My father, Sloan Wilson, wrote novels that would help define 1950s America. I loved and admired him, but the prospect of following in the footsteps of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and A Summer Place was like being expected to climb Mount Everest. My love of nature provided an alternative path. I would become an ecologist, spending my days researching plants and animals, which fascinated me since the summers I spent as a boy at Lake George and a magical boarding school in the Adirondack mountains.
Little did I know that by heading away from the madding crowd of humanity and my father’s vocation, I would end up writing a sequel to another famous novel of the 1950s—Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. But don’t get me wrong. I’m no Rand acolyte. I’m not here to praise her ideas but to bury them.
Even if you never read Atlas Shrugged or anything else by Rand, you probably know the names and what they stand for: The sanctity of the individual and the pursuit of self-interest as the highest moral ideal. Rand constructed an entire philosophy around this called Objectivism, which she claimed could be fully justified by rationality and science. But it was through fiction that she reached her largest audience, with Atlas Shrugged selling over 7 million copies and still widely read. She wisely noted that “Art is the essential medium for the communication of a moral ideal.”
The hero of Atlas Shrugged is John Galt, a supremely self-confident inventor. He has figured out a way to turn static electricity into an inexhaustible source of clean energy. But Galt and his kind are living in an America veering toward the kind of ham-fisted socialism that Rand escaped when she immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1926. Galt brings about a rebellion of the “producers” of the world, like the mythical Atlas shrugging the earth from his shoulders, so that the “looters” and “moochers” can be brought to their senses. The centerpiece of the novel is a speech that Galt delivers to the world by taking over the airwaves with his technical prowess.
Whether conveyed through philosophy or fiction, Rand’s worldview couldn’t function as a moral system if the pursuit of self-interest didn’t end up benefiting the common good. That’s where the invisible hand of the market comes in, a metaphor that was used only three times by Adam Smith in his voluminous writing, but was elevated to the status of a fundamental theorem by economists such as Milton Friedman and put into practice by Rand acolyte Alan Greenspan, who served as Chair of the United States Federal Reserve Board from 1987 to 2006.
Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Everything of value can be represented as a dollar value and therefore can be compared to anything else of value by their relative prices. Making money is the surest way to provide value to people because the best way to make money is to provide what people are most willing to pay for. The system works so well that no other form of care toward others is required. No empathy. No loyalty. No forgiveness. Thanks to the market, the old-fashioned virtues have been rendered obsolete. That’s why Milton Friedman could make his famous claim in 1970 that the only social responsibility of a business is to maximize profits for its shareholders. In Ayn Rand’s fictional rendering, the word “give” is banned from the vocabulary of the Utopian community founded by John Galt, whose members must recite the oath: “I swear by my life and love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.”
My sequel to Atlas Shrugged is titled Atlas Hugged and its protagonist is John Galt’s grandson. Ayn Rand was not a character in her novel, but since anything goes in fiction, I could transport her into mine as Ayn Rant, John I’s lover and John III’s grandmother. Rant’s son, John II, parlays her Objectivist philosophy into a world-destroying libertarian media empire. John III rebels against the evil empire by challenging his father to a duel of speeches. In the process, he brings about a worldwide transformation based on giving. Atlas Hugged is so anti-Rand that it isn’t even being sold. Instead, it is gifted for whatever the reader wishes to give in return. Eat your heart out, Amazon!
How did someone running away from his famous father into the woods end up in a position to critique Ayn Rand and neoliberal economics? By becoming an ecologist, I did not escape the kind of Individualism that pervaded Rand’s thinking. Instead, I encountered it in a different form: The dogma that organisms never evolve to behave “for the good of the group,” but only for the good of themselves and their selfish genes. This conclusion had been reached with such certainty when I entered graduate school in 1971 that only a fool would challenge it. “For the good of the group” thinking belonged on the same dust heap of history as a flat earth, Lamarckism, and Phlogiston theory.
