Rand and Darwin - Conflict or Not?

Doug Bandler's picture
Submitted by Doug Bandler on Fri, 2011-01-14 09:06

A common critique of the Objectivist ethics from evolutionary theorists is that it is in violation of the facts of biological reality. These critics say that Rand based her ethics on an Aristotelian meta-biology and not a Darwinian one. Thus for Aristotle, the teleology of an oak tree, the essence of the tree's existence, is the full grown tree itself. But Aristotle's biology has been replaced by Darwin's, in which an oak tree is an acorn's way of making more acorns.

The criticism is that Rand is wrong in one of her basic statements about life. She says that every function of a living organism is directed toward a single goal: the organism's survival. But this isn't true. Living organisms have reproductive organs, and the functioning of those organs is not directed to the organism's survival. Most living organisms spend a significant part of their lives living for the sake of something that will happen when they are no longer there to care about it, that something being the survival and reproduction of their descendants.

Thus the characteristics of living organisms are best explained by reproduction, not by survival. It is argued that this fact seriously undermines if not destroys the Objectivist ethics.

What are some opinions on this. I understand that Binswanger weighed in on this subject. Does anyone know what his answer was?


Why don't animals have wheels?

Richard Goode's picture

Why don't animals have wheels?

Goode gracious....

Marcus's picture

The Darwin quote Goode gave is taken from the Descent of Man, a heavily dated piece of idle speculation, I'm afraid. The greater value is the second section on sexual selection.

The Origin of Species in comparison is a master work, full of an immense amount of data, twenty years in the writing.

Unfortunately in comparison the Descent of Man is backed up by hardly any data, Darwin didn't even have any hominid fossils to study, and it was mainly based on his observation of chimpanzees at the zoo. A poor boring second.

On the other hand, the quote given by Rand was a one-off in one of her journals, something she never returned to.

Notice too how she is not dogmatic about it either, but uses the phrase does not necessarily mean.

Goode as usual is making a mountain out of a dunghill.

That actually is an

Aaron's picture

Smiling That actually is an interesting question, as if they do prove to be rational animals they'd warrant rights as well. Realistically, if this were ever a possibility they would be cloned from ancient preserved DNA so would actually grow through infancy and childhood rather than observing an instant adult. This would make the question simpler to deal with, as children already require special treatment. Raising human predecessor children with the presumption of homo sapiens level development would give them the benefit of the doubt - and then depending on how they actually turn out would make it clear whether they warrant treatment like full humans with rights, really smart chimps, mildly retarded humans, or possibly even some other variant.

Aaron

Richard Goode's picture

I'd love to have living instances of homo erectus or homo heidelbergensis to study

Would you ask their consent?

Robert

Richard Goode's picture

The mind [is] the definitive characteristic of a human being.

Rand's definition of man is: "A rational animal." Objectivist ethics has as a premise that "rational animal" is man's identity. But this premise is arbitrary.

Rationality is not uniquely characteristic of humans, nor is it uniquely definitive. Darwin said

a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man's reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity and wonder.

Rational animal? Why not imaginative animal? Or curious animal? Or wondrous wondering animal? Rand might as well have said

Since a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies is universal, that which is proper to the life of a being who believes in all-pervading spiritual agencies is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

"There is an enormous breach

Aaron's picture

"There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man's consciousness... Humans differ in kind from other animals"

vs

"The difference in mind between man and the higher animals... is one of degree and not of kind."

These just don't seem at odds. There is a big difference right now between man and closest living relatives. While it's interesting to look for conceptual, self-aware thought in chimps or bonobos, even if some instances are found, it's clearly not their norm and the species don't fit with homo sapiens in any concept of 'rational animal'. However, I'd love to have living instances of homo erectus or homo heidelbergensis to study and explore the effects of evolution, including development of and differing degrees of conceptual thought.

Ideas do replicate

BrianScurfield's picture

Lindsay - do you deny that ideas can replicate? When you explain something to me and I understand what you are telling me then knowledge has been passed on, ideas replicated. The replication is not perfect because I must interpret your ideas and I can change them. So memes do not write volition out of the equation, not in the least. Indeed, I can generate ideas and possibly instigate new memes.

