Yes, Ayn, There Is a Social Instinct

By Guest Blogger | October 5, 2012 2:51 pm

Eric Michael Johnson has a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics. He blogs at The Primate Diaries at Scientific American, where this post originally appeared.

Rand-by-Nathaniel-Gold“Rand” by Nathaniel Gold

“Every political philosophy has to begin with a theory of human nature,” wrote Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in his book Biology as Ideology. Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “warre of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for dictatorship have since, that a stable society required a single leader in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature. Building off of this, advocates of state communism, such as Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin, believed that each of us was born tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and that human nature could be molded in the interests of those in power.

Ever since Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has been gaining prominence among American conservatives as the leading voice for the political philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism, or the idea that private business should be unconstrained and that government’s only concern should be protecting individual property rights. As I wrote this week in Slate with my piece “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies,” the Russian-born author believed that rational selfishness was the ultimate expression of human nature.

“Collectivism,” Rand wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal “is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” An objective understanding of “man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence” should inoculate society from the disease of altruistic morality and economic redistribution. Therefore, “one must begin by identifying man’s nature, i.e., those essential characteristics which distinguish him from all other living species.”

As Rand further detailed in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, moral values are “genetically dependent” on the way “living entities exist and function.” Because each individual organism is primarily concerned with its own life, she therefore concludes that selfishness is the correct moral value of life. “Its life is the standard of value directing its actions,” Rand wrote, “it acts automatically to further its life and cannot act for its own destruction.” Because of this Rand insists altruism is a pernicious lie that is directly contrary to biological reality. Therefore, the only way to build a good society was to allow human nature, like capitalism, to remain unfettered by the meddling of a false ideology.

“Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights,” she continued. “One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” She concludes that this conflict between human nature and the “irrational morality” of altruism is a lethal tension that tears society apart. Her mission was to free humanity from this conflict. Like Marx, she believed that her correct interpretation of how society should be organized would be the ultimate expression of human freedom.

As I demonstrated in my Slate piece, Ayn Rand was wrong about altruism. But how she arrived at this conclusion is revealing both because it shows her thought process and offers a warning to those who would construct their own political philosophy on the back of an assumed human nature. Ironically, given her strong opposition to monarchy and state communism, Rand based her interpretation of human nature on the same premises as these previous systems while adding a crude evolutionary argument in order to connect them.

Rand assumed, as Hobbes did, that without a centralized authority human life would erupt into a chaos of violence. “Warfare—permanent warfare—is the hallmark of tribal existence,” she wrote in The Return of the Primitive. “Tribes subsist on the edge of starvation, at the mercy of natural disasters, less successfully than herds of animals.” This, she reasoned, is why altruism is so pervasive among indigenous societies; prehistoric groups needed the tribe for protection. She argued that altruism is perpetuated as an ideal among the poor in modern societies for the same reason.

“It is only the inferior men that have collective instincts—because they need them,” Rand wrote in a journal entry dated February 22, 1937. This kind of primitive altruism doesn’t exist in “superior men,” Rand continued, because social instincts serve merely as “the weapon and protection of the inferior.” She later expands on this idea by stating, “We may still be in evolution, as a species, and living side by side with some ‘missing links.’”

One-person-can’t-hold-up-the-whole-world-alone“One person can’t hold up the whole world alone,” courtesy of Slate/Nathaniel Gold

Rand’s view that social instincts only exist among “inferior men” should not be dismissed as something she unthinkingly jotted down in a private journal. In two of her subsequent books—For the New Intellectual and Philosophy: Who Needs It?, where it even serves as a chapter heading—Rand quips that scientists may find the “missing link” between humans and animals in those people who fail to utilize their rational selfishness to its full potential. How then does Rand explain the persistence of altruistic morality if human nature is ultimately selfish? By invoking the tabula rasa as an integral feature of human nature in which individuals can advance from inferior to superior upwards along the chain of life.

“Man is born tabula rasa,” Rand wrote in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “all his knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of his senses. To reach the distinctively human level of cognition, man must conceptualize his perceptual data” (by which she means using logical deductions). This was her solution to the problem of prosocial behavior and altruism among hunter-gatherer societies.

“For instance, when discussing the social instinct—does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages?” Rand asks in her journal on May 9, 1934. “Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question)—does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal—isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?” Nearly a decade later, on September 6, 1943, she wrote, “The process here, in effect, is this: man is raw material when he is born; nature tells him: ‘Go ahead, create yourself. You can become the lord of existence—if you wish—by understanding your own nature and by acting upon it. Or you can destroy yourself. The choice is yours.’”

