Sunday, June 05, 2011

Ayn Rand and Evolution

Note: An Essay from 2005


As I argued in my essay “Ayn Rand, Objectivism, and Religion”,[1] Objectivism is a version of secular humanism. Ayn Rand accepts the atheism and naturalism of most secular humanist thought. While secular humanists are highly supportive of evolution, Rand stated that she was “neither its supporter nor opponent” and was for the most part silent on the issue. Her one-time associate Nathaniel Branden states in his well-known essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand:

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," or words to that effect. I do not mean to imply that she wanted to substitute for the theory of evolution the religious belief that we are all God's creation; but there was definitely something about the concept of evolution that made her uncomfortable.[2]

Rand discusses evolution a few times, but never mentioned Charles Darwin. Two major summaries of Rand’s thought, The Ayn Rand Lexicon and Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, are silent. This essay will review some of Rand’s references to evolution and suggest reasons for Rand’s apparent hesitancy. A brief discussion of Rand’s view of human nature is first required.

Human Nature

Ayn Rand believed that human nature is fixed. What separates men from animals is their rationality. Although man is a physical entity, his mind cannot be reduced entirely to his brain or body.

Based on a review of her mature philosophy as expressed in Atlas Shrugged and her essays, Rand rejects the idea that man has innate instincts or drives.[3] In “Galt Speaks,” Rand defines “instinct” as “an unerring and automatic form of knowledge.” (Rand, For the New Intellectual, pp. 121-22.) Needless to say, she repeatedly rejected any automatic form of knowledge. She concedes that there is a “desire to live,” but asserts that it is not “automatic.” (p. 122.) She explicitly denies that man has a tendency to evil. (p. 137; see also p. 21.)[4] On the other hand, she likely rejected the concept that man has a tendency to good. And, it is important to realize, in spite of Rand’s optimistic view of human nature, her judgment on history was for the most part negative.

In her important discussion of the “Witch Doctor” and “Attila” in For the New Intellectual, Rand carefully avoids the using the word “instinct” to describe the values and actions of these two archetypes. In spite of their differences, they are both motivated by “feelings” and “whims.” (p. 19.) Rand’s rejection of instincts appears twofold. First, she is concerned that instincts, if they existed, would constitute an alternative (and potentially irrational) source of knowledge. Just as she destroyed the Witch Doctor’s epistemology by refuting all forms of mysticism, she had to destroy Attila’s epistemology. Second, instincts (which are often considered irrational drives) conflict with her concept of the “heroic man.”

Although Rand rejects the idea that man has instincts, she denies that man’s nature is completely fluid.

Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses. (Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 28.)

In “Racism,” Rand rejects the contention that a person’s character or intelligence is inherited or produced by his “internal body chemistry.” (p. 126.)

Randian man is in a unique position. Although he shares similarities with animals, he is set apart from them by his reason. One should keep in mind Rand’s frequent quotation of Bacon’s dictum: “Nature to be commanded, must be obeyed.” Man is part of nature, but in some sense transcends it. This leads to the question: how can man transcend nature if he is the product of millions of years of biological evolution?

“The Missing Link”

Rand mentioned evolution a few in her journals. She writes 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.” (Harriman, ed., Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 285.) In her notes for Atlas Shrugged in 1946, she writes:

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.” (pp. 465-466.)

Her most interesting comment on the implications of evolution may be the following, also from her notes for Atlas Shrugged:

We may still be in evolution, as a species, and living side by side with some “missing links.” [. . .] We do not know to what extent the majority of men are now rational. (They are certainly far from the perfect rational being, and all the teachings they absorb put them still farther back to the pre-human stage.) . . . . (Most men are rational beings, even if none too smart; they are not pre-humans incapable of rational thinking; they can be dealt with only on the basis of free rational, consent.) (p. 466-67.)[5]

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.)

Rand discusses evolution twice in For the New Intellectual, published in 1961. In her discussion of Attila and the Witch Doctor, she states: “If a missing link between the human and the animal species is to be found, Attila and the Witch Doctor are that missing link—the profiteers on men’s default.” (pp. 21-22.) The second mention of evolution is in the discussion of Herbert Spencer’s philosophy, in which she makes clear her opposition to Spencer’s use of evolution as the organizing principle of philosophy. (p. 37.)

Rand’s most detailed published discussion of evolution is in her 1973 article entitled “The Missing Link,” which is reprinted in Philosophy: Who Needs It? Rand discusses the anti-conceptual mentality. Readers should keep in mind that Rand denies that animals think conceptually. In a passage that is somewhat hard to understand, she states:

I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent. But 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. (Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, p. 45.)

Although Rand presents this hypothesis tentatively, it appears that she places man himself as an agent of evolution along side the “evolutionary process.” Evolution took a different course because man chose to think “conceptually.” I take this passage to mean that Rand’s hypothesis consists of the following: (1) the evolutionary process was first focused on the development of animals’ bodies; (2) the evolutionary process then focused on animals’ consciousness; (3) man (or some version of him) had a body like ours, but a non-conceptual consciousness; and (4) finally, some men chose to think conceptually, thus completing the creation of man. What is must curious about Rand’s hypothesis is her statement that it has “haunted” her “for years.” One wonders if what haunted Rand is the implication of her theory (which she made explicit in her journals) that at least some non-rational human beings are literally sub-human.

