Human Nature

Ayn Rand vs. Anthropology

Did natural selection favor individualists or altruists?

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By Eric Michael Johnson

Black-and-white colobus monkeys scrambled through the branches of Congo’s Ituri Forest in 1957 as a small band of Mbuti hunters wound cautiously through the undergrowth, joined by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. The Mbuti are pygmies, about 4 feet tall, but they are powerful and tough. Any one of them could take down an elephant with only a short-handled spear. Recent genetic evidence suggests that pygmies have lived in this region for about 60,000 years. But this particular hunt reflected a timeless ethical conflict for our species, and one that has special relevance for contemporary American society.

The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” Word spread among camp members that Cephu had been trying to steal meat from the tribe, and a consensus quickly developed that he should answer for this crime.

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At an impromptu trial, Cephu defended himself with arguments for individual initiative and personal responsibility. “He felt he deserved a better place in the line of nets,” Turnbull wrote. “After all, was he not an important man, a chief, in fact, of his own band?” But if that were the case, replied a respected member of the camp, Cephu should leave and never return. The Mbuti have no chiefs, they are a society of equals in which redistribution governs everyone’s livelihood. The rest of the camp sat in silent agreement.

Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented. “He apologized profusely,” Turnbull wrote, “and said that in any case he would hand over all the meat.” This ended the matter, and members of the group pulled chunks of meat from Cephu’s basket. He clutched his stomach and moaned, begging that he be left with something to eat. The others merely laughed and walked away with their pound of flesh. Like the mythical figure Atlas from Greek antiquity, condemned by vindictive gods to carry the world on his shoulders for all eternity, Cephu was bound to support the tribe whether he chose to or not.

Meanwhile, in the concrete jungle of New York City, another struggle between the individual and the group was unfolding. In October of 1957, Ayn Rand published her dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged, in which a libertarian hero named John Galt condemns his collectivist society because of its failure to support individual rights. “By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself,” Galt announced, “he exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.” Unlike Cephu, Galt had the means to end his societal bondage. By withdrawing his participation and convincing others to do the same, he would stop the motor of the world. Atlas would shrug. “Every living species has a way of survival demanded by its nature,” Galt insisted. “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

Ayn Rand’s defense of a human nature based on rationality and individual achievement, with capitalism as its natural extension, became the rallying cry for an emerging libertarian stripe in conservative American politics. Paul Ryan cites Atlas Shrugged as forming the basis of his value system and says it was one of the main reasons he chose to enter politics. Other notable admirers include Rush Limbaugh,Alan Greenspan, Clarence Thomas, as well as Congressional Tea Party Caucusmembers Steve King, Mick Mulvaney, and Allen West.

“Collectivism,” Rand wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, “is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” An objective understanding of “man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence” should inoculate society from the disease of altruistic morality and economic redistribution. Therefore, “one must begin by identifying man’s nature, i.e., those essential characteristics which distinguish him from all other living species.” She identifies two: a brain evolved for rational thought and a survival instinct based on the desire for personal freedom.

Ultimately, Rand was searching for the origin of John Galt in the pages of human nature. But was she right? Are we rational egotists trapped in a net of social obligations? Or are we an innately social species for whom altruism was integral to our success on this planet? There was only one place she could look: the Pleistocene.

The Pleistocene epoch, from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago, was a formative time in our species’ development. The first members of the genus Homo began to walk the great savannas of Africa at the beginning of this epoch. In a little more than 2 million years, we went from loose aggregations of bonobo-like bipeds, traveling upright between patches of forest, to highly integrated societies made up of multiple families and clans. By studying the archaeological record as well as modern-day hunter-gatherers, evolutionary scientists have been constructing a record of how our early human ancestors made this journey. It is clear that John Galt was not present in our ancestral family tree.

Christopher Boehm has been studying the interplay between the desires of an individual and that of the larger group for more than 40 years. Currently the director of the Jane Goodall Research Center and professor of anthropology and biological sciences at the University of Southern California, he has conducted fieldwork with both human and nonhuman primates and has published more than 60 scholarly articles and books on the problem of altruism. In his newest book, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame, Boehm synthesizes this research to address the question of why, out of all the social primates, are humans so altruistic?

