Evolutionary Anthropology to Ayn Rand: You Fail


Over at Slate, evolutionary anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson has a fascinating essay about what science has to say about Ayn Rand’s theories of human nature. After immersing himself in Rand’s work, Johnson set out to uncover what researchers in the field of evolutionary anthropology had discovered about human selfishness and altruism. The result is a thoughtful analysis of how Rand’s famous libertarian hero John Galt would have fared during the Pleistocene, a period when human society was in its infancy.

Here’s a great excerpt. Johnson writes:

Christopher Boehm has been studying the interplay between the desires of an individual and that of the larger group for more than 40 years . . . 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.

Written By: Annalee Newitz
continue to source article at io9.com


  1. Actually Ayn Rand was opposed to modern Libertarianism. If you will google for “Ayn Rand’s Q & A on Libertarianism – The Ayn Rand Institute”, you will see why.

  2. More precisely, she was opposed to the libertarianism of the early 1970s, which was neither the original libertarianism nor the modern libertarianism; Wikipedia makes clear there have been at least 6 eras in the history of libertarianism, with Rand’s comments dating from the fifth while the sixth has occurred after her death. (See the contents page of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L….

  3. John Galt would have been an asshole in any era, successful or not. We should avoid falling for the same naturalistic fallacy that Rand did.

  4. “Christopher
    Boehm has been studying…”

    Boehm appears to be a group selectionist, and therefore is most likely
    profoundly confused about the evolutionary basis of altruism. Here is an excerpt
    from a paper by Boehm.


    The fact that
    an article that apparently supports fluffy group selectionism is featured on
    Slate does not surprise me. Slate’s standards have deteriorated over the past few
    years – much of its content is now little more than contrarian-for-the-sake-of-contrarianism,
    deliberately inflammatory in order to garner page clicks. 

    The site’s current
    editors seem to be the type of people that Richard was referring to when
    he made this remark:

    “It has become almost a
    cliche to remark that nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is
    socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science and proudly claim
    incompetence in mathematics. “

  5. “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.”

    Sounds like the “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice” to me, so far seen in Saudi and Talib Afghanistan, where the good life is.

  6. Hi Jos, you have a stray ellipse at the end of you hyperlink causing it to fail.  Your standards are slipping 🙂

  7. Just curious, what aspect of John Galt do you find so despicable? That he would respect your human rights or that he wouldn’t let you use him as means to your ends?

  8. “Objectivist ethics” are neither objective nor ethical and libertarian “free will” is nonsense. Rights are human, not divine and should reflect our capacity for responsibility. Ultimately, we are all means to the ends of our selfish genes.

  9. Before we move to the topic of free will, what aspect of John Galt do you find so despicable?

  10. Stop throwing red herrings and just answer the question: Suppose he’s your coworker, what exactly do you think he would do that you would find so despicable?
    Edit: Here I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt because I find it hard to believe that a difference of opinion is all it takes for you to despise someone.

  11. btw, I’m honestly curious, how do you go from “existence exists” (objectivism) to “the world and other minds do not exist” (solipsism)?

  12. In life I have found that by far the best way to benefit myself as an individual is to be altruistic.

  13. What’s your point? That Islamic definition of good & evil is the exact opposite of  western values? Admittedly ‘virtue’ is an archaic word, probably inappropriate in the western context.

  14. The point is that I would not attempt to go anywhere from such a trivial tautology. Rand’s morality is solipsistic because it does not recognise another’s subjectivity.

  15. So in other words you have no clue of what you’re talking about yet you voice your opinion as if had any weight. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Since it’s obvious that you have your opinion and facts are irrelevant, trying to explain it to you would be like trying to explain vaccines to Jenny McCarthy.

    So for the passer by…

    Existence exists is a tautology only if you’ve never read anything about Ayn Rand. If you did then you would know that the word “existence” is used as a substitute for (roughly) “the world/universe which is shared by all of us” or “the world/universe outside our minds”. It says “there’s a world out there whether you believe in it or not”. This is the complete opposite to solipsism. Now you may argue about a poor choice in words but to call it a tautology is either ignorant or dishonest (I still don’t know which one this guy is).

    As for the John Galt character, this guy can’t come up with a single example of a despicable action the character would take or even an idea that would lead to a despicable action. Alas, all this guy knows is “Rand, bad”.

  16.  There is a world out there, a world filled with other minds, each with their own subjective experiences. One cannot simply take one’s own subjective experience and declare it to be objective reality. Rand’s morality is disgusting, but even worse her entire ontology disregards the scientific method. “Facts” are whatever Rand says they are.