Humans do create knowledge. Consider the creative acts required to express knowledge in a compact form like e=mc^2. That form comes from centuries of work. Although the equation is not arbitrary - it has stood up to severe criticism and testing - it is nevertheless a human creation. Similarly, an airplane is not arbitrary, but it is, nevertheless, a creation. Knowledge - all knowledge - must be won by volitional and creative acts by human beings. It must be brought into being - created - it is not just discovered.

Muddy waters

Richard Goode's picture

Where Rand makes a primary mistake is...

Where she makes a secondary mistake is...

The place where the big problem occurs is...

It isn't clear to me that she understood the problem she thought she was addressing...

Thanks, Ellen.

Rand's ethics is for the guidance of humans IF they want to live.

We don't need the guidance of Rand's ethics, if we want to live. We already have common sense for that.

Catching up, somewhat

Ellen Stuttle's picture

Marcus, in the first post on the thread (#95099):

"Darwin framed his evolutionary principle, 'survival of the fittest' - not 'reproduction of the fittest'."

Actually, he didn't, though he used that phrase -- coined by Spencer -- in the 5th edition of The Origin of Species:

link

Survival of the fittest

Meaning

The idea that species adapt and change by natural selection with the best suited mutations becoming dominant.

Origin

This expression is often attributed to Charles Darwin and, although it appears in the fifth edition of his Origin of Species, 1869, it is there attributed to Herbert Spencer:

"The expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer of the survival of the fittest is more accurate..."

Spencer had published The principles of biology in 1864. In that he referred to 'survival of the fittest' twice:

"This survival of the fittest, implies multiplication of the fittest."
"This survival of the fittest... is that which Mr. Darwin has called 'natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life'."

By 'fittest', of course, Spencer and Darwin didn't have in mind the commonly used meaning of the word now, i.e. the most highly trained and physically energetic. The 'fittest' referred to here are those animals which are the most suited to their environment, i.e. those which are best fitted to survive.

Note Spencer's "implies multiplication of the fittest."

The "Selfish Gene" elaboration/extension of Darwin is that the carrier of the (non-teleological) evolutionary process is the leaving of viable offspring which in turn leave viable offspring. The *biological* premium (entirely valueless, simply a result) isn't the longevity or any other benefit for the individual organism. As I expressed this once on a different elist (pertaining to physics; the issue was a digression):

"[Evolution is] the propagation of that which works well enough to stay alive long enough to propagate."

Evolution isn't conscious, purposeful, doesn't give a damn. It's simply a process which we can observe.

Where Rand makes a primary mistake is in her claim that organisms (other than humans) are in some sense geared automatically toward the *individual's* surviving. They aren't. They're geared toward reproducing whatever keeps on reproducing. What passes on descendants in which evolution (descent with modification) can occur is success at passing on descendants.

Where she makes a secondary mistake is in taking her idea of what's true of biology in general and featuring it in her meta-ethics. The featuring not only wasn't needed, it muddies her argument. Biology isn't ethics. Ethics, she correctly says, is "a code of values accepted by choice."

The place where the big problem occurs is in her muddy statement about "is/ought."

Note -- read the statement carefully -- she doesn't say "deduced from" or "entails." It isn't clear to me that she understood the problem she thought she was addressing. In any case, she didn't answer it -- and: THERE'S NO NEED to answer it. There's no need for deducing an "ought" from an "is." That humans require rational functioning (on someone's part) if they want to survive is sufficient to support her making rationality the prime virtue of her ethics.

See in this connection her "Causality Versus Duty," which I think makes the issue clearer than the unfortunately muddy statement in "The Objectivist Ethics." She there quotes someone she describes as "an uneducated black woman" as stating the fundamental issue: "I don't gotta do nothin' but die." (I'm quoting from memory and might not have the precise wording right.)

Rand's ethics is for the guidance of humans IF they want to live. Their choice. Evolutionary biological proclivities don't affect this core (including "biological altruism," which isn't ethical altruism any more than the typical human-of-reproductive-age's interest in sex is an ethical imperative to engage in sex).

Sorry for the delay posting. Thanks, Doug, for starting a separate thread.

Ellen

Marcus

Richard Goode's picture

He just didn't want to throw the church a bone by saying our "mind" is so different from other animals

You falsely ascribe to Darwin motives and beliefs he did not have.