While Rand states in Philosophy: Who Needs It? that “I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent,” she immediately goes on to make claims about how evolution functions. “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” (italics mine). Rand further expands on her (incorrect) views about evolution in her journal.

“It is precisely by observing nature that we discover that a living organism endowed with an attribute higher and more complex than the attributes possessed by the organisms below him in nature’s scale shares many functions with these lower organisms. But these functions are modified by his higher attribute and adapted to its function—not the other way around” (italics mine). – Journals of Ayn Rand, July 30, 1945.

One would have to go back to the 18th century (and Aristotle before that) to find a similar interpretation of nature. This concept of “the great chain of being,” brilliantly discussed by the historian Arthur Lovejoy, was the belief that a strict hierarchy exists in the natural world and species advance up nature’s scale as they get closer to God. This is an odd philosophy of nature for an avowed atheist, to say the least, and reflects Rand’s profound misunderstanding of the natural world.

To summarize, then, Rand believed in progressive evolutionary change up the ladder of nature from primitive to advanced. At the “higher stages” of this process (meaning humans) evolution changed course so that members of our species were born with a blank slate, though she provides no evidence to support this. Human beings therefore have no innate “social instincts”–elsewhere she refers to it as a “herd-instinct”–that is, except for “primordial savages” and “inferior men” who could be considered missing links in the scale of nature. Never mind that these two groups are still technically human in her view. Selfishness is the ideal moral value because “superior men” are, by definition, higher up the scale of being.

Logic was essential to Ayn Rand’s political philosophy. “A contradiction cannot exist,” she has John Galt state in Atlas Shrugged. “To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.” I couldn’t agree more. However, Rand may have had more personal reasons for her philosophy that can help explain her tortured logic. As she was first developing her political philosophy she mused in her journal about how she arrived at her conclusion that selfishness was a natural moral virtue.

“It may be considered strange, and denying my own supremacy of reason, that I start with a set of ideas, then want to study in order to support them, and not vice versa, i.e., not study and derive my ideas from that. But these ideas, to a great extent, are the result of a subconscious instinct, which is a form of unrealized reason. All instincts are reason, essentially, or reason is instincts made conscious. The “unreasonable” instincts are diseased ones.” – Journals of Ayn Rand, May 15, 1934.

This can indeed be considered strange. Looking deep within yourself and concluding that your feelings are natural instincts that apply for the entire species isn’t exactly what you would call objective. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of how science operates. However, she continues and illuminates her personal motivations for her ideas.

“Some day I’ll find out whether I’m an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusual or merely normal and healthy? Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system? Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest? I think this last. Unless—honesty is also a form of superior intelligence.”

Through a close reading of her fictional characters, and other entries in her journal, it appears that Rand had an intuitive sense that selfishness was natural because that’s how she saw the world. As John Galt said in his final climactic speech, “Since childhood, you have been hiding the guilty secret that you feel no desire to be moral, no desire to seek self-immolation, that you dread and hate your code, but dare not say it even to yourself, that you’re devoid of those moral ‘instincts’ which others profess to feel.”

In Rand’s notes for an earlier, unpublished story she expresses nearly identical sentiments for the main character. “He [Danny Renahan] is born with,” she writes, “the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling.”

“He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people. (One instance when it is blessed not to have an organ of understanding.) Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should. He knows himself—and that is enough. Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen—it’s inborn, absolute, it can’t be changed, he has ‘no organ’ to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’ (That’s what I meant by thoughts as feelings, as part of your nature.) (It is wisdom to be dumb about certain things.)”

I believe a strong case could be made that Ayn Rand was projecting her own sense of reality into the minds of her fictional protagonists. Does this mean that Rand was a sociopath? Diagnosing people in the past with modern understandings of science has many limitations (testing your hypothesis being chief among them). However, I think it’s clear that Ayn Rand did not have a strongly developed sense of empathy but did have a very high opinion of herself. When seen through this perspective, Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism” and her belief in “the virtue of selfishness” look very different from how she presented it in her work. When someone’s theory of human nature is based on a sample size of 1 it raises doubts about just how objective they really were.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • Christopher@BorderWars

    Genetic inheritance is the antidote to “tabula rasa” theories, and frankly the bevy of Nurture over Nature theories which have dominated the social sciences. This thinking isn’t limited to Rand, nor to state Communists, it’s entrenched in the overwhelmingly Left-biased academics in fields like Anthropology, Sociology, Psychiatry, etc.

    Those who support hot button issues like “Race is an entirely social construct with no scientific value” are inherently supporting behavioral tabula rasa theories.