Later, when I began to study topics such as religion from an evolutionary perspective, I discovered that Individualism pervaded all of the social sciences, not just economics. It was called Methodological Individualism, as the most practical way to study all aspects of human society, regardless of its philosophical underpinnings. In short, Individualism is a far bigger beast than Ayn Rand. She gave voice to it, but it would be just as strong if she never existed.
Individualism has long historical roots but didn’t become dominant in Western thought until the second half of the 20th century. Before then, it was common to think of society as a kind of organism in its own right, complete with a group mind. Individuals played their appointed roles in the social organism, but the whole society was the center of analysis. According to the Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner, “almost every early social theorist we now recognize as a contributor to modern social psychology held a similar view.”1
So, something happened around the middle of the 20th century that resulted in a sea change of thinking, from “society as an organism” to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip “there is no such thing as society” in 1987. When I encountered it as a budding ecologist in the early 1970s, it offended my sensibilities. My father was an atheist and my mother called herself an agnostic, but both were warm, nurturing people who taught me to do unto others. The characters in my father’s novels always try to do well by each other, even when they fail. I suspect that I am also an empath by nature. I don’t remember it myself, but my mother told me that when her marriage to my father was heading toward divorce, I followed her around saying “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” as if everything rested on my slim shoulders.
Even though I became a biologist to escape my father’s shadow, I did not escape the allure of making a name for myself—and what better way than to show that behaviors can evolve “for the good of the group” after all? Perhaps this, along with wanting to explain what seemed intuitive to my empathic nature, accounts for why I became that fool that rushes in. I would challenge Individualism in evolutionary biology.
What I discovered, even before entering graduate school, is that Darwin provided a perfectly good explanation for how behaviors can evolve for the good of the group. To understand its logic, imagine playing the game of Monopoly, where the object is to buy up all the real estate and drive everyone else bankrupt. Suppose that I were to offer you 1,000 extra monopoly dollars at the beginning of a game. You would thank me and use the money to your advantage. Experiments like this have actually been conducted and the entitled players flaunt their wealth, making more noise when moving their pieces and attributing their success to their prowess and not their luck.2
Now suppose that I offer you 1,000 extra Monopoly dollars, subject to the constraint that every other player gets 2,000 dollars. You would wisely turn me down because the game of Monopoly is all about relative advantage. It doesn’t matter how much money you have; only that you have more than the other players. There is no such thing as enough money in the game of Monopoly.
Relative advantage is also the name of the game in evolution. In any group of socially interacting individuals, those that extend benefits to others or to their group as a whole—who in a word behave prosocially—place themselves at a relative disadvantage, compared to those who passively accept social benefits without providing them (free-riding) or actively exploit other members of their group.
Continuing our thought experiment, imagine playing in a Monopoly tournament, where the trophy goes to the team that collectively develops its real estate the fastest. Nearly every decision that you make as a team player in a Monopoly tournament will be different than playing a single game of Monopoly. There will be a burst of conversation as you discuss strategy together. You will pool your money, divide labor, and so on. There will be cheers, hugs, and high fives if you win. This transformation is accomplished by adding a layer of between-group competition on top of within-group competition. In the case of a Monopoly tournament, between-group competition completely overrides within-group competition because there is no advantage to beating a teammate. And needless to say, a Monopoly tournament provides no context for cooperation among teams. For that, we would need to add another layer of competition among teams of teams.
What my Monopoly example makes intuitive dawned upon Darwin only gradually. At first, he thought that competition among individuals could explain all examples of design that had been attributed to a creator. Then he realized that prosocial behaviors—anything that requires time, energy, and risk on behalf of others or one’s group as a whole—were a glaring exception. Finally, he realized that by adding a layer of selection among groups in a multi-group population to selection among individuals within each group, he could explain the evolution of prosocial behaviors after all. We know that the awareness dawned on him gradually because we can track it by the changes that he made in successive editions of his books.3
In a sense, I was a fool rushing in to explain how behaviors can evolve “for the good of the group” in the 1970s, since Darwin had done my work for me. Then why had his theory of between-group selection been so soundly rejected?
