Come praise Apollo bright,
Who prickled a thick brow,
Briefly as lambent light:
Sufficient though to cause
A remorseless shuffling
Across dry plains to pause;
Lift from predator, prey,
To puzzle at vacant skies;
Behind a brutish face,
Complexity to take place.
I published this poem in 2008 in my first collection, Touched by Its Rays (The Atlas Society: Washington, DC: 2008). It is brief, but it expresses a puzzlement I felt.
The fundamental principle of evolutionary biology is that every aspect of our biology, including our brain, and every function, including our psychology, is an outcome of evolutionary selection. If a trait exists, then presumably it promotes our reproduction as a species; all that is left is to explain is how it does so.
I was editor of a quarterly journal of neuroscience, Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, and working hard to make the ideas and writing of some of the world’s foremost brain scientists accessible and exciting to lay readers—without distortions or simplifications that would outrage the scientists themselves. One of the powerful and compelling fields of neuroscience, today, is evolutionary biology, including evolutionary psychology. They ask how the forces of Darwinian natural selection, relentlessly testing every characteristic of every species by the standard of conduciveness to successful reproducing, shaped the biology and psychology of human beings.
The fundamental principle of evolutionary biology is that every aspect of our biology, including our brain, and every function, including our psychology, is an outcome of evolutionary selection. If a trait exists, then presumably it promotes our reproduction as a species; all that is left is to explain is how it does so. If a species of bird (Clark’s nutcracker) has a brain primarily devoted to visual memory, it is because that bird survives by burying some 10,000 seeds each summer and fall and unerringly finds each one during the long winter.
If (as one controversial hypothesis goes) women tend to find their way around by recognizing local landmarks, and men tend to have a better “sense of direction,” then that is because the female of the species has tended to stay at home and the male to forage afar for food. If humans have an intense response to bright colors, it is because for millions of years, primates fed on tropical fruits. Evolutionary psychology has been criticized as the fabricating of “Just So Stories” (‘how the elephant got his trunk’), and that is a risk of the field. But if we accept the explanatory power of evolution, then the human mind, our primary means of survival, must be a product of evolution.
So, what was my puzzlement?
A working group created by eight international science societies, representing specialties that investigate all aspects of evolution, wrote that evolutionary biology is the study of the history of life and the processes that lead to its diversity. Based on principles of adaptation, chance, and history, evolutionary biology seeks to explain all the characteristics of organisms, and, therefore, occupies a central position in the biological sciences.
Evolution is the source of biocomplexity.
But Ayn Rand, whose view of man’s nature and the foundations of morality are biological (or “biocentric” as she once described Aristotle’s philosophy), had “problems” with the theory of evolution. That is a rather informal way of stating it, but perhaps captures the elusiveness of the issue. Responding to questions about her position on evolution—the most influential scientific theory of modern times—she said she could not judge its validity. In a phraseology to say the least unusual for her, she told Nathaniel Branden: “After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.”
To quote in full from Branden’s essay, “The Benefits and Hazards of Ayn Rand’s philosophy:
I remember being astonished to hear her say one day, “After all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.” I asked her, “You mean you seriously doubt that more complex life forms—including humans—evolved from less complex life forms?” She shrugged and responded, “I’m really not prepared to say …” There was … something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable.
Ayn Rand on Evolution and Volition
All the comments on evolution in all that Ayn Rand wrote, including her letters and notes in preparing Atlas Shrugged, and especially in her essay, “The Missing Link,” can be quoted in a couple pages. All of those comments relate to reason, the defining characteristic of the human species, and its volitional operation: the role that volition plays in literally delimiting what is human from what is not human. That includes her question: Is there a species, now existing, perhaps unrecognized in our midst, that is “subhuman”—in which the volitional capacity for reason remains an inert potential?
She wrote in 1945: “Perhaps we are really in the process of evolving from apes to Supermen—and the rational faculty is the dominant characteristic of the better species, the Superman.” (Journals of Ayn Rand)
Her views, like those of any open, questioning intellect, kept evolving. She wrote in 1945: “Perhaps we are really in the process of evolving from apes to Supermen—and the rational faculty is the dominant characteristic of the better species, the Superman.” (Journals of Ayn Rand)
In her early notes for Atlas Shrugged, in 1946, she wrote:
The supposition of man’s physical descent from monkeys does not necessarily mean that man’s soul, the rational faculty, is only an elaboration of an animal faculty, different from the animal’s consciousness only in degree, not in kind.
