John Galt and Human Nature

A terrible and traumatic thing happened on the Monday night before last, particularly for those of us who grew up in Wisconsin during the years of the great Green Bay Packer dynasty built by Saint Vincent Lombardi.  In a call so flagrantly and flamboyantly bad that I have never seen its like, even at the junior high school level, the NFL replacement refs awarded the Seattle Seahawks a touchdown on an obvious Green Bay interception, altering the outcome of the game.  I immediately flew into a (not objectively justifiable) rage, filling the social media with comments to the effect that I would never again support the NFL in any way, shape, or form.  Shortly thereafter, certain mood-altering things began to happen.  The strike was settled, and the regular refs returned in time to call the next game on Thursday night.  The Packers won and the unspeakable Seahawks lost.  The NFL sent some nice people over to adjust my meds.  My whole attitude changed.  I love the NFL again, can’t wait to go to another game, and that traumatic Monday night is but a distant and fading memory.

That in microcosm, is what once happened to the academic and professional experts in the behavioral sciences, albeit the process took a bit longer.  For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, they once denied there was such a thing as human nature, or, if it existed at all, its influence was insignificant.  If anyone disagreed, they flew into a rage and hurled down anathemas on the transgressor.  As most of them tended to occupy points to the left of center on the ideological spectrum, those anathemas typically involved implications that the evildoer occupied the outgroup on the right.  I noted the following examples directed at the most influential of the contrarians, Robert Ardrey, in an earlier post:

His (Ardrey’s) categories and preferences are bound to give comfort and provide ammunition for the radical Right, for the Birchites and Empire Loyalists and their analogues elsewhere.  (Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer)

Major aggressions of history, including Hitler’s, may be explained superficially by these easy devices of instinct theory, or studied systematically with evidence known to historians and scientists.  (Animal psychologist T. C. Schneirla)

Simple-minded ideas similar to those of (eugenecist Albert Edward) Wiggam concerning racial improvement led Hitler and his friends to try to eliminate one whole section of the human race.  I doubt if Ardrey’s book has any such serious implication as this, but the erroneous notion that fighting over the possession of land is a powerful, inevitable, and uncontrollable instinct might well lead to the conclusion that war is inevitable and therefore a nation must attack first and fight best in order to survive and prosper.  (Psychologist J. P. Scott.  As those familiar with Ardrey’s work are aware, he never had any such “notion”).

In time, all that changed.  The existence and importance of human nature had always been obvious to any reasonably intelligent 10 year old.  The data continued to roll in, and gradually became so weighty that even the experts in the behavioral sciences were forced to agree with the 10 year olds.  A paradigm shift occurred.  A flood of articles began to appear, both in the academic and professional journals and the popular media, all citing the profound importance of human nature as if the matter had never been the least bit controversial.  Oddly enough, it was discovered that evolution had not predisposed us to be fascists and John Birchers after all.  Au contraire, we were all programmed to reside safely and solidly on the ideological left.  Those on the right, finally noticing that their ox was being gored, began throwing pious thunderbolts in the opposite direction.  For example, from an article entitled “Science Demands Big Government” by Dennis Prager, written for National Review Online,

“We have evolved,” the professor (Daniel Lieberman of Harvard) concluded his piece, “to need coercion.”  In order to understand both how silly and how dangerous this comment is, one must first understand the role evolutionary explanations play in academic life — and in left-wing life generally. The Left has always sought single, non-values-based explanations for human behavior.

In the words of Scientific American, “Homo economicus is extinct.”  But the biggest reason for the declining popularity of economic man is that science has displaced economics — which is not widely regarded as a science — as the Left’s real religion. Increasingly, therefore, something held to be indisputably scientific — evolution — is offered as the Left’s explanation for virtually everything.

If we take this claim seriously and use evolution to guide social policy, little that is truly decent will survive. Is there anything less prescribed by evolution than, let us say, hospices? Professor Lieberman writes that humans have evolved to cooperate with one another. But he cannot deny that the basic evolutionary proposition is survival of the fittest. How, then, can an evolutionary perspective demand the expending of energy and resources to take care of those who are dying? And if evolution demands the survival of the species, wouldn’t evolution call for other “coercion” — against abortion, for example?