  17. I have no need to construct straw men to demolish, objectivism easily collapses at the slightest nudge.

  18. Please remember that our Terms of Use require disagreements to remain objective and courteous: please do not resort to personal abuse or other rudeness towards those who disagree with you.

    Thank you.

    The mods

  19. Making assertions without an iota of evidence. Check!
    Willfully misinterpreting positions. Check!
    Arguing with terms you don’t understand. Check!
    Not providing a single example of the terrible actions the character in question would take. Check!

    But you’re doing well. Keep repeating your mantra: “Rand, BAD”.

  20. I think Ayn Rand had a romantic and idealized view of capitalism because of her bad experience in revolutionary Russia, in the same way that some people, due to capitalism, have an idealized vision of socialism or communism. Today, the independent and individualistic creator represented in her novel Fountainhead must abide by the terms imposed on them and their creations by their clients and corporations where they work. In other words, the “motor of the world” (enterpreneurs, management, etc), whom these creators pretend to organize into a strike (Atlas Shrugged), is precisely the force that wants to control the independence of the creators. She wrote her works in an age when professionals were scarce. Nowadays, every year we have tens of thousands of new graduates in different fields coming out of universities. There’s heavy competition and they can’t afford to impose their terms like Rand’s fictitious characters.

  21. Odalrich, I agree with your sentiment and it’s one the few points that I disagree with Rand’s ideology. Her take on capitalism and the size of government is more in line with that of libertarians today (libertarians of her time were different and thus she disagreed with them). Even Rand herself agreed of the need for government and military. So the question becomes how big you believe government should be. As you pointed out, Rand placed too much trust in the invisible hand (as libertarians do today). We should trust it most of the time but not *always*.

    As with anything else that I mostly agree with, I don’t feel the need to throw away the entire Atlas Shrugged book just because there are aspects that I disagree with (size and role of government for example). And while I agree that less government is better, I don’t have to go to the extreme/absurd of agreeing that no government is best. I can take the little I disagree with and refine it or qualify it.

  22. I believe that, as in most things, there must be a middle of the road, neither too much nor too little. It’s true that too much government eventually stifle initiative and creation, but giving full freedom to the financial world, as it has been done in the last thirty years, on the pretext of the existence of the famous invisible hand that distributes everything with justice, has strangle the real economy leading the world to the mess it is in now. Rand was referring to the individual creator and entrepreneur working in the real economy, not to the top executive in the speculative economy. As I said before, the libertarian system is not giving the freedom that Rand expected. I’ve friends with great projects, which had to be modified  because the banks wouldn’t give them any loans, and others working for corporations that when complaining for the little freedom they were granted to carry out their projects they were suggested to quit the firm, “if you’re not happy with us you know where the way out is”   I think it is the middle class which is the creative force of society and the one that developed the democratic system in the world. Today this class is  in danger by the  excessive greed of large corporations run by greedy executives, and the excessive tax burden by mega-governments. Today’s question should be how much government are we prepared to accept and how much greed are we prepared  to allow.

  23. We’re mostly in agreement. It’s a shame you’re repeating the same misconception that free markets had anything to do with the financial crisis we just had. It wasn’t free markets; it was government intervention at work.

    Peter Schiff put it well when he said that we can all agree Wall Street, the banks, buyers, and sellers were drunk, but who provided the alcohol? The government did.

    The government mandating banks to relax requirements for minorities, the fed maintaining artificially low interest rates, the government guaranteeing loans, the banks having the reassurance that they’d be bailed out if anything goes wrong, etc. are not part of a free market.

    A free market is not a system where the government tells you “keep your profits and we’ll take care of your loses”.

  24. “A free market is not a system where the government tells you “keep your profits and we’ll take care of your losses”
    It’s obvious that this isn’t the policy of a free market, though the banks have used the account-holders as hostages telling us “if you let us fall, these poor devils will fall with us,” and the problem would have been far worse as most of us are account-holders. Yes, the governments supplied the alcohol but the banking system was willing to drink it. What I mean is that Ayn Rand’s characters, John Galt, Howard Roark, etc, wouldn’t have survived  to the Pleistocene, but neither they would’ve survived our chaotic times. I won’t go into detail about your comments about laissez-faire, Interventionism, Socialism, etc, because this site is not the appropriate place to conduct a debate on Economics because we’d change the subject of the main debate. However, while I agree with many of your statements, some of them would need to be clarified.

  25. We’ll have to agree to disagree. I don’t see how the government putting tax payers on the hook for bank loses is a product of free markets. I also don’t see how mutual cooperation without sacrificing individuals leads to the demise of a specie.

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