Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ayn Rand Contra Biology

Over at David Friedman's blog, another libertarian, William H. Stoddard, makes this interesting comment:
"Consider, for example, how Ayn Rand's foundational arguments in
ethics go astray by assuming that every organ and function of a
living body exists to further the survival of the individual organism
-- a hangover from Aristotelianism, I think. Narrowly, she doesn't
take into account the functions of the gonads, the external
genitalia, or the mammaries; broadly, she doesn't consider that
individual survival itself is a means to longer-term ends, or, in
less teleological language, is selected for its capacity to
contribute to inclusive fitness."
This is a very apropos point to the ARCHN thesis; that Rand's philosophy cannot account for, and indeed ignores, basic facts of reality, such as biology. Elsewhere Stoddard, who appears to have a generally favourable view of Rand, contributes a thoughtful criticism of her ethics, pointing out the important inconsistencies between her philosophic positions and her fictional examples, and suggesting how her work might be more usefully interpreted - he suggests personal "legacy" as a promising grounding for ethics.

We at ARCHNblog agree, incidentally, that Rand is far more inconsistent and contradictory as a writer and thinker than she is portrayed to be by her followers. Wider recognition of this fact is necessary, I think, before her work can be usefully discussed.

(thanks to Mike Huben for the tip)

3 comments:

Neil Parille said...

Harry Binswanger, in his book The Biological Basis of Teological Conepts, deals with some of these objections. It was a while since I read it, but I don't think I was convinced.

Anonymous said...

In contrast to Rand's view, a much better case can be made that the organism's chief purpose is reproduction - the "selfish gene" idea. Personal survival takes a back seat to bearing offspring.

Salmon often perish when swimming upstream to their spawning grounds. The black widow consumes her mate immediately after copulation. Pregnant animals are highly vulnerable to predators. In other words, reproduction frequently increases the risk of death. If avoidance of the death were an organism's prime directive, there wouldn't be many babies in the animal kingdom. In reality, the imperative of reproduction trumps the imperative of individual survival.

Of course, Rand could hardly acknowledge this - first, because she appears to have done no reading in biology and therefore was unaware of it, and second, because if she had taken reproduction as the highest value, she would have been obliged to conclude that she, most of her followers, and all of her fictional heroes and heroines were abysmal failures!

- Michael Prescott (too lazy to sign in)

gregnyquist said...

Stoddard: "Ayn Rand's foundational arguments in
ethics go astray by assuming that every organ and function of a living body exists to further the survival of the individual organism -- a hangover from Aristotelianism, I think."

Or could it be the other way around, that her foundational arguments for ethics (along with her near deification of the ideal man, out of which the foundational arguments originally arise) made Aristotle's non-naturalistic, teleological approach more appealing? In any case, we certainly need an explanation of why Rand was drawn to Aristotle. Perhaps it was simply Aristotle's essentialism, which appealed to Rand's penchant for determining matters of fact through pseudo-logical deductions from vague generalizations about matters of fact. Or it could have been the teleological approach (manifested in Aristotle's doctrine of final causes), which, in effect, would shield from some of the less appealing (from her point of view) biological facts that would later become prominent in the writings of Dawkins and E. O. Wilson.