Rand’s sentiments concerning evolution have an echo in her frequent statements in her essays that equate non-rational men to animals. It is striking how often Rand compares irrational people to non-human animals. Two examples must suffice:

Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature. (Rand, The Virtue Of Selfishness, p. 24.)

To an animal, whatever strikes his awareness is an absolute that corresponds to reality. . . . And this is the Witch Doctor’s epistemological ideal, the most of consciousness he strives to induce in himself. (Rand, For the New Intellectual, p. 17.)

Professor Eric Mack notes that in a recent popular presentation of Objectivist ethics, parasitic people are described as literally dead. (Mack, “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics”, Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Vol 5., No. 1, p. 24.)[6]

Keeping in mind Branden’s point that Rand did not wish to replace evolution with creationism, it is nonetheless interesting to note that Rand’s view of the uniqueness of man (given the gulf that separates man and other animals) has a certain resemblance to anti-Darwinian religious thought. G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote:

Most philosophers have the enlightenment to add that a third mystery attaches to the origin of man himself. In other words, a third bridge was built across a third abyss of the unthinkable when there came into the world what we call reason and what call will. Man is not merely an evolution but rather a revolution. (Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 26.)

Rand likely would have agreed with Chesterton’s phrase “man is not merely an evolution but a revolution.”

Why Rand’s Hesitation About Evolution?

Rand’s hesitation about evolution calls for an explanation. As Rand must have been aware, many religious conservatives (who were a frequent target of hers) reject evolution. There are a few possibilities for this hesitation.

First, evolution is generally seen as a deterministic and ultimately hostile to free will. (Machan, Ayn Rand, pp. 142-43.) For example, evolutionist Ernest Haeckel (1834-1919) asserted that free will had to be rejected along with other “cherished ideas” such as human immortality and a personal god. (Schwarz, Creation, p. 7.) Even before the advent of Darwinian evolution, materialists from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) forward often rejected free will.

Second, if biological evolution is true, then many areas of philosophy might need to be reexamined. For example, how can man have a qualitatively different value from animals if is every bit a part of nature as animals? Interestingly, a standard argument of religious conservatives against evolution is similar. God created man as the center of creation and reducing him to a part of the material universe on a similar plane as animals is condescending. The relationship between the brain and thought becomes more problematic in a Darwinian universe. Darwin wrote in his notebooks, “Why is thought, being a secretion of the brain, more wonderful than gravity, a property of matter.” (Jaki, Angels, Apes, and Men, p. 52.) In what sense can human nature be taken as fundamental to morality if man is exclusively part of the material work? One of La Mettrie’s (1709-1751) followers was the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) who argued that “If human passions are mere physiological itches, man’s proverbial dignity is a fraud, and there is nothing—not even our normal revulsion against rape and torture—to stand in the way of treating other human beings as sex tools. From the materialistic perspective, nothing can be entirely unnatural.” (Fleming, The Morality of Everyday Life, p. 107.)

Third, Rand may have been fearful of creating a biological or secular equivalent to original sin. Rand’s opposition to original sin is well known, but her opposition to original sin would apply to any argument that proposes a biological weakness in man’s will. A full recognition of man’s biological and psychological drives might lead to a pessimistic view of human nature. Indeed, many scholars have see parallels between original sin and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic doctrines. According to intellectual historian Richard Webster, Freud employed biological evolution in developing a secularized version of original sin:

Freud genuinely believed that, by invoking evolutionary biology in the manner that he did, he was using science to sweep away superstition and introduce a new view of human nature. His real achievement in creating psychoanalysis, however, was to hide superstition beneath the rhetoric of reason, and by doing this succeed in reintroducing a very old view of human nature. By portraying the unconscious or the ‘id’ as a seething mass of unclean impulses, and seeing men and women as driven by dark sexual and sadistic impulses and a secret love of excrement which was associated with a compulsion to hoard money, Freud in effect recreated Swift’s Christian vision of “unregenerate man” as a Yahoo. By casting his intense moral vision in an ostensibly technical form he had, it would seem, succeeded in reinventing for a modern scientific age the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin.[7]

Fourth, it is also possible that Rand may have believed that biological evolution did not present any problems for Objectivism, but hoped that followers more knowledgeable in biology would resolve whatever tensions exist.


As Tibor Machan notes, the topic of “how evolutionary biology could be made compatible with free will and morality” is “missing from [Rand’s] works.” (Machan, Ayn Rand, p. 143.) It is hoped that this brief essay will encourage others to take up this topic and fill this lacunae in Rand’s thought.



[3] However, in her journal entries written before her mature philosophical works, she at times finds an instinctual basis for certain behaviors. See Journals at pp. 285 and 303.

[4] In her article “The Comprachicos” (published in The New Left), Rand repeatedly emphasizes that the various skills that a child develops are not innate.

[5] The bracket are those of the Journals’ editor.

[6] The book in question is Loving Life (2002) by Craig Biddle.