There is one big difference between my Monopoly example and what takes place in nature. In a Monopoly tournament, competition among teams completely overrides competition among individuals within teams. In nature, both levels of selection usually operate simultaneously. Sometimes within-group selection is the stronger force, resulting in nasty brutish behaviors such as killing the babies of others to have one’s own babies. At other times between-group selection is the stronger force, resulting in cooperative behaviors such as collective defense of a group’s offspring. It all depends on the balance between levels of selection.
In some respects, the received wisdom of the 1970s was to accept the logic of within- and between-group selection but to argue that in practice, within-group selection is invariably the stronger force. If this were true, then nature would be a horror show. When it comes to the behaviors that evolve by within-group selection, there is no invisible hand to permute selfishness into the common good. As George C. Williams, one of the main critics of group selection put it, “Mother Nature is a wicked old witch.”4Nautilus
In other respects, the received wisdom of the 1970s was a repackaging of prosocial behaviors so that they fit into a narrative of selfishness. Helping kin became helping my genes in the bodies of my kin. Reciprocal behaviors became scratching your back so that you’ll scratch mine. According to Richard Dawkins, everything that evolves is an example of gene selfishness, but somehow this results in individual organisms and even whole groups that qualify as “vehicles” of selection. In this fashion, theories that were framed in terms of self-interest gave back with one hand what they seemed to take away with the other. Part of my work as the fool rushing in was to establish that all theories of social evolution must reflect the logic of multilevel selection. They all must acknowledge that social interactions take place in groups that are small compared to the total evolving population; that prosocial individuals have a relative fitness disadvantage within groups; and that some process of selection among groups is required for prosocial behaviors to evolve.
Against this background in the 1970s, with differences of opinion reflecting differences of perspective as much as the invocation of different causal processes, another renegade biologist named Lynn Margulis made a radical proposal: Nucleated cells, which are much more complex than bacterial cells, did not evolve by small mutational steps from bacterial cells. Instead, they evolved as symbiotic communities of bacteria, which became so cooperative that they qualified as higher-level “superorganisms” in their own right.
The idea that individuals are highly cooperative groups of lower-level agents is a game changer. Recall that the tradition of Individualism seemed to replace the previous tradition of treating society as an organism in its own right. If individuals are themselves a society of organisms, then what’s wrong with considering their own societies as organisms, at least when certain conditions are met? The very concepts of “organism” and “society” have merged!
As if Margulis’s proposal for nucleated cells was not radical enough, the concept of groups permuting into organisms was generalized by two theoretical biologists, John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary in the 1990s. Maynard Smith was an early critic of group selection but was happy to describe Major Evolutionary Transitions (METs), as they came to be called, in terms of multilevel selection. Most groups do not qualify as organisms because of disruptive behaviors that evolve by within-group selection. The balance between levels of selection is not static, however, but can itself evolve. When mechanisms evolve that suppress the potential for disruptive within-group selection, then between-group selection becomes the dominant evolutionary force and the group permutes into a superorganism. Maynard Smith and Szathmary invoked METs to explain not only the evolution of nucleated cells, but the evolution of multicellular organisms, social insect colonies, and even the origin of life as groups of cooperative molecular reactions.
Then the concept of METs started to make sense of human evolution. Despite sharing 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, there is a night-and-day difference in the degree of cooperation. Naked aggression is over 100 times more frequent in chimp communities than in small-scale human communities. The reason is due primarily to social control. Bullies get their way in chimp society but are usually effectively opposed in small-scale human societies and have been for a very long time. Our moral psychology can even be regarded as an immune system that protects against “cancerous” bullying and other disruptively self-serving behaviors.