…and so on, and so on.  Thus, dear reader, we have finally come full circle.  Within a very few years, “human nature” has done a double back flip, all the way from being a tool of fascist imperialism to the “scientific” basis of the nanny state. Silly anthropologists! Silly sociologists! Silly psychologists! Why did you resist the obvious for so long? It turns out that, thanks to “human nature”, we have evolved to be ideally adapted to whatever future utopias you see fit to concoct for us after all!

I rather think Mr. Prager has a point.  Many of the latest books and papers emanating from what used to be called in the vernacular ethology, and then sociobiology, and now evolutionary psychology have a distinctly leftist flavor.  An interesting manifestation of this phenomenon is the increasing incidence of attacks from those quarters on the works of Ayn Rand in general, and her novel Atlas Shrugged in particular.  Its hero is one John Galt, a typical Randian superman; brilliant, creative, resourceful, and scornful of all mediocrity.  A bitter enemy of all stifling egalitarianism and collectivism, he organizes a strike by übermenschen like himself, who all withdraw to a secluded refuge and await the collapse of the bureaucratic nanny state that sought to exploit them.  The Galt icon has long appealed to those who tend to favor “rugged individualism” over collectivism. That preference tends to occur more frequently among those on the right of the ideological divide, and particularly among libertarians. They tend to be somewhat rare among the ranks of professional academics. Lately, “science” has been sending them some depressing news. Their idol, John Galt is a chimera, the fantasy of a woman who was traumatized by a girlhood spent in a totalitarian police state posing as a collectivist worker’s paradise.

The recent wave of Galt bashing has some intriguing connections.  It tends to be associated with that most historically colorful of behavioral hypotheses, group selection. Do a search for Galt at This View of Life, the website of group selectionist David Sloan Wilson, for example, and you are likely to turn up several interesting data points.  An example of the genre, entitled “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies; did human evolution favor individualists or altruists”, by Eric Michael Johnson, turned up on the Slate website yesterday.

Johnson begins by firmly planting Rand in the outgroup of the ideologically enlightened;

Ayn Rand’s defense of a human nature based on rationality and individual achievement, with capitalism as its natural extension, became the rallying cry for an emerging libertarian stripe in conservative American politics. Paul Ryan cites Atlas Shrugged as forming the basis of his value system and says it was one of the main reasons he chose to enter politics. Other notable admirers include Rush Limbaugh, Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, as well as Congressional Tea Party Caucus members Steve King, Mick Mulvaney, and Allen West.

He missed such obvious bad guys as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, but that still covers the field pretty well.  All of them, it would seem, have somehow been infected with bad behavioral alleles.  They are all out of step with our evolutionary past, as represented, Johnson is careful to inform us, by our “good guy” bonobo next of kin, as opposed to the “bad guy” chimpanzees.  Citing a passage from Rand that associates collectivism with “primordial savages,” who are not in tune with up-to-date human nature as represented by the likes of John Galt, Johnson continues,

The Pleistocene epoch, from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, was a formative time in our species’ development. The first members of the genus Homo began to walk the great savannas of Africa at the beginning of this epoch. In a little more than 2 million years, we went from loose aggregations of bonobo-like bipeds, traveling upright between patches of forest, to highly integrated societies made up of multiple families and clans. By studying the archaeological record as well as modern-day hunter-gatherers, evolutionary scientists have been constructing a record of how our early human ancestors made this journey. It is clear that John Galt was not present in our ancestral family tree.

To add point to this modern revelation of the behavioral sciences, Johnson presents us with a homily based on observations of the Mbuti, a tribe of pygmy hunters by anthropologist Colin Turnbull.  One of them, a certain Cephu, had somehow managed to get out of step with his inner altruist:

The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime.

At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.

The concerned reader will be relieved to know that the story has a happy ending:

“Cephu committed what is probably one of the most heinous crimes in Pygmy eyes, and one that rarely occurs. Yet the case was settled simply and effectively,” Turnbull concluded. Among the Mbuti, as with most hunter-gatherer societies, altruism and equality are systems that enhance individual freedom. Following these moral rules helps prevent any one individual from taking advantage of others or even dominating the group as a whole because of unequal privileges. However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress. Perhaps that is why, after the Mbuti had feasted on the day’s successful hunt, one member of the group slipped away to give the still moaning Cephu some of the cooked meat and mushroom sauce that everyone else had enjoyed. Later that night, Cephu turned up at the main camp, where he sat on the ground and sang songs with the rest of his tribe. Holding up the world isn’t so trying when there are others who can lend a helping hand.