The Objectivist position is that

There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man's consciousness... Humans differ in kind from other animals

The Darwinian position is that

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals... is one of degree and not of kind.

It's a conflict of ideas.

Darwin was concerned...

Marcus's picture

...with comparison of the structural, functional and behavioural.

He was not specifically concerned with comparing the rational faculty.

He just didn't want to throw the church a bone by saying our "mind" is so different from other animals we could not have evolved from them, as the religious groups would have concluded.

I don't see as a conflict of ideas.

Memes ...

Lindsay Perigo's picture

... don't exist, and belief in them is a form of determinism.

Knowledge is not created, it is discovered, then applied (one hopes—goblinites tend to deny and suppress it).

Humans differ in kind from other animals (though there are things in human form that are sub-animal). Humans are conceptual and volitional. As such, they are indeed "moral agents." Uniquely so. That's why we don't charge chimps with crimes, as, for instance, when they mutilate their human owners.

The difference is in kind

BrianScurfield's picture

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... There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man's consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty.

Rand sees that there is an enourmous difference between people and animals. And the difference is indeed a difference of kind, not degree: People are moral agents, animals are not. Although Rand is unsure how this difference can be explained via evolution, she is not being anti-evolution. She is not denying that we arose from primitive life forms but she is denying that we are like animals. People create knowledge through ideas and we can create any knowledge that can be created. We are universal knowledge creators. Animals are not. They don't even come close, for whatever knowledge animal brains contain, it came from their genes. Ideas can replicate themselves from person to person and nothing like this is possible within animal brains. Ideas that replicate - or memes - must themselves evolve and it is this fact that is central to the difference between people and animals. Rand did not know about memes but she sure knew about the difference. And she was right whereas those who claim evolution makes us similar to animals are wrong.

More dishonesty. She's a

Richard Wiig's picture

More dishonesty.

She's a gobdamn agnostic!

Blake - ... I don't yet know

reed's picture

Blake -
... I don't yet know much about evolution. What does the theory of evolution propose that we evolved from?

Don't worry, most people don't know much about evolution. In my experience people that believe that all disparate life forms share common ancestors can't even identify a single proposed common ancestor.

The whole confusion and

Leonid's picture

The whole confusion and seemingly contradiction between Rand and Darwin is simply a result of misunderstanding of reproduction. Reproduction is essentially a function of organism's growth. No organism can grow indefinitely. Primitive single cell organisms which are practically immortal divide themselves into two when they reach certain size because they cannot sustain further growth. In multi cell organisms the process of reproduction is essentially the same, while sexual reproduction improves genetic diversity and adaptability of the offspring. No organism lives or reproduces itself for sake of further generations or for the common good of species. Reproduction is utmost selfish action. However the notion of selfish gene is biological reductionist nonsense. Life begins on the level of cell, not nucleotides.

Richard

Blake's picture

"In a welfare state, the welfare state *is* the environment. Welfare beneficiaries are well adapted to to living (surviving and reproducing) in such an environment. Evolutionarily speaking, parasitism is pro-life."

Clearly the welfare state is not our primary environment. The welfare state is a house of cards. I'm talking about the all-encompassing environment, as in the laws of nature, ie reality. Those able to adapt to this reality are the ones supporting the precarious 'environment' of the welfare state. It's a system that in principle awards inability and punishes ability. Try to find another species that does this. Now perhaps someday, we will evolve into to a species of total inability in which no one can actually deal with the environment, god only knows.

You said parasitism is pro-life. Life without free will doesn't constitute a proper life to man, which is why Objectivists refer to it as anti-life. Parasites are indeed the 'most fit' for the welfare state, that is quite obvious. This either means we'll produce more parasites, and eventually suck the bone of humanity dry, or we'll shape up and let the unables fall to the wayside, (or at least not encourage them to have 7 kids they can't afford to raise, for christ's sake).

Where's the conflict?

Marcus's picture

Here's Rand.

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... There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man's consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty.

Here's Darwin.

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.

The Selfish Gene

Richard Goode's picture

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

A must read.

What does the theory of evolution propose that we evolved from?

A common ancestor.

Generally speaking, the most able to reproduce are those most capable of dealing with their environment, or reality. In a welfare state, people have 'adapted' to 'not being capable' of dealing with their environment, because just as the 'capables', they can still obtain the end result: survival.

