Sunday, March 09, 2008

Ayn Rand on Human Evolution

In a comment on my previous post on Ayn Rand and evolution, Neil Parille refers to his essay on "Ayn Rand and Evolution." The article provides a good survey of Rand's scattered remarks on evolution.

Saying that she was neither a supporter nor an opponent of the theory of evolution, Rand's comments are confusing and incoherent. Rand said that "rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival." She rooted this conclusion in the idea that only living organisms can have values because only they show self-generated, goal-directed action. "An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil." Moreover, "since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil." This and other comments suggest that Rand's ethics is rooted in a biological teleology of human nature. As I have suggested in my previous post, Harry Binswanger develops this Randian idea in his book The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts.

But as Parille indicates, Rand herself was unclear about whether she accepted biological evolution. Oddly enough, although Rand was an atheist, she assumed that man transcended biological nature, and this transcendence sounds a lot like the Christian conception of human beings as set apart from the natural world. Here she resembles Nietzsche in his atheistic religiosity--denying Christianity even as he appropriated the Christian language of "exaltation" and "redemption."

Moreover, Rand's suspicion of biological evolution seems to assume a "blank slate" conception of human beings that contradicts her appeal to human nature. This is strange because the "blank slate" idea was the basis for the collectivist vision of the radical malleability of human nature, and it was this vision that Rand challenged.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was at an Ayn Rand Institute lecture about evolution the other day. Harry Binswanger was in the audience. During the Q&A he remarked that Rand never publicly endorsed evolution because she thought it was irresponsible to do so without knowing a lot more about it than she did. Binswanger said that privately, though, she expressed agreement with it.

Neil Parille said...

Rand opposed Reagan and his support for teaching creationism in schools. In one of her last lectures, she said something to the effect that evolution was supported by lots of evidence. Even there, I believe she qualified her support.

I can understand not wanting to support something without "knowing a lot more about it," but generally we have no hesistancy about saying things such as "Newton was a great scientist" even if we don't know much about him. Rand once said a person could raise his IQ from 110 to 140, and I doubt she studied the IQ debate.

Neil Parille said...

I have another article which is somewhat relevant --

http://tinyurl.com/2eds6o

Anonymous said...

"I can understand not wanting to support something without "knowing a lot more about it," but generally we have no hesitancy about saying things such as "Newton was a great scientist" even if we don't know much about him."

Sure we say Newton is a great scientist without knowing the details of his theory. But saying someone is a great scientist is not the same as endorsing his specific theory. She's doing the same thing with evolution. She's saying that evolution is supported by lots of evidence and is the only game in town, but she doesn’t know enough to say with certainty if it is true.

My point is, I think you (Neil) are making this into more than it is.

For instance, I fail to see from where you (or Prof. Arnhart) conclude that Rand thinks man transcends biological nature. Neil just asserts this in his article. (Para 10) She certainly thinks man is unique in the extent of his ability to control nature. Here is where I was going to say that this doesn’t imply that man transcends nature, but actually I don’t know what you (Neil or Prof Arnhart) mean by “transcend.”

I should also say, as far as objective analysis of the text goes, I think Neil’s essay fails. For example, in para 16 Neil takes a clear metaphor about Attila and the Witch Doctor and treats it as a straightforward statement about evolution. That's characteristic of Neil's article. He draws many conclusions which are not supported by the text.

In para 19 he imparts to Rand a view about concepts and choice she does not hold. The view isn’t supported by and of the essays he discusses, or any of her essays on concepts. She does not think man is either conceptual or not. Her view is more subtle. In her book on concepts, she makes clear that she thinks concepts of perceptually visible objects are formed almost automatically. You can’t choose not to properly form the concept for “shoe” or “fork.” Error is introduced when concepts are further removed from perception. This is where one has to choose to think conceptually. The more abstract a concept is, the more choice is important. Since it is impossible on Rand’s view for a biologically healthy man NOT to form a vast amount of concepts, the whole (1), (2), (3), (4) string of inferences in that paragraph is false.