Now, as we pass the one-fifth mark of the 21st century, nearly everything distinctive about our species can be seen as a form of cooperation, made possible by a MET. That includes our capacity for symbolic thought, which enables us to encode and transmit large bodies of learned information across generations—largely in the form of stories. Genetic evolution gave rise to cultural evolution, which is itself a multilevel process. From a pariah concept in the 1970s, multilevel selection theory has become a lens through which to view the entire pageant of human cultural diversity and history, leading up to the nearly 200 nation states that carve up the planet today—and perhaps even offering a blueprint for cooperation at the global scale.
I was an eager participant in expanding the evolutionary view to include all things human. My 2002 book Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society defended the thesis that religious meaning systems are primarily group-level cultural adaptations. In essence, Emile Durkheim was right when he defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practice relative to sacred things … which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” The tradition of group-level functionalism that Durkheim initiated might be faulted for axiomatically treating societies as like organisms, for failing to explain how they got that way or the role of individual agency, but these were shortcomings that multilevel selection theory could address.
Starting with the great recession of 2008, I started to turn my attention to economics. By then I had co-founded the Evolution Institute, which gave me the capacity to hold conferences and workshops. At one of the workshops someone idly observed that since Rand had done so much to promote the beast of Individualism through fiction, shouldn’t someone be doing the same for our emerging multilevel worldview?
Within seconds, the title “Atlas Hugged” and the rudiments of the plotline flashed into my mind. I had never intended to return to my father’s vocation, but this story was too juicy to resist! Once the idea took hold, it refused to let me go. By day, I continued to be a scientist, rethinking everything associated with the words “human,” “culture,” and “policy” from an evolutionary perspective. By night, on airplanes, and in hotel rooms, I scribbled away at my novel. I discovered that writing fiction is a different beast than writing nonfiction. Months would go by when I didn’t have a chance to write anything. Then a new plot development would rise into my consciousness and I would think, “Of course! That’s how it must be!” My characters became as real to me as real people—and why not, since real people exist only as avatars in our minds?
Much as I have established myself as the anti-Rand, I have also learned to sympathize with her as a person. The target of my critique is Individualism in all its forms, not just her version. In Atlas Hugged, John Galt III comes to see his grandmother as an intrepid explorer who happened to have taken the wrong path. The tragedy is that the world is following in her footsteps and needs to be set on a better path. Like Rand, that is the objective of both my work as an intellectual (in her case a philosopher, in my case a scientist) and the fictional universe that I have created.
Stories are powerful because they are vehicles for imbibing moral worldviews. If the worldview of a story resonates with the reader, then the reader gobbles up the story and wishes to make it a reality. If there is dissonance, then the reader loses interest or actively hates the story. It is for this reason that no work of fiction is universally loved, no matter how well told. Others can judge my talents as a storyteller, but Atlas Hugged is arguably the first science-informed novel of the Post-Individualism Age.
David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and president of Prosocial World, a new spinoff of The Evolution Institute. His most recent nonfiction books are Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others, This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution, and Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups (with Paul W.B. Atkins and Steven C. Hayes). Atlas Hugged is available only on its website, where it is gifted for whatever the reader wishes to give in return and with all proceeds going to Prosocial World.
1. Wegner, D.M. Transactive memory: A contemporary analysis of the group mind. In Mullen, B. & Goethals, G.R. (Eds.) Theories of Group Behavior Springer-Verlag, New York, NY (1986).
2. Social psychologist Paul Piff describes his experiments in a TED talk titled “Does Money Make You Mean?”
3. See Chapter 2 of the philosopher of biology Elliott Sober’s book Did Darwin Write the Origin Backwards? Philosophical Essays on Darwin’s Theory (2010).
4. Williams, G.C. Mother nature is a wicked old witch. In Nitecki, M.H. & Nitecki, D.V. (Eds.) Evolutionary Ethics SUNY Press, Albany, NY (1993).