no automatic knowledge of what is good for him or evil, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires.”

This is false in several respects, including that there are examples of animals that can “act as their own destroyer”. The famous story of lemmings suicidally hurling themselves into the sea is false, but there are others. In species like the praying mantis or the black widow, the male seeks to mate with a female despite the risk that she’ll kill and devour him. Worker bees die when they sting an attacker of the hive, and drones die when they mate with the queen. Some animals, like certain birds, stage distraction displays to protect their chicks from predators, even at the possible cost of their own lives. Whales and dolphins have been known to beach themselves. And at the other end of the spectrum, learning and cultural transmission in animals is very real, in species from apes and monkeys to songbirds and even fish.

The problem from Rand’s perspective is that evolution means there isn’t a grand chasm between humans and other creatures. Like the animals we’re descended from, we do have instincts. They can’t show us how to survive by themselves, but they’re the substrates that all our lofty rational cognition is based upon.

As you’ve doubtless heard many times, the human taste for fat, sugar and salt is one example. It’s a reflection of what nutrients were most important in the primeval environment. Conversely, our dislike for bitter foods is because most things in nature that taste that way are poisonous. This is the “automatic knowledge of what is good or evil” that Rand insisted was the sole domain of animals. We have phobias of dangerous animals like snakes and spiders (but not modern threats like rushing cars) at a much higher rate than experience would dictate.

And though Rand absurdly believed it was a purely rational means of showing your admiration for capitalism, what could be a more natural and instinctive behavior than sex? As we saw, her belief that sexual attraction was subject to conscious control brought her to serious grief.

The human tendency to act on the basis of emotion or instinct is the foundation of behavioral economics. This field seeks to explain why and in what ways we depart from the ideal of perfectly rational, fully selfish utility-maximizers. That simplistic, classical model fails to explain observed realities of human behavior in scenarios like the ultimatum game. Predictably, however, behavioral economics has drawn rancorous attacks from free-market acolytes who view it as dangerous socialism. If you’re wedded to the assumption that humans must be fully rational, it’s obvious how these findings could be threatening – they undermine the assumption that more freedom and less regulation is always a good thing.

“Existence exists — and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists… If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.”

This line, which is the basis for Rand’s “A is A” philosophy, has the strange implication that if you’re not perceiving what really exists, then you’re not conscious. If you’re drunk or stoned; if you suffer from schizophrenia or psychosis; if you hallucinate due to damage to the retina, or even just from being in a sensory deprivation tank, you may think you’re conscious, but you’re not. (What do you have instead? False consciousness? Pseudo-consciousness? Sorta-consciousness?)

As it happens, I agree that there’s an objective world separate from us governed by fixed laws we can understand, because doubting or questioning that proposition achieves nothing and leads nowhere. But that’s not the same as saying I can prove it. And I especially don’t agree that consciousness is by definition the ability to correctly perceive the world. We know that conscious creatures like us misperceive, make errors of reasoning, or overlook important facts all the time, which is why it’s so important to reevaluate earlier conclusions when new evidence comes in. But that smacks of empiricism, an idea that Rand never wholly accepted. Uncertainty and doubt were profoundly unacceptable to her. She found it much more comforting to believe that facts about the world, and about human nature, could be derived from first principles just by sufficient armchair thinking.

Image credit: Clément Bardot, via Wikimedia Commons; released under CC BY-SA 4.0 license

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