Johnson assures us that the Mbuti are by no means an anomaly. Citing the work of anthropologist Christopher Boehm, he writes,

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.

And so, Paul Ryan, Rush Limbaugh, and all the rest of the Randian Tea Partiers are thrust into outer darkness, deniers of the modern science of human nature, on a one-way trip to evolutionary oblivion.  The world has once again been made safe for utopia.  I must admit, though that, influenced no doubt by my inner Rush Limbaugh, a few reservations do occur to me.  In the first place, Atlas Shrugged remains extremely popular, selling hundreds of thousands of copies annually more than a half a century after it first appeared.  If John Galt does not appeal to anything “normal” in human nature, what is going on?  Is a pathological mutation occurring in our “human nature” genes at alarming speed for some reason, perhaps as a weird after effect of nuclear testing?  Are the innate behavioral predispositions of the Rand admirers being trumped by some bizarre artifact of culture and environment?  I suggest a less dramatic explanation.  It lies in human traits that have always been abundantly obvious, except, perhaps to behavioral scientists.

One of them was described in the scientific literature back in the 1940’s by Sir Arthur Keith – our tendency to perceive our fellow human beings in terms of ingroups and outgroups.  Robert Ardrey used to refer to it as the Amity/Enmity Complex.  Our species certainly does display altruistic behavior within the ingroup.  It most decidedly does not extend it to the outgroup.  Is it unreasonable to suggest that the legions of Rand fans perceive the bureaucratic parasites who are John Galt’s enemies in Atlas Shrugged as belonging to the latter, and not the former?  It has been proposed, of course, that we merely expand our ingroup to include all mankind.  I suspect this will turn out to be rather more difficult than some of the more sanguine among us expect.  For example, Johnson has clearly revealed his own outgroup to us, as follows:

Paul Ryan cites Atlas Shrugged as forming the basis of his value system and says it was one of the main reasons he chose to enter politics. Other notable admirers include Rush Limbaugh, Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, as well as Congressional Tea Party Caucus members Steve King, Mick Mulvaney, and Allen West.

It’s hard for me to imagine Rush Limbaugh and Mr. Johnson in the same ingroup without a very liberal application of mind-altering drugs.

Another human trait that may explain the Ayn Rand anomaly has been well-described by Mr. Johnson himself; our tendency to despise and punish free riders and exploiters.  The unfortunate Cephu is on the receiving end of this predisposition at the hands of his fellow Mbuti.  Is it outside the realm of possibility that the Galt admirers do not identify him and his fellow rebels as Cephu, but as the punishers of the many Cephus among us, who constantly demand all good things from their ingroup, but are extremely unlikely to ever give anything back in return?

In a word, I rather suspect that Rand does not appeal to her many admirers because they are all evil, nor because they are all pathological mutants.  She appeals to them because she resonates with aspects of human nature which are, perhaps, more pronounced on the right than on the left of the ideological spectrum.  And the point of all this?  Perhaps that, when it comes to the ideological hijacking of science, it’s never all over.  For decades, the very existence of human nature was denied because it seemed to threaten ideological shibboleths.  Finally, that gross imposture collapsed.  But wait!  Just when you thought you were safe, the shibboleths returned, only this time with “human nature” as one of their essential props.  In the past, anyone who suggested that human nature existed and was important became the victim of furious, ideologically motivated attacks.  In the future, we can confidently expect that those who don’t “think right” about human nature, by suggesting, for example, that it might occasionally motivate us to behave as other than benign altruistic and egalitarian cogs in the great, all-encompassing human ingroup will face similar attacks.  Among others, it would seem that the ideological winds are beginning to blow strongly in the face of the likes of Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and the rest of the “selfish gene” crowd.

Be that as it may, there are no grounds for despair.  After all, it is now at least possible to study human nature without fear of being vilified and slandered for doing so.  The scientific tools at our command for undertaking that study are becoming more powerful every day.  There will always be a few mavericks among the researchers and experimenters for whom the truth is more important than ideological purity.  They will continue to accumulate evidence about the real nature of human beings, whether it happens to favor John Galt or not.  Who knows?  If we collect enough knowledge about who and what we really are, we may eventually become wise enough to survive after all.