So what must Rand mean by “he must become human by choice?” In her ethical writing, she talks about choosing to live consistently with one’s nature. That’s probably what she means here. One doesn’t choose to have a conceptual faculty, or choose to be subject to human nature or whatever. Rather, man chooses to act consistently with his nature. That’s what she means by “human by choice.”

Prof Arnhart ends the post by attributing to her a "blank slate" view she does not hold. The major piece of her epistemology is that the volitional, error prone parts of cognition should be based on the automatic parts. This relates to what I said earlier in this comment. One of the ways a man chooses to act consistently with his nature is to base his error prone cognition on his automatic cognition. That means there are many aspects of cognition that are INNATE. Rand thinks that the “blank slate” applies to knowledge only. A substantial portion of her “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is dedicated towards discussing the parts of concept formation that are innate.

Personally, I think there is a hell of a lot to be learned about Rand’s ethics by studying her epistemology, and seeing her ethics as an application of that epistemology. Darryl Wright does this to some extent in his recent paper in Social Philosophy and Policy (“Evaluative Concepts and Objective Values: Rand on Moral Objectivity” vol 25, issue 1).

Neil Parille said...

Hello Anon,

1. I believe Rand's statements on evolution express a certain unease on her part. And the Branden testimony (which I probably consider more likely to be accurate than you) supports this. Her statements in the Journals and The Missing Link also lend support.

2. Rand saying that she didn't know enough about evolution to endorse it is odd. Rand had definitive views on virtually everything. In ITO (and other places), she tells you how the mind of children and animals works without referencing a single study. (If your response is that she knew it all through 'introspection,' I can only say that I can't 'introspect' about how my mind worked a child. I can't introspect and determine how my pet cat thinks.) To take another example, consider Rand's wild speculations about the pyschological crisis that "mystics" supposedly went through as children.

3. I don't think Rand "makes clear" that "she thinks concepts of perceptually visible objects are formed almost automatically." For example, on pages 11-12 of ITO, she says at times things like "the child observes/forms concepts/omits/retains" but also "the mind" does these things. In fact, your claim about the difference between concepts of visually perceptible objects and concepts further removed from perception is undercut by Rand's discussion on pp. 12-13. You may well be correct, but I find Rand quite vague on this.

4. I think you are attributing an amount of consistency to ITO which is not supported by the text. For example, I see no way of coming up with a consistent account of the relationship between words, concepts, implicit concepts and definitions, as Bryan Register demonstrated in his JARS article.

5. I say that in Rand's view that man "in some sense transcends" nature because I don't think her position is sufficiently detailed to be more definitive.

6. Everyone I know who has commented on this passage in The Missing Link considers it a little, uh, strange. Perhaps your interpretion is correct, but mine follows what Rand actually said.

7. Rand's writings is suffused with frequent references to death, subhumans, men becoming animals, "choice to think," etc. Perhaps if she didn't write in such a hectoring, melodramatic manner she would be taken more seriously.

Neil Parille said...

Anon,

As a final point, a person reading your brief discussion of the relevant passage in "The Missing Link" wouldn't even know she was talking about evolution! And why does she say that her thesis "haunted [her] for years" if it is a straighfoward application of her theory of concepts?

Derek Copold said...

Moreover, Rand's suspicion of biological evolution seems to assume a "blank slate" conception of human beings that contradicts her appeal to human nature. This is strange because the "blank slate" idea was the basis for the collectivist vision of the radical malleability of human nature, and it was this vision that Rand challenged.

Rand and her adversaries really weren't so far apart. The only difference is that she would have gone straight for the "withering away" of the state without the "dictatorship of the proletariat."

Robert Campbell said...

I inferred from Harry Binswanger's writings that he had worked to convince Ayn Rand of the truth of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. It's good to have confirmation directly from him.

In her last Ford Hall Forum speech, Ayn Rand said:

"I must state, incidentally, that I am not a student of biology and am, therefore, neither an advocate nor an opponent of the theory of evolution. But I have read a lot of valid evidence to support it, and it is the only scientific theory in the field."

