The Secret of Life
A review of David Sloan Wilson's "Atlas Hugged."
Posted March 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Some folks think of Darwin's ideas on natural selection and evolution as promoting a dog-eat-dog, red-in-tooth-and-claw vision of life. After all, at the core of Darwinian natural selection is the foundational idea that features of organisms that are effective at promoting their own replication are more likely to exist into the future compared with alternative features. So an adaptation that helps an individual organism survive (often at a cost to members of its own species) is likely to spread into future populations. In this way, the evolution of life might be thought of as having an every organism for itself quality to it.
As famously popularized by Richard Dawkins' (1976) The Selfish Gene, there is actually a lot to be said for this nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw conception of evolution.
For decades now, renowned evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has cut against the grain when it comes to the question of whether evolutionary processes necessarily preclude the evolution of traits that facilitate what we may think of as goodness or other-orientedness (see Wilson, 2019). Across dozens of academic publications, in fact, Wilson has shown that in our own species, various forms of prosocial behaviors have evolved, largely in connection with many of the highly specific details regarding our own evolutionary history.
Ancestrally modern humans, unlike most mammals, evolved the capacity to form cooperative alliances with other humans. Often, such alliances cut across lines of kinship. And this tendency to form groups in this way (which Wilson has, at times, called groupishness) has opened the door for a kind of egalitarianism that is actually foundational to the human experience (see Erdal & Whiten, 1996).
There is, in fact, much reason to believe that the natural state of human social ecologies is much more egalitarian than it is hierarchical (see Bingham & Souza, 2009). As Wilson and others in the field have argued, social inequality, which is so dominant across many modern economies, is, in fact, not the modal form of wealth distribution that our ancestors evolved to experience. In his newest book, Atlas Hugged, David Sloan Wilson (2020) makes a compelling case that hyper-individualistic, free-market approaches to the economy have the capacity to cause all kinds of adverse consequences and, in fact, do not follow from an evolutionary approach to understanding the human condition.
As a stage for us to think about these ideas, Wilson has us consider Ayn Rand's (1957) famous novel Atlas Shrugged which, via the life of protagonist John Galt, which, in a sense, makes the case for an individualist, free-market approach to structuring society. In his first major foray into fiction writing, Wilson extends, using much creative license, Rand's plotline into the modern-day. In Atlas Hugged (very cleverly titled!), Wilson presents the grandson of Rand's protagonist, John Galt III, on a journey that makes the case for a kinder, gentler approach to society that has roots in evolutionary principles.
Are Humans Other-Oriented or Selfish?
The answer, of course, is both: Humans are both other-oriented and selfish. In fact, as I made the case in a recent post titled The Fundamental Human Conflict, given our unique evolutionary history, humans have a powerful combination of adaptations that benefit the self along with adaptations that benefit others, often at an immediate cost to oneself. And navigating this balance can be thought of as the fundamental human conflict.
Rand's portrait of humanity clearly focuses on the selfish side of the human evolutionary experience. I think it'd be fair to say that Wilson's portrait focuses, rather, on the other-oriented side of the human evolutionary experience.
Atlas Shrugged influenced an entire generation to adopt a selfish, highly individualistic take on how societies and economies should be structured. In Atlas Hugged, using an array of evolutionary concepts, Wilson is clearly trying to push the needle the other way.
John Galt III Meets Professor Howard Head
A fast-moving, dynamic, well-written novel, Atlas Shrugged tells the story of young John Galt III whose estranged father, John Galt II (the son of Rand's original John Galt) is a multi-billionaire. Young John attended a nature-based school in the Adirondack Mountains of New York and then went on to study at the University of Wyoming.
In his second semester of college, after flailing around a bit, John becomes intrigued by a particular biology professor, Dr. Howard Head, who has a reputation as quite a character on campus. Dr. Head was known for his work that extended beyond biology, having publications in fields such as psychology and history. He also had a reputation as having quite a following among students and was literally talked of as a cult leader.
Dr. Head, loosely based on Wilson himself (who holds a split position at Binghamton University in Biology and Anthropology and who has published on a broad range of human-related topics), offers a class for first-year students that is provocatively titled The Secret of Life. This class, loosely based on the course Evolution for Everyone (which Wilson developed himself about 20 years ago), presents the basic principles of evolution in a powerful and multi-faceted way, making the case that once you understand evolution, you understand the secret of life itself.
In Wilson's (2020, p. 59) words: "Darwin's theory of evolution provided a key for assembling the puzzle (of life) into one coherent picture."
As I experienced in my own education regarding evolutionary principles, young John Galt was astounded by the broad reach of evolution in helping to provide a framework that connected such disparate organisms as dandelions, Venus flytraps, crows, humans, butterflies, wasps, snakes, and more. In fact, Darwin's ideas literally provide a way to think about the entirety of life, including humans, in one single, fabulous frame.
Like many students in this fictitious version of the University of Wyoming, young John Galt gets bitten by the evolution bug.
Only Professor Head's version of evolution (much like David Sloan Wilson's version of evolution) presents a strong case for the natural evolution of other-oriented behavior in the human experience. This focus presents humans as naturally egalitarian and, I'd argue, socialistic, as a function of evolutionary processes taking place at multiple levels across thousands of generations of human evolutionary history.
Young John finds himself all-in and he ends up making it a foundational goal of his to help change society to adopt a kinder, more equal social structure. And he finds himself basing his values fully on evolutionary principles.
Fantastical Science Fiction
The book itself reads, to my mind, very much like a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The content generally runs as slightly exaggerated at all turns, captivating the reader throughout. And as in many classic Vonnegut novels, there is a major climactic event and provocative follow-up that get the reader to think deeply about the issues that are presented throughout the book. Plus, for good measure, there is a nice love story embedded in there! But I've said enough—I don't want to spoil it for you!
Which system best matches our evolved nature, free-market capitalism or egalitarian socialism? Years ago, in introducing the story of John Galt, Ayn Rand (1957) made the case that humans are born for capitalism. In introducing John Galt's grandson, John Galt III, highly renowned evolutionary biologist and scholar, David Sloan Wilson, presents quite a different answer to this question. Drawing on a broad range of evolutionary principles, Wilson makes the case that humans are, at the end of the day, best-suited for egalitarianism and, I'd say, socialism.
If you want a provocative take on how our economic and societal structures bear on our evolutionary history—told through the eyes of a master storyteller and evolutionary biologist—check out Atlas Hugged. It just might change the way you understand what it means to be human.
Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Erdal, D. & Whiten, A. (1996) "Egalitarianism and Machiavellian Intelligence in Human Evolution" in Mellars, P. & Gibadfson, K. (eds) Modelling the Early Human Mind. Cambridge MacDonald Monograph Series
Rand, A. (1957). Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
Wilson, D. S. (2019). This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution. Pantheon: New York.
Wilson, D. S. (2020). Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III. Redwood Publishing.