While I’m posting on Objectivism–and I do not intend to do it again–I’d like to point out some components of Objectivism that don’t line up with evolutionary biology. It serves as a good way to discuss some new and cool behavioral insights science has to offer.
Objectivist philosophy and evolution have, I am finding in my internet searching right now, a fairly well established history of contention. Rand herself boldly stated that she was “not a student of evolution,” and therefore “not it’s supporter nor it’s proponent,” and also that, “after all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.“ Yet what’s fascinating about this debate is that both supporters of Objectivism, who claim that there exists no contradiction between Objectivism and evolution, and also dissenters of Objectivism, who claim that science trumps Rand’s philosophy, agree that man’s intellect is primed for “triumphing” over evolutionary pitfalls such as instinct. I am grateful for advocates of evolutionary theory. It’s cool that they’re engaging the material in this manner. But I think both camps are wrong to dismiss the powers and mysteries of human genetic wiring. Science has begun to show the limits of the intellect. Moreover, the natural state and instincts of man are proving to be more powerful than we ever believed. These two facts change our conception of man from a hyper rational being into a complicated creature composed of numerous senses and decision making pathways. I believe that it is this creature–this complex being wired with potential we do not yet fully understand–that we must study in order to contextualize our existence. It is this creature that we have evolved from. And it is this creature’s genes that we must embrace if we aspire to figure out the best way to navigate this world.
Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to evolutionary perspectives part 1: Impulse.
1) Objectivists find it both wrong and stupid to obey an impulse. They believe fiercely in the primacy of the prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of our brains. The prefrontal cortex is, in essence, the superego. That’s cool. I like to run all of my decisions by my prefrontal cortex, too. But neurologists are finding, increasingly, that our impulses are often much better at navigating life or death situations than our conscious brains. And even more powerfully, science is showing that our unconscious minds often excel over our conscious minds at making complicated life decisions. The idea is that our conscious minds are overloaded with details, and cannot process all of them as easily as our unconscious brains. Humans who acted on their immediate gut feelings in these studies, rather than dwelling on the choice over longer periods of time–ranging from minutes to days–were happier than those who wrestled with their decisions consciously. Psychologists and neurobiologists are increasingly recommending that people listen to their guts in order to find true happiness. If there exists discord in our souls, it is probably not our “premises” that need checking, but rather a greater understanding of our unconscious impulses and how we can best utilize them. Check out this wonderful paper on the nature of intelligence, and how studies of animal intelligence are reshaping our views.
So what does this say about the primacy of the intellect? Clearly, humans evolved an intellect as a means to an end (like all other functions). It helped ancestral man navigate certain situation, and it has continued to help us create tools and ideas and make the best decisions we possibly can. But the prefrontal cortex is just one part of our brain, and lessons from contemporary psychology seem to be telling us that more primordial parts of the brain are better at making us happy than the prefrontal cortex. In my view, this puts Objectivism at odds with an evolutionary perspective, which considers the history, evolution, and fundamental nature of man to be of considerable importance to psychological well-being.
Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to the evolutionary perspective part 2: Sense instinct.
Objectivists argue that it was man’s mind that distinguished him from (and made him superior to) other creatures. One specific example Rand cites in The Virtue of Selfishness is that man learned, over time, which plants were poisonous with trial and error. He used his intellect, and he passed down that knowledge to others over time, which saved both his life and the lives of his family members. However, this is a vastly simplified statement,and humans generally eschew bitter foods for this reason. (Follow that link on food preferences–it’s fascinating–I’ll review and post on it soon.) Modern humans have forgotten how to use their tongues and noses. In the modern world, this enormously important sense–smell–has been dulled. We don’t need it, so we don’t use it. I’m going to go ahead and block quote a Salon article on this phenomenon:
In 1991 researchers found that humans have around 1,000 genes coding for different odor receptors. Since each odor can set off more than one receptor in various combinations, this implied the ability to sense far more than 1,000 scents. “Given that mammalian DNA probably contains around 100,000 genes, this finding indicates that 1 percent of our genes are devoted to the detection of odors, making this the largest gene family thus far identified in mammals,” wrote molecular biologist Richard Axel.
But recently other researchers took a close look at those genes and discovered that about 70 percent of them contain stop codons. In other words, the gene — which provides the instructions for making the protein that is the odor receptor — suddenly stops in the middle of the instruction booklet and says, “Oh, forget it. It’s too complicated. Don’t bother making it. It’s not like anyone ever needs to smell enraged saber-tooth cats anymore. I’ll just sit here in the genome and sulk.”
It looks as though humans have very keen sensory input, and, I daresay, instincts, that in the modern world have simply gone dull. It is not always the mind that saves man. Another good example of this is the discoveries currently being made concerning the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC gene) and mate compatibility. Objectivists argue that it is, without question, solely the rational mind that determines who we love. Contemporary neuroscience is teaching us otherwise. We appear to achieve the greatest love and happiness when we unconsciously use our noses to choose mates with immune systems that complement our own. FASCINATING.
We Bodies have great knowledge, and the human organism is extraordinarily complex. A paleo perspective asks that we consider man’s evolutionary history as such. Man was a body first, and evolved a mind a bit later. This means that the mind is one part of the functioning whole. To give it complete supremacy in four billion years of evolution is a bit presumptuous, isn’t it?
Rand tried to use man’s mind to set him apart from the rest of creation. Man is a machine in her philosophy, capable of making Spoc-like decisions that maximize his happiness.I don’t necessarily object. The intellect is cool, and it’s a part of evolution, and my soul would crumble to pieces without it. But in order to achieve holistic health, and, even, spirituality, I think it’s important to accept the very real, very programmed, and very unconscious parts of ourselves. My prefrontal cortex is always going to be in charge, but perhaps it is healthy for me to take a leaf out of evolution’s book, and to occasionally tell my conscious brain to fuck off, shut up and enjoy the ride.Tweet