“There are two ways of trying to create a good life,” Boehm states. “One is by punishing evil, and the other is by actively promoting virtue.” Boehm’s theory of social selection does both. The term altruism can be defined as extra-familial generosity (as opposed to nepotism among relatives). Boehm thinks the evolution of human altruism can be understood by studying the moral rules of hunter-gatherer societies. He and a research assistant have recently gone through thousands of pages of anthropological field reports on the 150 hunter-gatherer societies around the world that he calls “Late-Pleistocene Appropriate” (LPA), or those societies that continue to live as our ancestors once did. By coding the reports for categories of social behavior such as aid to nonrelatives, group shaming, or the execution of social deviants, Boehm is able to determine how common those behaviors are.

What he has found is in direct opposition to Ayn Rand’s selfish ideal. For example, in 100 percent of LPA societies—ranging from the Andaman Islanders of the Indian Ocean archipelago to the Inuit of Northern Alaska—generosity or altruism is always favored toward relatives and nonrelatives alike, with sharing and cooperation being the most cited moral values. Of course, this does not mean that everyone in these societies always follow these values. In 100 percent of LPA societies there was at least one incidence of theft or murder, 80 percent had a case in which someone refused to share, and in 30 percent of societies someone tried to cheat the group (as in the case of Cephu).

What makes these violations of moral rules so instructive is how societies choose to deal with them. Ultimately, it all comes down to gossip. More than tool-making, art, or even language, gossip is a human universal that is a defining feature of our species (though this could change if we ever learn to translate the complex communication system in whales or dolphins). Gossip is intimately connected with the moral rules of a given society, and individuals gain or lose prestige in their group depending on how well they follow these rules. This formation of group opinion is something to be feared, particularly in small rural communities where ostracism or expulsion could mean death. “Public opinion, facilitated by gossiping, always guides the band’s decision process,” Boehm writes, “and fear of gossip all by itself serves as a preemptive social deterrent because most people are so sensitive about their reputations.” A good reputation enhances the prestige of those individuals who engage in altruistic behavior, while marginalizing those with a bad reputation. Since prestige is intimately involved with how desirable a person is to the opposite sex, gossip serves as a positive selection pressure for enhancing traits associated with altruism. That is, being good can get you laid, and this will perpetuate your altruistic genes (or, at least, those genes that allow you to resist cheating other members of your group).

Sometimes gossip is not enough to reduce or eliminate antisocial behavior. In Boehm’s analysis of LPA societies, public opinion and spatial distancing were the most common responses to misbehavior (100 percent of the societies coded). But other tactics included permanent expulsion (40 percent), group shaming (60 percent), group-sponsored execution (70 percent), or nonlethal physical punishment (90 percent). In the case of expulsion or execution, the result over time would be that traits promoting antisocial behavior would be reduced in the populations. In other words, the effect of social selection would be that altruists would have higher overall fitness and out-reproduce free riders. The biological basis for morality in our species could therefore result from these positive and negative pressures carried out generation after generation among our Pleistocene ancestors. Who is John Galt? He refused to participate in society and no one has seen him since.

In fairness to the Russian-born Ayn Rand, the collectivist society she was most opposed to was the Soviet regime, which justified its consolidation of power with the veneer of altruism. Rand’s mistake was in essentializing the distinction between “individualist freedom” vs. “collectivist tyranny” and then transporting it into our human past.

However, deep in the Ituri Forest was a man Ayn Rand might have felt a bond with. Cephu had a reputation as someone who valued himself above all others long before he decided to maximize his personal profit margin on the community hunt. As Turnbull found when talking to the Mbuti tribesmen, Cephu never joined the rest of the group at breakfast whenever they strategized about where to set their nets. He would simply follow along once the decision had been made. To make matters worse, he was often loud and would frighten the animals away before they got close to the trap. Whenever he did get his share of the community meat, he would always take it to his own campsite rather than eat with everyone else (and could sometimes be heard yelling insults at the main camp once he was there). According to Turnbull, nearly everyone was irritated with Cephu’s self-serving behavior and gossiped about it. But most members of the community tolerated him in order to maintain unity. “Rather than cause an open breach,” Turnbull wrote, “everyone in the main camp kept his thoughts to himself and was silent.” But finally Cephu went one step too far.