In a welfare state, the welfare state *is* the environment. Welfare beneficiaries are well adapted to to living (surviving and reproducing) in such an environment. Evolutionarily speaking, parasitism is pro-life.

I meant directed as "heading towards", not as being led by some unknown entity.

We're heading towards being usurped by some unknown entity.

Richard, I don't yet know

Blake's picture

Richard, I don't yet know much about evolution. What does the theory of evolution propose that we evolved from?

Evolutionary success is reproductive success, I agree. Generally speaking, the most able to reproduce are those most capable of dealing with their environment, or reality. In a welfare state, people have 'adapted' to 'not being capable' of dealing with their environment, because just as the 'capables', they can still obtain the end result: survival.

Also... I meant directed as "heading towards", not as being led by some unknown entity. Heading in the same sense that if I drank a gallon of water, I would soon be headed towards the john.

The truth about the parasites

Richard Goode's picture

What kind of effect do you all think the welfare state would have on humans in terms of natural selection?

Evolutionary success is reproductive success. Therefore, Muslims, welfare beneficiaries and starving Africans are more highly evolved than the likes of you and I.

Have *you* faced or recognized the truth about the parasites?

Blake

Richard Goode's picture

Our evolution could therefore be directed towards the emergence of the individual from the swamps of the collective.

Directed? By whom? God?

Rand's understanding of the theory of evolution was limited. In so far as the theory concerns the descent of man, she refers to it as

The supposition of man's physical descent from monkeys

and says

Perhaps we are really in the process of evolving from apes to Supermen...

The theory of evolution does not suppose that humans descended from monkeys, nor does it suppose that we are in the process of evolving from apes.

Marcus

Richard Goode's picture

reproduction is an important function of the evolutionary process

Reproduction is not an important function of the evolutionary process.

Differential reproduction *is* the evolutionary process.

Therefore there is NO conflict between the ideas of Darwin and Rand.

Here's Rand.

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... There is an enormous breach of continuity between nature and man's consciousness, in its distinctive characteristic: his conceptual faculty.

Here's Darwin.

The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.

Agnosticism

Richard Goode's picture

She never denied evolution either, merely stating that she was not a student of the science

No, it's worse than that. Much worse.

I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent.

She's a gobdamn agnostic!

Rand miscalculates. She is an epistemological destroyer. She thinks that she is not taking any stand at all and therefore that she is safe, secure, invulnerable to attack. The fact is that her view is one of the falsest—and most cowardly—stands there can be.

What kind of effect do you

Blake's picture

What kind of effect do you all think the welfare state would have on humans in terms of natural selection?

Smearing R Us

HWH's picture

Richard

The incessant crusade by duplicitous mediocrities such as yourself, Parille, Campbell, Babs and others to poke holes into Ayn Rands legacy is futile due to the epistemological foundation of Objectivism being as impenetrable as Titanium against your poking sticks, which are as limp as your decency.

Reading Parille's post on "Rand and Evolution" provides a stellar example of how boundless this desperation becomes.

Notice the smuggling of this shabby little smear into this post

"She goes on the same entry to describe those incapable of rational life as “sub-human” who need to be “enslaved” and “controlled.” (p. 467.)"

And here's what she actually said

If it's asked: what about those who are still pre-human, or near enough to it, and incapable of rationality as a method to guide their lives? What if such do exist among us? The answer is: nothing. Their way of living is not ours; in fact, they have no way of living, no method or means of survival—except through imitating us, who have acquired the human method and means. Leave us to our way of living, man's way—freedom, individual independence-and we'll carry them along by providing an example and a world of safety and comfort such as they can never quite grasp, let alone achieve.
We do this—but even if we didn't, so what? If those creatures incapable of rational existence are sub-human, are we to sacrifice ourselves or be sacrificed to them? Are we to descend to their level? Are we to make them the goal of our existence, and service to them our only purpose? If these pre-humans are incapable of rational thinking and of independence, and therefore they need an enslaved, controlled, regimented, "protective" society in order to survive—we cannot survive in such a society. By definition, we are then two different species. Their requirements are opposite to ours. They'll perish without us, anyway. But we will not he sacrificed to them. We will live in freedom—whether or not others will or can live that way.
April 27, 1946

She never denied evolution either, merely stating that she was not a student of the science, and she explicitly states that she has merely hypothesised over some aspects of mans cognitive development. Of course this admission is dragged into the debate as conclusive evidence of her ignorance in these matters.