This was an odd thing to say in the midst of a ringing condemnation of creationism.

What's more, according to Leonard Peikoff (who claims, not necessarily with 100% accuracy, to be repeating what Rand taught him), it is irrational to acknowledge "a lot of evidence" for a theory without concluding that the theory is probably true.

Refusing to issue a "cognitive verdict" when presented with valid evidence, according to Dr. Peikoff, is unmistakable evidence of agnosticism. And both Nathaniel Branden, before he was cast out of the Randian fold, and Leonard Peikoff, after Dr. Branden was cast out, have insisted that agnosticism is among the worst of all epistemological sins.

As far as I know, Ayn Rand's last Ford Hall Forum speech has never been included in a posthumous anthology. Could it be because, by Peikovian standards, she takes an overtly irrational position about evolution?

Robert Campbell

Memetic Warrior said...

It is wrong to consider the Rand theory of the human mind as a "blank slate". this is a missconception, maybe because the only admitted components of the mind in Rand philosophy are reason and internally generated purpose. This maybe too simplistic and, we now know, wrong, but it isn't, by no means, a "blank slate" in the leftist sense.

Memetic Warrior said...

In evolutionary terms, internally generated purpose, that is, biol√≥gical teleology means instinct-generated behaviour, so it isn´t a blank slate at all.

Roderick Fitts said...

Memetic warrior says:

"[T]his is a missconception [sic], maybe because the only admitted components of the mind in Rand philosophy are reason and internally generated purpose."

This is inconsistent with Rand's description of the differences among a person's conscious activities, which can be found in chapter 4--specifically page 30--of "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 2nd Expanded Edition."

In addition to reason, Rand's view is that the faculties of perception, evaluation (feelings, emotions), memory, and imagination exist in the human mind.

Anonymous said...

One might also wonder whether an evolutionary theory or Darwinian-style explanations are necessary for a true account of human nature. Of course, assuming that Darwinian theories are more or less correct, then no account of human nature that didn't appeal to evolution and evolutionary explanations could be explanatorily complete. But it is one thing to identify a feature as part of human nature and another thing to give a correct causal explanation for its emergence in the history of life and the mode by which such features are passed down to offspring. It was only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that we knew enough about genetics to have a great deal of confidence that Darwinian explanations are at least formally correct (leaving aside questions about the details of how some particular feature was selected, which can be more or less speculative in varying cases). If one needs evolutionary theory in order to know anything about human nature, it follows that nobody before Darwin, and probably not even Darwin himself (since the biology of his own time hadn't come to an understanding of genetics sufficient to explain precisely how traits can be passed down and how changes can occur) knew anything about human nature. To anyone who has read Aristotle, that should be an obvious absurdity.

So, especially given that Rand was writing in the middle of the 20th century and didn't know much about evolutionary theory, it makes perfect sense for her to be agnostic on the issue, at least if she wanted to be epistemically responsible. After all, her views on human nature did not contradict evolutionary theory, and they could be correct even if it turned out that the true causal story of human nature had nothing to do with natural selection at all. So, though I don't often say this, Rand was right.

Finally, I have no idea why talking about exaltation and redemption should imply that human beings are not a part of nature or that evolutionary theory cannot explain natural human functions. It might help to remember that these words were metaphors even to the religious people who first used them -- who, it is also worth pointing out, were probably not dualists. Even if they were crazy dualists who thought that human beings were completely alien to the natural world, it doesn't follow that someone who rejects those views can't have a serious use for metaphors of redemption, exaltation, and the like. A great part of Nietzsche's project was to spiritualize the natural and the bodily -- not by showing that it has some transcendent features, but that transcendence of nature isn't a necessary condition for 'spiritual' depth. If that sounds paradoxical, that's because it is. But only because the other-worldly strains of the Christian tradition had erected an anti-natural conception of the 'spiritual' as the non-physical. Perhaps one needs spiritual depth to see the point, but it strikes me as rather obvious . Maybe I'm missing something.