UPDATE:  Here’s another take on the same article.

Ayn Rand

Of Ingroups and Outgroups and Niall Ferguson

I’ve mentioned the work of historian Niall Ferguson in the context of what used to be called the Amity/Enmity Complex before.  Simply put, the term was used to describe that ubiquitous tendency of our species to perceive the rest of mankind in terms of ingroups, to which we belong and with which we associate Good, and outgroups, to which “others” belong, and with which we associate Evil.  Ferguson just did something that was guaranteed to land him in an outgroup.  He started rattling and prying at one of the boards of which the ideological box that a particular ingroup lives in was built.  He accomplished this feat by publishing an article in Newsweek critical of Barack Obama, who happens to be the human icon of the Good for the ingroup in question, consisting of a substantial faction of the ideological left.

Ferguson doesn’t exactly have a history of ingratiating himself with the left.  He was an advisor to McCain in 2008, has been critical of Obamacare and government fiscal policy, and is certainly an outlier to the right among his fellow Harvard professors.  Perhaps the furious response to his latest piece reflects the fact that it appeared in Newsweek, which doesn’t exactly have the reputation of being an organ of the right.  If he’d published the same piece in, say, National Review, I doubt that the bees would have come swarming out of their hive in quite such massive numbers.  In any case, here are some of the responses to his latest, beginning with Alex Pareene at Salon;

Niall Ferguson is an intellectual fraud whose job, for years, has been to impress dumb rich Americans with his accent and flatter them with his writings. It’s a pretty easy con, honestly, if you’re born shameless and British (or French).

Maybe it’s a rich people thing, but I never thought Ferguson was particularly flattering towards Americans.  For example, in his War of the World, we come in for some harsh criticism touching such matters as our pervasive habit of shooting enemy prisoners of war, our bombing of civilians in World War II, our less than generous response to the European persecution of Jews and other minorities before the war, and any number of other real or perceived shortcomings.  Moving right along, here’s another take by Noah Smith:

I have been known to tease a fellow blogger or two, but there is really only one writer who makes me truly mad, and that is British historian Niall Ferguson. I will explain exactly why he makes me so mad at the end of this post. First, though, I want to say a few words about Mr. Ferguson’s cover story in Newsweek magazine, entitled “Hit the Road, Barack”. I should note that it imposes a heavy psychic cost for me to do so, since it requires that I actually read Niall Ferguson. But the public duty to expose BS and promote truth and intellectual honesty overrides such selfish concerns.

and another by James Fallows:

Yes, I know, you could imagine many sentences that would follow that headline (As a Harvard Alum, I Apologize). But here is what I have in mind right now:  A tenured professor of history at my undergraduate alma mater has written a cover story for Daily Beast/Newsweek that is so careless and unconvincing that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade.

I won’t presume to judge between Ferguson and his detractors on matters of fact.  As usual in such cases, the main differences between them depend, not on the facts themselves, but on how they are spun.  For example, most of the broadsides against Ferguson I’ve seen so far take issue with the following quote from Newsweek:

Certainly, the stock market is well up (by 74 percent) relative to the close on Inauguration Day 2009. But the total number of private-sector jobs is still 4.3 million below the January 2008 peak.

It is cited as one of Ferguson’s “lies,” even though it is factually correct, because it doesn’t have the right spin.  For example, Matthew O’Brien writes,

Ferguson’s fact is deliberately misleading. A better way to make the argument he says he wants to make would be something like, “Private sector payrolls have added 427,000 jobs since Obama took office, but we are nowhere near out of our deep hole — despite this growth, private sector payrolls are still 4.18 million jobs below their January 2008 peak.”

Ferguson counters with some spin of his own,

Both these statements are true. I picked the high point of January 2008 because it seems to me reasonable to ask how much of the ground lost in the crisis have we actually made up under Obama. The answer is not much. You may not like that, but it’s a fact.

Which version you prefer is probably a pretty good indication of which of the contending ingroups you inhabit.  You be the judge, dear reader.  While you’re at it, maybe you can tell me who was really guilty of starting World War I as well.  I merely offer Ferguson’s article and the furious response thereto as another data point for students of the group behavior of our species.