She was struggling with the seemingly inexplicable gulf between other species and man. Between the most intelligent “animal” species (such as chimpanzees and orangutans) and man the evolutionary gap does seem not quantitative but qualitative. Chimpanzees use their advanced brains to dig bugs out of holes with sticks; humans calculate the chemical composition of the stars. How could evolution account for this gulf?
Evolutionary biology points to evidence of half-a-dozen homo (human) species, including Neanderthal man, that existed before or during the emergence of the evolutionary winner: homo sapiens. The evidence points to an acceleration of evolution, at that time, when several “species” of “humans” existed (and in some cases, inter-mated and competed); today’s species—we—rapidly prevailed. But does that explain the gulf between apes and the species that wrote and reads Atlas Shrugged?
The “Missing Link”
Ayn Rand looked elsewhere: specifically, at the volitional nature of our conceptual level of thought (“reason”), as the characteristic distinguishing the human species from the sub-human. Consider this last long quotation from her essay, “The Missing Link,” available in Philosophy: Who Needs It?
“…a certain hypothesis has haunted me for years; I want to stress that it is only hypothesis. There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man’s consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty. It is as if, after aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies. But the development of a man’s consciousness is volitional: no matter what the innate degree of intelligence he must develop it, he must learn how to use it, he must become human by choice. What if he does not choose to? Then he becomes a transitional phenomenon—a desperate creature that struggles frantically against his own nature, longing for effortless “safety” of an animal’s consciousness, which he cannot recapture, and rebelling against a human consciousness, which he is afraid to achieve.
If a human, evolutionarily endowed with reason, chooses not to function on the conceptual level, it is another species: a sub-human: Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature. (The Virtue of Selfishness)
She is saying, of course, that evolution, as we know it, produced the biological substrate of human consciousness, but that consciousness itself on the conceptual level has the characteristic of volitional operation. Evolution could go no further in that direction. Progress then depended upon choice to use volition—literally, to become “human by choice,” a phrase she has used. Biological evolution, in effect, “handed off” its role to man’s choice.
The same premises lead to a corollary. If a human, evolutionarily endowed with reason, chooses not to function on the conceptual level, it is another species: a sub-human:
Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature. (The Virtue of Selfishness)
That “creature,” she hypothesized, may be among us, today—the “missing link”—between orangutans and John Galt. She wrote that if such a species or subspecies exists, defined by consistent refusal to function on the conceptual level of consciousness, then it comprises two types: “Attila,” who habitually lives by force on the perceptual level like a denizen of the jungle, and the “Witch Doctor,” who exists outside of reason in the mental realm of mysticism and whim. Both are characterized as types in human history in For the New Intellectual.
Objectivism: “Open” to Evolutionary Biology
Notice that throughout this dialogue with evolutionary science, Ayn Rand’s epistemology protected her. She specified, at every point, the nature of her assertions: “I want to emphasize…it is only a hypothesis…” Or, earlier: “I am not prepared to say…” The Ayn Rand who elsewhere boldly asserted what she knew, readily confessed to what was a hypothesis or even speculation. It is the very antithesis of dogmatism.
The mission of the Atlas Society is “Open Objectivism.” Although, in one legitimate sense, “Objectivism” denotes the total of the ideas identified by Ayn Rand as her philosophy, that philosophy’s essential concepts, defining principles, and logical integration are now part of the history of philosophy. Its implications, applications, and, perhaps, contradictions will be examined, criticized, and elaborated by others.
A field wide open for study and elaboration is evolutionary biology and psychology and their implications for Objectivism—and Objectivism for them.
A field wide open for study and elaboration is evolutionary biology and psychology and their implications for Objectivism—and Objectivism for them. Philosophy is not shaped by the technicalities of science—its realm is the world as observable by all. But Darwinism has changed, probably forever, the way we observe the world. That is what set Ayn Rand to speculating over half a century ago on evolution, man’s conceptual faculty, and human versus subhuman nature.
Since then, evolutionary biology, and. in particular, evolutionary psychology, have advanced rapidly; as far as I know, their application to Objectivism has not.
In 2010, to take a single example, an article in the prestigious Nature, later interpreted in National Geographic, reported discovery of the remains (including nuclear DNA that could be extracted and sequenced) of a previously unknown kind of human, labeled the “Denisovans,” who existed for hundreds of thousands of years and mated with both “modern humans” and Neanderthals. DNA evidence suggests that Denisovans may have been an offshoot of Neanderthals; their descendants exist today in Papua, New Guinea (the Melanesians).
A later note in National Geographic includes the speculation:
…modern humans underwent genetic changes involved with brain function and nervous system development, including ones involved in language [i.e. conceptual] development, after splitting from Neanderthals and Denisovans.
The “Missing Link” is still missing.