Saturday, February 28, 2015

Answer to Ayn Rand

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the the rest of us as his servants or inferiors.  We can’t accept this.  We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody.  So we always speak of his meat as worthless.  In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.  - !Kung Healer ,  quoted by Boehm   1999   from Lee, The !Kung San.  

Talent and ability create inequality…. to rectify this supposed injustice, we are told to sacrifice the able for the unable.  Egalitarianism demands the punishment and envy of anyone who is better than someone else at anything.  We must tear down the competent and strong - raze them to the level of the incompetent and weak…     - Gary Hull (Ayn Rand Institute)  

Ayn Rand was an American intellectual, born in Russia, who has been very influential in the U.S. conservative, Republican and libertarian circles.  Her philosophy, which is reproduced  here by Gary Hull, is a glorification of capitalism, and an attack on altruism.

I don’t think Ayn Rand is just wrong, I think her philosophy is fundamentally false from its beginning to end. Egalitarianism does not mean the suppression of human abilities, instead, it is the very foundation of  human civilization.   

 I believe that egalitarianism was the major factor in creating a difference  between humans and the apes.   What differentiates us from the chimpanzees and other great apes is our ability to intentionally impose fair and equal treatment, to consider everyone's point of view, and to use social rules and mores to both control and eliminate the alpha male.

What do I mean by alpha male? A human equivalent is John Galt, the hero in Ayn Rand's, Atlas Shrugged, . He is the most dominant male. In ape societies the alpha male is a very significant and unavoidable figure. He terrorizes and intimidates all the other apes in his group. There are is only one rule in ape society -"Might makes Right".

Egalitarian hunting and gathering groups are made up of loose associations of nuclear families with pair bonded couples.  By divorcing sexual competition from hunting and sharing food,  groups without alpha males were able to out-compete groups that didn’t eliminate their alpha. 

 It was conscious egalitarianism that   led to the enormous human capacity to excel at so many different activities, and to the human ability to exchange with and tolerate other groups because these things are not possible with an alpha male present.    

  This is the exact opposite of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  It was social levelling in hunting and gathering that eventually led to markets, economies and capitalism, because if we hadn’t gotten rid of the alpha male hierarchy we would still be selfish chimpanzees. 
I think that the best answer to Ayn Rand is this hunter gatherer speech.  even though, in modern standards it appears to be  rather harsh and paranoid. I will explain my reasoning.

Hunting and gathering is a way of life that seems long superseded by our systems of agriculture and industry.  Nowadays, the few hunter-gatherers left are living on marginal lands:   deserts, jungles, scrub lands,  and frozen wastelands that often  have little or no economic value for anyone else.  When the land does end up having economic value, as is the case for oil extraction in Ecuador,  so much the worse for the indigenous tribes living there.

 Hunting and gathering used to be the only way of life,  but then around twelve thousand years ago our ancestors first domesticated plants and animals and created a world of agricultural surplus and plenty of scope for social and political hierarchies.

Before what we call the “Neolithic Revolution”  there were around two million years of hunting and gathering and living close to the bone.  Those two million years drove the evolution of some of the most important aspects of human nature, notably our ability to cooperate, our extended period of infancy, pair-bonding, and the development of language.

The hunting-gathering groups ranged from about thirty to ninety people.  Less than thirty made it difficult for the group to survive and defend itself from other groups.  More than ninety created too much conflict and caused groups to fission.

If the nomadic hunting and gathering societies form the bulk of human history,  then they formed the evolutionary crucible for the development of the human brain, and  the distinctly human forms of cooperation that led to  language and culture.  By the time we get to the neolithic revolution, twelve thousand years ago, brains are modern, languages are present and evolving quickly, and culture is becoming more cosmopolitan and  more representative of life in fixed communities.

Social institutions,  technology, language - all taken for granted, all developed over two million years,  in the stone age.  The real question is:  How was our unique form of human cooperation made possible?  Ayn Rand claims the idea of “property rights”  as borrowed from Aristotle's Politics and from eighteenth century British apologists of market capitalism like John Locke, is the central concept that explains the superiority of Western civilization.  But for millions of years, people had no more property than they could wear on their backs.  

Somehow they managed to survive without capitalist economies and fossil fuels.  How they did it is explained by the  !Kung healer’s speech.   The Bushmen don’t tolerate bullies or tyrants in their midst.   They use very effective social methods of persuasion with the threat of ultimate sanctions ever-present in the background.  The way they sustain their way of life is by actively,  vigorously, and collectively  suppressing the alpha male.

With minimal possessions, a nomadic hunter-gatherer group is evidence of the necessary and sufficient social institutions needed for a human group to survive for long continuous periods.  Egalitarianism or social levelling is universally practiced in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.  It seems plausible that that is because human hierarchies, with alpha males at the top, are inimical to hunter-gatherer survival.

I can anticipate some objections at this point.  Look, if these hunter-gatherers were around two million years before they began to domesticate plants and animals and live in hierarchical societies, maybe they should have done it sooner.   Maybe the whole hunting-and-gathering schtick holds people back and they could have “been somebody”  sooner by coveting property and creating markets. Also someone may say, why is hunting and gathering relevant today?  It has nothing to do with us….

One thing that we do know through science is that climate change played a huge role in human evolution.  Our ancestors survived through a successive series of brutal ice ages.  It was all about survival and nothing but.  Climate change forced humans to be more cooperative than any other animal.  

It’s interesting that Libertarians and followers of Ayn Rand both tend to  deny the existence of human induced climate change. The idea that unfettered Capitalism could actually be bad for our future doesn’t get any traction with these folks.  Nor is there any interest in life before  Capitalism.  If they think about hunting and gathering societies it is just to disparage them as hopelessly primitive.

Why egalitarianism?  All nomadic hunter-gatherer societies are actively egalitarian. The alpha traits of boasting, intimidation, greed, and selfishness are met with social disapproval and censure.  Adultery is discouraged and actively disapproved of.      But instead of discouraging productivity and initiative this has the exact opposite effect because it separates sexual dominance from other skills and abilities that differentiate people and contribute to the group as a whole.

Egalitarianism levels the playing field, and makes it possible for people with diverse abilities and  experiences  to thrive without getting beaten up or intimidated by an alpha male because they somehow threaten the alpha’s status.

It is not a coincidence that Rand’s most popular novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged,  celebrate the alpha male and even celebrate the right of alpha males to destroy things if they don’t get their way and to rape women if they feel like it.  That’s the way it works in both wild and captive chimpanzee groups too.

Humans differ from chimpanzees because we have found ways to avoid conflicts by jointly following rules and we have put severe pressure on alpha males to behave pro-socially and by and large it has worked to our collective advantage.  Humans out compete everything else because of our skills in cooperation.  Individuals add to society but it’s the cooperation between many people that gets most things done.

The alpha male is deep in our instinctual selves.  Even though we internalize social mores, we still need a lot of guidance from others as to their attitudes and judgements about our behaviour.  Our feelings of shame, guilt, and empathy help to guide our behaviour in more pro-social directions.  Without them we are nothing but dangerous psychopaths.   The quote from Objectivist Gary Hull, about the evils of egalitarianism, is true to Ayn Rand’s philosophy but it is also a paean to psychopathy.  Within it there is no recognition of our social reality.

Hunter-gatherers who managed to survive in a direct line of descendants for millions of years before the present, are the minimalists who created human nature.   They did not survive for so long because they honoured private property, they survived because they were able to share food in good times and bad, they were able to learn from each other and other groups and they were able to collectively control, and,  when necessary,  eliminate the alpha male, creating a level playing field for the first time, and ultimately leading to human civilization.

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