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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 154

David Sloan Wilson — Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III

In episode 154 of The Michael Shermer Show, Michael speaks with renowned evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson about individualism, objectivism, cooperation, altruism, and collective action problems, based on his new novel Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III — a devastating critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and its impact on the world.

Renowned evolutionary theorist David Sloan Wilson has ventured into fiction with his new novel Atlas Hugged, which begins: “Call me anything but John Galt. That is my name, but it is also the name of my father and grandfather. I am not like them and the world they created is not the one I desire. The III after my name does not sufficiently set me apart.”

With these words, famed scientist and nonfiction writer David Sloan Wilson launches a devastating critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and its impact on the world. Just as Rand advanced her ideas through fiction in addition to nonfiction, including her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, Wilson pursues his quarry into the fictional realm with the story of John Galt III, the grandson of the main protagonist of Rand’s novel, and his quest to defeat the Evil Empire constructed by his father, grandfather, and grandmother—Ayn Rant. Atlas Hugged is available only at AtlasHugged.world, where it is gifted, not sold, for whatever one wishes to give in return, with all proceeds going to Prosocial.world.

David Sloan Wilson, PhD, is president of The Evolution Institute, and SUNY distinguished professor of biology and anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity, in addition to the biological world. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral, Evolution for Everyone, The Neighborhood Project, and Does Altruism Exist?

Shermer and Wilson discuss:

  • how an evolutionary biologist comes to write a novel about economics and society,
  • the role of fiction and film in spreading ideas, good and bad,
  • empirical truths, pragmatic truths, mythic truths,
  • Why don’t liberals/progressives/feminists like Rand? She is a woman, an immigrant from an oppressed minority (Jewish), created strong independent woman who ran major corporations and enjoyed successful professional careers. Is the politics stronger than the identity in Identity Politics?
  • individualism vs. collectivism,
  • the nature of human nature: in addition to being selfish, competitive, and greedy, we also harbor a great capacity for altruism, cooperation, and charity,
  • collective action problems and how they are solved in the real world,
  • how small groups best operate and how to scale that up to whole societies,
  • Can the nation-state endure as presently structured?
  • the good and bad sides of capitalism,
  • income inequality: how much is too much? Where do you draw the line?
  • similarities between Objectivism and Christianity,
  • veridical perception and the distortion of reality. From Atlas Hugged:

    “Is it possible to actually prove that Rand’s creed of Objectivism is little different than a religion such as Christianity in its reliance on adaptive fictions? A hallmark of adaptive fictions is that they portray a world without messy tradeoffs, as if the only choice is between a path to glory and a path to ruin.”

Dr. Wilson’s critique of Objectivism (from Atlas Hugged):

Harm in the world is seldom caused by evil people. It is caused by normal people trying to tell right from wrong by peering through a tissue of lies. That’s what you discovered for your Christian faith and what I discovered for Objectivism.

Dr. Shermer’s critique of Objectivism (from Why People Believe Weird Things):

The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics. Nathaniel Branden, Rand’s chosen intellectual heir, where he listed the central tenets to which followers were to adhere, including: “Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived. Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world. Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth. No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns. No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.”

Dr. Wilson’s vision of the future (from Atlas Hugged):

Laissez faire and centralized planning, the two main modes of governing, were both doomed to failure. A new path needed to be blazed that didn’t fall into any current political or economic camp. The beacon to follow was the concept of society as an organism and the way to get there was through a managed process of cultural evolution.

Dr. Wilson asked Dr. Shermer what people find inspiring about Atlas Shrugged. He answered with this passage from Galt’s speech:

In the name of the best within you, do not sacrifice this world to those who are its worst. In the name of the values that keep you alive, do not let your vision of man be distorted by the ugly, the cowardly, the mindless in those who have never achieved his title. Do not lose your knowledge that man’s proper estate is an upright posture, an intransigent mind and a step that travels unlimited roads. Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.

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