“Cephu committed what is probably one of the most heinous crimes in Pygmy eyes, and one that rarely occurs. Yet the case was settled simply and effectively,” Turnbull concluded. Among the Mbuti, as with most hunter-gatherer societies, altruism and equality are systems that enhance individual freedom. Following these moral rules helps prevent any one individual from taking advantage of others or even dominating the group as a whole because of unequal privileges. However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress. Perhaps that is why, after the Mbuti had feasted on the day’s successful hunt, one member of the group slipped away to give the still moaning Cephu some of the cooked meat and mushroom sauce that everyone else had enjoyed. Later that night, Cephu turned up at the main camp, where he sat on the ground and sang songs with the rest of his tribe. Holding up the world isn’t so trying when there are others who can lend a helping hand.

28 November 2015

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  • Derryl Hermanutz

    “Every living species has a way of survival demanded by its nature,” Galt insisted. “I swear by my life, and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

    It’s been a few decades since I read Atlas Shrugged, but weren’t Ayn Rand’s heroes a bunch of corporate titans of industry? Corporate industry is a quintessentially “collectivist” effort of many corporate employees working toward a common cause. How is this different than the members of a tribe collectively participating in a hunt?

    Corporate businesses are owned by absentee shareholders who do not participate in managing the enterprises or doing the work. Everyone — from the CEO down to the office janitor — works as an “employee” of the corporation. The collective resources of the corporation ensure the collective security of the myriad owners and employees.

    John K Galbraith explained how large professionally managed corporate businesses that populate “the planning system” are utterly unlike the kind of small owner-operated entrepreneurial businesses that compete in “the free market”. Yet Rand wants to style opulently renumerated corporate managers as rugged entrepreneurs who did all the work themselves. What about the hundreds, thousands of employees who contribute to the collective effort that builds and maintains a “big business”?

    When they moved to Galt’s Gulch, did the titans mine their own ore and refine metals in their personal backyard foundries? Build their own airplanes from tree leaves and chewing gum like McGiver? Dig oil wells with their bare hands and crack gasoline over an open fire? Or did they have scores of “workers” doing the actual work of producing the wealth? I am just really fed up with one guy at the top taking credit for the fruits of thousands of other people’s efforts.

  • Gary Erickson

    In all stages of human development there have been individuals with an idea or concept which causes a step change in society and if they use that idea to their advantage not only does the rest of society benefit so does the individual. If they do not use the idea to their advantage the benefits of their idea does not accrue to society until the idea is taken up at a later time by an individual that does use the idea to their advantage.

    The key point being that individuals have ideas not populations or communities. Communities on the other hand provide a framework capable of supporting or repressing the development of new ideas by individuals within the community.

    When communities do not support individuals developing new ideas the community begins to stagnate and fail and then it becomes a downward spiral to anarchy and everyone taking what they can get while they can.

    This is the message I understood Ayn Rand to be saying in Atlas Shrugged when community regulations (government) and taxes kept taking the resources away from the creative elements of their society, to a greater extent than was reasonable, to support individuals who made no apparent contribution to society but did have what they believed to be a substantial moral superiority, or the victim mentality of the “world owes me a living and I should not have to contribute to it”.

  • From a post I wrote in response to this when it first appeared (

    The problem with the dichotomy set up by Johnson is that, at least as it relates to his Mbuti example, he has it backwards. Rand rails against people who did not pull their weight and who loot rather than relying on their own productive efforts. In Johnson’s example, it was Cephu who was the looter who sought to take advantage of the hard work of others. If someone turned up in John Galt’s town and sought to skim off the rewards of his effort, Galt would withdraw his cooperation with them. And that is the beauty of the picture painted by Johnson – the association was voluntary (it may not classify as euvoluntary, however). Cephu was offered the choice to stay and cooperate, or he could leave. Tribe members are free to cooperate with each other and reap the rewards of that cooperation as they see fit.

    Of course, Rand’s philosophy was not to ignore others. If helping them or providing them services is valued by you, go ahead and do it. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged did not seek to become self-sufficient. They sought to succeed by providing goods and services valued by others. Dagney Taggart’s trains ran on steel provided by Hank Reardon. Hank Reardon used coal provided by Ken Dannager. The gains from specialisation and trade make it in your interest to care about the welfare of others.

    If Rand makes an error, it may be her understanding of primordial savages. She saw the tribe as dominating the lives of its members, when it is closer to a cooperative pact. Johnson’s story also suggests that Rand may have been too pessimistic. Rand saw a world where the looters were winning, where second-class talent prospered at the expense of the truly talented and where the wealthy maintain their wealth through political patronage. In contrast, Johnson paints a picture of the looter getting his due, so at least in this small part of the world, Rand’s nightmare has not come true.

