I have continued chipping away at Atlas Shrugged while on the elliptical machine. It has made for timely reading, since during the period I was reading it the financial system melted down. Lots of Ayn Rand fans have commented on the fact that current events somewhat parallel the events of Atlas Shrugged – government efforts to serve the needs of the unproductive leads to economic failure, which leads to more government interventions, which leads to more failure, etc. I must admit, Congress' platitudes about helping out the little guy by pushing Fannie and Freddie into ludicrous loans, and then the Wall Street rush to exploit this unsustainable generosity, looks an awful lot like the "looters" of Ayn Rand's magnus opus.
If current events made Rand's philosophy look more plausible, though, it was counteracted by the fact that I was also reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works at the same time. Evolutionary psychology blows a lot of big holes in Rand's philosophy, and it looks like the critics of Objectivism have noticed. It was screamingly obvious to me that Rand's view on sexuality – that people are sexually attracted to those who manifest their highest ideals – was perfectly consistent with what evolutionary psychology would predict for a woman. Females' genetic interests are best served by mating with the most fit male, i.e. the wealthiest, most productive one, and since they have such a high investment in having a baby, they will tend to be very selective of their mates. That same formula doesn't quite work for the males, though – males get much more genetic, ahem, bang for the buck by being promiscuous, since the have to invest much less than the female in generating offspring. Rand concocts a contorted theory that only men who hate themselves could be promiscuous, and that promiscuity is antithetical to their true nature. I didn't buy it. Even men who are profoundly committed to monogamy (such as yours truly) will admit that it is not the natural state of affairs – if commitment was natural, why would we have to make vows to stick to it? Evolutionary psychology presented a cleaner explanation than Rand, in this case.
The gaps were even more noticeable in Rand's notion of the virtue of selfishness, and the sin of altruism. Evolutionary biology points out that people are self-interested, but not exclusively self-interested. We are also predisposed to helping our relatives, since they share our genes, and helping our mates, since their genetic interests are mostly identical to ours. Rand would have us believe that altruism is nothing but an illusion and a sham, but in fact our inmost nature tells us otherwise. There are no children in Rand's books, because love for one's children blows apart most of her ideas. Nearly all parents do believe in sacrificing their own interests for the sake of their children's interests – and no amount of arguing will make us think otherwise. Again, evolutionary biology perfectly explains what Objectivism strains to cover.
If she was so wrong about human nature, then, why does her philosophy appeal so strongly to so many? The world-view in Atlas Shrugged is not implausible – I often find myself seeing life as a war between the competent producers and the incompetent freeloaders. There still may be some truth to be mined from it.
I may have said this to you before, but I think of Ayn Rand's celebration of selfishness in much the same way that I think of Richard Dawkins' celebration of atheism. I think she's very smart, and insightful, and I can learn a lot from her, and I'm really glad she's out there, trumpeting something that few are willing to champion. I also think she is fundamentally, at the core, dead wrong. The whole book is summarized by John Gault's creed--I'm sorry if I'm blowing the ending here--but it is something along the lines of "I vow that I will never live my life for another man, nor allow any other man to live his life for mine." Poppycock and fiddle-faddle. With no religion and no altruism, she strives to create a world with no higher purpose than money, and it looks empty and cold from where I stand.
It's impossible to "spoil" the ending of Atlas Shrugged, because you see every turn of the plot coming from about 10,000 words away.
And generally I agree with you. The places where I disagree with her are easy to spot, and obvious. It's the places where I resonate with her message that puzzles me. Why do so many people respond to it, and with such missionary zeal? Even if I disagree with her, I'd like to understand why so many agree.
I have a few ideas, which I'll flesh out soon . . .
People are tired of liberals telling them that they ought to feel guilty about their selfishness or their success. (My poverty essay, for example.) They respond to a message that selfishness is good and their success has all been earned. And, as I said before, she frames the Big Lie in just enough truth to make it pretty easy to buy.