Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 1
By Bryan Caplan
“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 Branden 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.