    Johnson goes as far as noting the benefits that come from “altruistic” behaviour (hence my use of inverted commas around “altruism” during this post). Gossip is a primary form of communication within tribes. Reputations rapidly spread and those with bad reputations can be quickly marginalised. Further, altruistic behaviour is a signal to the opposite sex as it may be a reliable signal of your quality. Is something still altruistic when it allows the continued propagation of your genes?

    • Thanks for your comment Jason. I read through all of Rand’s work in the preparation for my article and came across copious material that reflected precisely the sentiment that Cephu expressed (see this, for example: Cephu didn’t view himself as a thief. He was innovating and working independently from the tyranny of forced cooperation. He placed his net by himself and he captured the animals by himself. Why shouldn’t he enjoy the rewards himself? He objected to the collectivist notion that even the weakest among them should enjoy a full share for their participation. Let them be innovative like he was, a chief, and place their net in a better location. Rand refers over and over again to collectivism as “the tribal premise of primordial savages” and her champions are those of individual achievement. To cite two of the characters you reference, Dagny Taggart says, “Do you know the hallmark of the second-rater? It’s resentment of another man’s achievement.” When Hank Reardon is before a panel of judges, he condemns his collectivist society by stating, “If it is now believed that my fellow men may sacrifice me in any manner they please for the sake of whatever they believe to be their own good, if they believe that they may seize my property simply because they need it — well, so does any burglar.” These thoughts are just those that Cephu explains when his own panel of judges are condemning his innovation as theft. Taggart and Reardon made their fortunes in the railroad and steel sectors, industries that received massive public subsidies. In the exaggerated black-and-white world that Rand creates, taxation and public accountability over private industry amounts to collectivist tyranny. She claims that selfishness is a virtue and speaks her own mind through John Galt when he warns visitors to Galt’s Gulch, “there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word ‘give.’” According to the evidence from anthropology, virtue can only be based on other-regarding behaviors. Morality is the self-sacrifice we make for other members of our group; it has been coopted by religion today, but was built by collectivist societies (both human and non-human) over evolutionary time.

  • David Whitlock

    Somewhat curious for anyone to use Ayn Rand as an evolutionary success story. Apparently she had no descendants.

    All humans require 24/7 care for the first few years of life. If that care is not provided, then humans go extinct.

    • ari9999

      “It takes a village to raise. . .”

  • I am all for individual life, and individual liberty – those are my highest values. In that I align well with Ayn Rand.

    Where we part company is in how those values are best served.

    i am clear that cooperation is the most powerful way to serve those values.
    And I am clear that Axelrod demonstrated that raw cooperation is always vulnerable to cheating, and requires secondary strategies to prevent cheats from dominating and destroying the cooperative. Arguably, many of those who control the flows of capital in today’s world can be characterised as using cheating strategies to do so, however lawful those strategies happen to be.

    When one looks at human behaviour modes, and the sorts of circumstances that evolution has encountered over deep time, in both the genetic and cultural senses, then two major modalities become very clear (with infinite variations and gradations possible between).

    In times of real scarcity, severe famine, the survival could come down to defending a very small group, as the situation meant that there was only enough food for a very few of the total population to survive. Such situations are sufficiently frequent for this to be a major modality – large scale volcanism, climate change, major weather shifts, can all produce such events reasonably frequently. So we would expect to see all humans with a tendency to revert to very close in-group cooperation, and active hostility to out-groups, in times of severe stress. This is one possible stable modality, and it need not be universal, and it is stable.

    Much more common over deep time has been times of relative stability, and relative abundance, where wider cooperation delivers extra benefits for all. Specialisation and trade allows for the development of every greater complexity, right up to the point that such things can deliver total automation of production and distribution – which completely changes the incentive structures (we are not quite there yet, and we are very close, if we choose that path).

    So we find ourselves is a very complex environment, of many different paradigms of understanding, and many different modes of social interaction.

    It is complex, in the deepest sense of complexity theory.
    And at the same time, it has the possibility of the most profound benefit, if we can make the leap to a new level of cooperation, that empowers every individual to do whatever they responsibly choose (within a context of respect for the life and liberty of every other individual), by delivering a set of technologies to every individual, that empower them to produce and use whatever they choose (within reasonable limits of energy budgets and effects on other individuals and the environment that we all share). The forms of social arrangement possible are infinite. Diversity must be respected.