  • Le Swede

    Have you ever read “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature”? It’s quite a good book. And a good blog (

  • Mr Whipple

    Define “human nature”. You can not. However, I can define “self-ownership”. The principle of “self-ownership” is axiomatic (See: Hans Herman Hoppe). It can not be refuted. From self-ownership, all morality must be derived. Hence, “objective morality”, and the “non-aggression principle”.

    “Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

  • Cathy

    Whenever I read any of her characters, all I can think about is how desperately lonely they really are, even if they are unable to admit it or even recognize it.

  • Matt

    Arguing that Ayn Rand is a sociopath is fairly controversial. Where does anyone obtain the authority to declare that one person should be responsible for another? Is the “tribalism” described any different than a sense of nationalism? ie “help the people at home first”.

    Stating that this is Rand’s ideal is one that many conservatives hang their hat on might be true to some extent. Going one step further does that mean that the author is questioning whether modern conservatives are sociopaths as he does Rand?

    Take a look outside of academia and theories and see how the application has worked. The problems facing the US are in most cases a result of the government trying to force exactly what Rand warns of. Medicare, Social Security, home ownership for all, healthcare for all. The failure of Marxism, socialism, communism, totalitarianism etc is well documented. It goes against human nature and those with the means take what they can without providing the opportunity to others. Capitalism is by far the most fair system in terms of opportunity.

  • JMW

    I haven’t been exposed to much of Rand’s thinking before now; thank you for this.

    She asks in her journal, “Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest?”

    I think she was unusually optimistic.

  • Greg Fish

    The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

    That’s just asinine.

    Altruism is simply the concern for other human beings. It doesn’t say that you should give your every last cent to anyone who is worse off than you or the clothes of your back to anyone who doesn’t have as much clothes as you to wear. You can be altruistic and wealthy as in Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Between their efforts, over $80 billion is being spent addressing social ills while they’re still the world’s richest men.

    Considering that humans live in a society and are generally educated and trained to contribute certain skills to it, having good relationships with those around you helps you in life. If it didn’t, there would be no value in networking when looking for a job. We know that people who are social life longer, happier, and healthier lives. But I suppose that if you want to glorify having the same approach to life as the seagulls in Finding Nemo, that’s your prerogative.

    Rand’s philosophy was a knee-jerk opposition to the popularity of collectivism in Europe at the time, and her books espouse a world of stark black and white contrasts that have little resemblance to the real world. While her capitalistic supermen could’ve become successful and powerful business owners in real life, she puts ever more ridiculous plot twists to make it impossible for them to do so, then declares that the artificial society she created is diseased in bombastic 50 page monologues, and praises them for using their talents to become bitter, self-absorbed ideologues rather than live up to their potential.

  • nik


    While most conservatives would agree with her political philospiphies, i doubt very much than any, especially politicians, would say that altruism is only for the poor or inferior man. Nor would they suggest that a succesful person is “higher on the chain of being”.

    On your other point, I hardly think that those are the main problems facing the US. I would argue that the US’s biggest problems is a root of captialism. US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, the highest teen pregnancy rate and has a military budget higher than the combined budget of the next 26 highest military budgets in the world (25 of whom are allies btw).

    All those social programs you mentioned work quite succesfuly in many countries, Canada being the prime example. While Canada has many of these programs, it is far from a socialist or communist country.

    If capitalism is the most far system there wouldnt be such a difference between higher and middle class, the top 1% wouldnt have over 90% of the wealth.

  • Jenk

    I read this book when I was around 14 years old. I was one of the outlier children; I was an avid reader from early on, and being well-spoken with the vocabulary that only literature can bring I was often adored by my teachers while someone aloof to my peers. I had also been recently orphaned: cancer took my mother 3 years prior and a drug overdose took my father the year following that. I admit I may have been simply in want of guidance or maybe it was a simpler time in which I didn’t know my way around the internet and had no access to the endless opinions and criticisms of others but to me this book spoke only of the righteousness of one’s own acheivements and the virtue of individual creativity. This book had a great impact on me, providing me approbation for the self-righteousness that would carry me through the more difficult years of my adolesence, and although that self-righteousness eventually led to the unjustified arrogance that many the intellectual introvert succumb to, my point is this: not once did I read into it this socio-economic pro capitilistic stance that seems to undermine everyones opinions of Ayn Rand. In fact when brought face to face with this belief I protested but now I can’t even read my formerly favorite book without this dogma seething through the pages. Perhaps I was too young to notice the undertones when I first needed this book or perhaps I have been swayed by the implacable discontent of the internet critics but either way the thought displeases me.

