Our understanding of what constitutes “human nature” can come from at least three sources: personal experience, literature, and scientific investigation. I knew early on that Rand’s view of human nature had serious problems. I had read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Idiot right before I read Atlas Shrugged, and I couldn’t help noticing how shallow and tendentious Rand’s view of human nature is compared to Dostoevsky’s. The human beings who populate Atlas are little more than ideological caricatures. They is little, if any, of the stuff of real life in them. They are all gesture and speechifying, ---- mere empty vessels, bloodless and without soul.
But how does one demonstrate such a thing? Human nature, in the traditional conception passed down to us by the great poets, historians, and philosophers of Western Culture, consists of innate tendencies of behavior—tendencies which Rand explicitly denies in Galt’s speech—but which are distributed unequally and in varying degrees throughout the species. One trick Objectivists use to dismiss the traditional conception of human nature is to try to interpret it through the prism of their unique versions of essentialism. Rand believed that the objects of knowledge, what she called concepts, where defined by “essential characteristics without which the [existental referents of these concepts] would not be the kind of existents they are.” Rand’s doctrine of essentialism can be a little confusing because Rand regarded essences as “epistemological” rather than “metaphysical.” They were products of thought rather than reality; yet they somehow referred to objects and attributes in reality. The upshot of this essentialism, whether “metaphysical” or “epistemological,” is that the attributes that make a thing what it is have to be universal. They have to apply to every manifestation of the concepts’ real world referent. Rand regarded “rationality” as the essence of the concept man because all men were, she claimed, rational (at least potentially). Now the tactic used in regards to human nature is to claim that if a given innate tendency of behavior isn’t shared by absolutely everyone, then it can’t be part of human nature. And since not many innate tendencies of character are shared by everyone, that leaves the concept high and dry.