So the whining never ceases.

Objectivism is invalid "because she didn't acknowledge evolution" and "one of her axioms sounds dangerously close to a tautology from which as we all know nothing can be inferred" and "Its a closed system so to correct any aspect of it is to destroy it" yada yada ad nauseum.

Ayn Rand, associated schisms and infighting notwithstanding got the axioms right, and never denied the viability of addendums to her thinking providing they were non-contradictory in terms of her epistemological premises. She actually encouraged it and admitted a lot of work needs to be done on objective law, economics, aesthetics etc.

So what drives the perpetual vitriol?, one can only guess. Is it envy at having been upstaged for all eternity, or is it merely the hatred of the good for being the good?

Perhaps allegiance to a secret acceptance of the "moral=practical" dichotomy?

That would constitute pointless pragmatism now, wouldn't it Richard?

Missing links

Richard Goode's picture

Blast from the past!

Marcus's picture

Evolution only points to

Blake's picture

Evolution only points to individualism, so they are completely compatible, IMO.

If you think in the context of the evolution of higher intelligence, and of the progress of human activity here on earth, one could posit that an evolved conscious is characterized by higher autonomy, less independence on the group, etc.

Our evolution could therefore be directed towards the emergence of the individual from the swamps of the collective. If our *evolved* method of survival is reason, ie if our higher level of consciousness is a product of evolution, and reason by way of higher consciousness leads to individualism (individual rights), Rand's theory can be seen as almost an inevitable step towards the evolution of human beings.

edit

Also, I agree with Marcus in that today you may have a completely fit and healthy person who does not reproduce, which seems to imply the survival of the fittest doesn't apply to humans. However, I would say it still applies in a more broad sense, though it is being fought against from all sides by the altruists, sacrificialists, thatsnotfairists, what have you. "Fittness" in this sense isn't necessarily how many push-ups you can do, but more the question of whether or not you are *able* to support offspring. If you are, you likely have some source of income, which means you likely have some source of productivity, ie ability. You are fit for survival. However in today's wellfare state, those who are most unfit are told to pop out as many little leechers and leechettes they can. You know the story.

Self-sacrifice, the welfare state, etc., goes *against* evolution. If evolution is a reality, which most agree today that it is, going against reality always leads to bad consequences. You can observe this on any scale.

Also one more thing. You may be discouraged by the apparent "ends" in light of what you believe to be the "means". That the "ends" are the advancement of the human species, and the "means" are somewhat out of our control. Obviously, they are very much in our control, and for that I am lead to think of this parallel: Capitalism emphasizes the individual, as a consequence it is the system that proves most prosperous for society.

Bravo Marcus.

Robert's picture

You have hit upon the cardinal difference between biology and philosophy in this context.

Biologists are not physicians in so far as the former makes a living from studying groups and the latter makes a living by studying individuals. Both study the factors that control the health of the body of the living organism.

Neither has very much to say about the factors that influence the health and well being of the individual human mind. The mind being the definitive characteristic of a human being.

Physicians and biologists have much to say about the interplay between chemicals or organs and bugger all to say definitively about what makes an individual human happy, wealthy and wise. Pondering the latter is still the exclusive domain of the philosopher and he needs to recognize that often, the conclusions drawn by biologists are as apples are to his orange.

No conflict!

Marcus's picture

Darwin framed his evolutionary principle, "survival of the fittest" - not "reproduction of the fittest".

It is true that reproduction is an important function of the evolutionary process, however successful reproduction is only possible if the animal is fit and healthy.

Human beings, of course, can choose not to reproduce and still be fit and healthy. Non-human animals can't make that choice.

The means of reproduction is not a "defining" characteristic of being human. Reproduction is not a necessary aspect of human survival at the "individual" level.

The problem here is that you're framing Rand's argument as a collective biological one, whereas she was formulating a philosophy focussed primarily on rational human individuals. Darwin wasn't.

Therefore there is NO conflict between the ideas of Darwin and Rand.

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