  • Frank

    And, to the last that’s right, altruism does not primarily concern itself with a deliberate-like sacrificial animal to help others. It’s about the caring for others without no particular boundary, or limit onto how that can be done. It’s just the balance of it that is the more necessary question to say how it can be valued, or considered a virtue. Which as a counterbalance coming into play with the capitalistic idealogue, there is no free lunch, or oasis for whatever system that exists. Reality is at its best, and most rational, when you realize it is a purgatory of realities, which is where it’s at in its most legitimate, and verified states. No extreme can speak for reality on those type of terms. This by the way is not a “new” awareness, priests knew this through the ages as they taught – this was their precedent onto how they imparted their knowledge with any type of legitimacy, and qualifications. We live so much more so in a quick fix society than ever before, but we still have to realize, and head off for seasoning, maturing, and timing which become the essential parts of having a quality filled life – and whatever concepts, working in tandem, help to fulfill their sakes in that too. As to Rand’s realizations – it was probably the more meant toward her own environment, or state’s circumstance. But as I’ve just mentioned, there’s the sobering reality with that too. Our better lesson then probably is to say we have to learn how to better mediate, and tolerate, the more normal ambiguous states that do make up the actual normal parts of our ordinary everyday living lives. To expect the ideal escape from them – says we are no longer, and have given up on the living, and on what is this real play of what the game of life is really all about. Reality may be hard, but it’s the most sobering, lasting, and truthful reward that can have us legitimately saying, “Hey, there look, I did and, really have achieved!” Nothing can be more rewarding than that!!

  • Roger T.

    A social instinct for certain conditions maybe, but to give it such overall paramount importance is probably the bigger problem. Take it for what this person might have gone through, and it might have better sensibility. To present it in any type of plane where it might speak for some one type of universeality is a very far reach. Explain her circumstances, and you at least give a window onto how others can actually realistically correspond with it. Leave it to the far reaching fantastical ideas, and you lose the mojo of whatever may have been importantly said. Ayn Rand had opinions like us all, humanize it , and we too might see the bigger picture for our humanity as well.

  • Brian S

    Both the original Slate article and this article attack massive manufactured straw men. Note that in both, the author quotes Ayn Rand in regard to many of her concepts. However he manufactures his own concept of “altruism” rather than identifying *her* explicitly stated conception (which is Comte’s version). As such, the author does nothing to attack let alone refute Miss Rand. He merely attacks an idea she never presented.

    Put simply, the author has not presented a rational argument against Ayn Rand whatsoever. (And, given the invectives thrown at her – along with the disgusting ‘ape’ characature – it doesn’t appear the presentation of a rational argument was the goal here. This is simply one in a long line of attempts to smear her through dishonesty.)

  • Michael Henson

    So far, your articles on Ayn Rand have displayed an exceptionally superficial understanding of both her views and the views she criticized. In fact, given the torrent of bizarre extrapolations you make from carefully chosen out-of-context quotes, I’m not entirely convinced that you’re attempting to understand her views at all.

    Her written work and her philosophy are not something that has to be interpreted from obscure and scattered writings, like some kind of Dan Brown puzzle. The attempt to divine meaning from a torrent of out-of-context quotes is not only unnecessary, it’s an invalid intellectual exercise – no matter what the subject.

    Simply making up your own definition for – or even choosing your favorite existing definition for – a word someone has used in order to argue against their views is also an embarrassingly bad practice. Altruism is a specific ethical philosophy – defined by and term coined by Auguste Comte – and it was that specific ethical position that Rand argued against. It isn’t “getting along with other people”, or “extra-familial generosity”, or “just being nice”. If those are attempts to summarize his actual position at all, they’re like the language you’d use to explain the Holocaust to a five-year-old.

    There are too many bizarre misrepresentations and outright fabrications of views attributed to Rand in this article to address them all. I’ll close with this food for thought. Before writing an article about Rand’s views, for publication on the universally-accessible internet, one should keep in mind that her work is also widely available to anyone who can and does read. Those people can see her primary source material for themselves. Her views are not secret, or obfuscated, or scattered to the four winds. She wasn’t shy about her views and she meant for them to be understood. Anyone who is willing to give her an honest reading can easily judge your representation of her views for themselves. It would be wise to keep that in mind before you make claims about what views she held – for the sake of your own reputation.

  • Matt B.

    The great struggle of morality through the ages has been to find a balance between altruism and selfishness. Finding the dividing line where you’ve taken care of yourself enough and begin to be obliged to take care of others is what eveyone has been arguing about all that time. Occasionally someone like Rand comes along with an outlier of a suggestion and is rightly called crazy.

  • Buckereux

    “Finding the dividing line where you’ve taken care of yourself enough…”

    I think that Rand’s message works best for the individual to accomplish the above, but is flawed regarding the surplus and any social obligations to take reasonable care of others. Rand is merely half crazy as long as one keeps her philosophy to ones self.


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