I was astonished at how closed she typically was to any new knowledge [testifies Nathaniel Branden] .…When I tried to tell her of some new research that suggested that certain kinds of depression have a biological basis, she answered angrily, ‘I can tell you what causes depression; I can tell you about rational depression and I can tell you about irrational depression—the second is mostly self-pity—and in neither case does biology enter into it.’ I asked her how she could make a scientific statement with such certainty, since she had never studied the field; she shrugged bitterly and snapped, ‘Because I know how to think.’” (Judgement Day, 1989, 347)
We all know the rationale behind this particular evasion of the facts. Rand is claiming because people have free will, they cannot possibly be influenced by biological factors. But this is merely an a priori rationalization of the worst sort. Claims about the biological basis of an emotion can only be settled experimentally, through empirical testing. The evidence for the hypothesis that biological factors can influence emotions is overwhelming and not in dispute among psychiatrists familiar with the relevant research. If anyone has any doubt on the score, just consider how diseases of the brain can affect emotion and personality.
So how exactly does evolutionary psychology explain the misery, the jealousy, the lying [that occurred as a result of Rand’s affair with Nathaniel Branden]? When Rand and her followers tried to wish away obvious facts about humans' emotional constitution, their feelings didn't change. But they made each other miserable pretending that they felt the way they were supposed to feel. Rand and Nathaniel had to pretend that Nathaniel was attracted to Rand. Their spouses had to pretend that they weren't jealous. Rand and Nathaniel had to pretend that they believed that their spouses weren't jealous. The more they tried to talk themselves into having feelings contrary to human nature, the worse they felt. Nathaniel coped not by admitting error, but by finding a mistress and lying to cover it up. Since Rand had already ruled out the obvious explanation for Nathaniel's behavior, she went on a wild goose chase to find the "real" explanation. Etc...
As Rand says, "[F]acts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher." I give her a lot of credit for emphasizing that human beings are potentially rational animals. But she evaded (yes, evaded!) the fact that human beings are invariably animals - and paid the price. [Byran Caplan, "Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 1"]
OK, so Ayn Rand created a cult. What does this have to do with evolutionary psychology [and human nature]? Simple: Contrary to Rand, the fact that human beings care about the opinions of the people around them doesn't stem from philosophical error. It stems from evolution [or human nature]. Human beings evolved in small groups where good relations were vital for survival. People who weren't interested in other people's opinions had trouble staying alive and reproducing. Caring about the opinions of others isn't as immutable as our sexual preferences, but it's very deeply rooted. Consider: How much would I have to pay you to walk in front of an audience of a hundred strangers and make a fool of yourself?
Rand was no exception. She thought that her affair with Branden was morally above reproach, but made every effort to keep it secret. Why? Because unlike John Galt, she shared our normal human concern about the opinions of other people - including complete strangers:[A]nother thought struck her and put her in a panic. If he had been underhanded enough to deceive her about his feelings toward her for months or years on end, what else might he be capable of? Would he do something terrible to embarrass her in public or discredit her ideas...? "I can't predict what he'll do, and I'm terrified of what may happen to my name and reputation!" she cried in despair. Growing tired and tearful as the night wore on, she murmured, "My life is over. He took away this earth." [Anne Heller, Ayn Rand and the World She Made]
If people really could stop caring about other people's opinions, Rand's counter-culture never would have gotten off the ground. Within five minutes, prospective members would have adamantly disagreed with Rand about something or other, and she would have purged them. Her counter-culture took root precisely because even avowed individualists will feign agreement in order to fit in. [Byran Caplan, "Rand vs. Evolutionary Psychology: Part 2"]
Now it’s important here not to get caught up on the merits of evolutionary psychology. The important question here is whether sexual jealousy, age differences, attraction to younger women, concern with what other people think are all built-in features, rather than just premises accepted by “free will.” The evidence over-whelmingly supports the view that some sexual feelings, including jealousy, are hardwired. Nor is it in the least plausible to assume that concern with what other people think is a mere premise which can be "deprogrammed" from the mind through psychotherapy. To deny a human nature consisting of innate propensities is a far more serious matter than denying facts about quantum mechanics or Einstienian relativity. Advanced experimental physics may be important in certain technical fields; but in ordinary life, it hardly matters. You don’t need knowledge of such arcana to get a job and raise a family. But if you don’t understand human nature, you’re probably going to have a much harder time of it navigating one’s way through life. Interacting with other people is what everyone must do. The notion of the man who lives entirely by himself, like Robinson Crusoe, is a myth. To get on in this world, it helps to understand what motivates and drives the people around us. Incorrect assumptions about human nature only leads to just the sort of personal dysfunction as is limned in Anne Heller’s biography of Rand.
What makes all of this so much the worse is the intellectual feebleness of Rand’s rationale for evading human nature. But this is a topic which must be reserved for my next post.