Ayn Rand’s Anthropological Insights

In the introduction to her seminal work The Fountainhead, Rand comments that in her opinion the greatest failing of man is the loss of the spirit of youth, of giving up. She writes:

“Then all of these [men] vanish into the vast swamp of their elders who tell them persistently that maturity consists of abandoning one’s own mind; security, of abandoning one’s values; practicality, of losing self-esteem. Yet a few hold on and move on, knowing that the fire is not to be betrayed, learning how to give it shape, purpose and reality.”

The Fountainhead

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From the bright flash of youth there are, according to Rand, two paths to take. Reach for fulfillment or slowly give up. The latter of these paths seems to be the one that is far more traveled, but why? What benefits do these men stand to gain by succumbing to the seemingly poor advice of their elders?

From an anthropological point of view, those that give up may be able to increase their reproductive success by fitting in with their social group. Research has shown that conforming to social norms and group identity can increase individual success (see: Conforming to Social Norms). At is simplest, conformity supports group unity and cooperation, giving members a better chance to access resources and find mates. While it seems that they are “giving up” the endless possibilities of their own future, they may in fact be ensuring that they have a future with their social group and access to a mate. There is an inverse relationship between success and what is known as costly signals. Costly signals are behaviors or rituals that have a negative cost to the person in some way. The more costly the signals are the greater the rewards in terms of individual success and the greater degree of stability the group will enjoy. According to these phenomena of human behavior, many people may see that there is much to be gained by giving up one’s mind, values and self-esteem. The costly signals will allow them to reach the American dream, but none of their own.

Conversely, what of those who hold on? What, and how, do they stand to gain in terms of success? Electing to reject the norms of the group and strike out on one’s own could be seen as risky behavior. However, research has shown that risky behavior has its own rewards for individual success. We are a male-bonded society and group status is intricately linked with success. Risky behavior can elevate a person’s group status and give them an edge in intra- and intersexual competition.

Perhaps in this example there is a twinkling of the interaction between genes and memes. The obvious genetic desire for reproductive success comes into contact with the cultural and social route used to attain those desires.

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