    We have the option of such abundance.

    None of the alternatives look very appealing to me. Robin Hansen spells the most likely alternatives quite clearly.

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  • Corey Rusko

    I think this argument says enough for itself by looking at societies from either thousands of years ago or modern day but undeveloped tribes, and saying that this is a model that is legitimate in the 21st century.

    “You look upon money as the savages did before you, and you wonder why the jungle is creeping back to the edge of your cities.”
    – Francisco d’Anconia, Atlas Shrugged

  • Fábio Queiroz

    Hey, could we translate this article and publish it in the Brazilian Zeitgeist Movement Blog? (https :// blog. movimentozeitgeist. com. br) I loved this article and we think this could help us spread the idea amongst the brazilians who can’t speak english.

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  • Victor

    Thanks to the blog “Savage Minds” I found this very interesting, instructive and inspiring essay. Thank you. For several years now, I’ve been doing research on “deep history,” focused on some striking connections I’ve found between the worldwide distribution of indigenous musical styles and the findings of population genetics, and I’ve come to some very similar conclusions regarding our cultural roots and the origins of both altruism and violence. I’ve done a lot of writing on this topic that might interest you — particularly my blog Music 000001, which can be found here: (skip to some of the earlier posts), and my book “Sounding the Depths,” which can be purchased here: (the Kindle version is to be preferred). Here’s a relevant excerpt from the concluding chapter:

    (quoting Mark Perry, a conservative economist) “Without competition, centrally planned economies do not have an effective incentive structure to coordinate economic activity.” Thus, “Without incentives the results are a spiraling cycle of poverty and misery.”

    Yet, as has been clear to those who have studied the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa, their remarkable societies appear, through most of their history, to have lived collectively, sharing goods on an equal basis, shunning competition, and yet managing to survive peacefully and harmoniously among themselves, for the most part, with little if any trace of regimentation or coercion, for what now appears to have been literally tens of thousands of years!

    Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, in her book The Old Way (Thomas 2007), writes with glowing admiration of the !Kung Bushmen’s “almost obsessive sense of equality and sharing. . . In daily matters, sharing was the way of life. Everybody shared” (p. 108). If sharing can be a way of life for societies that have flourished for tens of thousands of years, then a need for personal incentives based on competition cannot be grounded in “human nature.” And if life in the Kalahari desert, where Bushmen groups have survived for centuries at least, is marked by extreme scarcity of both food and water, then Perry’s assertion that “In a world of scarcity it is essential for an economic system to be based on a clear incentive structure to promote economic efficiency” cannot be true.

    • ari9999

      Thanks for mentioning the !Kung of the Kalahari. The querky, delightful 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy gives us a sort-of peek into their way of thinking.

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  • A Critic

    “However, deep in the Ituri Forest was a man Ayn Rand might have felt a
    bond with. Cephu had a reputation as someone who valued himself above
    all others long before he decided to maximize his personal profit margin
    on the community hunt. As Turnbull found when talking to the Mbuti
    tribesmen, Cephu never joined the rest of the group at breakfast
    whenever they strategized about where to set their nets. He would simply
    follow along once the decision had been made. To make matters worse, he
    was often loud and would frighten the animals away before they got
    close to the trap. Whenever he did get his share of the community meat,
    he would always take it to his own campsite rather than eat with
    everyone else (and could sometimes be heard yelling insults at the main
    camp once he was there).”

    Cephu only looks out for Cephu. He takes advantage of the decisions and actions of the tribe. This is made clear from in which he poaches the game being hunted by the tribe.

    This is not the same thing as a John Galt. The Ayn Rand hero model involves 1) vastly superior productivity 2) that benefits the community.

    This is a strawman argument. An anti-social asshole and parasite is not the same thing as a genius and leader. Nice try though!

  • ari9999

    I love cultural anthropologists’ observation that gossip is essentially society’s glue. Gives me a newfound admiration for People Mag and supermarket tabloids! 🙂

  • Fred

    “However, just as it is in our society, the negotiation between the individual and the group is always a work in progress.”

    “Work in progress” has a little bit of that Kumbaya quality that is so typical of cultural anthropology. Perhaps selfishness and altruism are both tools that are required in the human toolkit and both will continue to be preserved.

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