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I have read critiques of the Objectivist ethics from an evolutionary perspective that say that it is in violation of the facts of biological reality. These critics say that Rand based her ethics on an Aristotelian meta-biology and not a Darwinian one. Thus for Aristotle, the teleology of an oak tree, the reason the tree exists, is the full grown tree. But Aristotle's biology has been replaced by Darwin's, in which an oak tree is an acorn's way of making more acorns.

The criticism is that Rand is wrong in one of her basic statements about life. She says that every function of a living organism is directed toward a single goal: the organism's survival. But this isn't true. Living organisms have reproductive organs, and the functioning of those organs is not directed to the organism's survival. Most living organisms spend a significant part of their lives living for the sake of something that will happen when they are no longer there to care about it, that something being the survival and reproduction of their descendants.

Thus the characteristics of living organisms are best explained by reproduction, not by survival. It is argued that this fact seriously undermines if not destroys the Objectivist ethics.

asked Jan 11 '11 at 05:04

garret09's gravatar image


edited Jan 11 '11 at 09:38

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦


I think there are a few things that need to be clarified here. First, there is a big difference between all other organisms and human beings. Ayn Rand's philosophy applies only to man.

Second, a living organism exists because living organisms reproduce. It does not follow that an organism exists to reproduce. Reproduction explains my existence but does not define my purpose.

Finally, most parents value their children for who they are, not because they will pass on their DNA.

I believe you are confusing the facts of biology with the purpose of life.

(Jan 11 '11 at 22:30) Donovan Donovan's gravatar image

Ayn Rand certainly recognized that reproduction is an essential distinguishing characteristic of living entities. In Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, she observed that an "organism" is an "entity possessing the capacities of internally generated action, of growth through metabolism, and of reproduction." [ITOE, 2nd Ed., Chapter 3, p. 24hc]

Note, however, that reproduction is only one essential distinguishing characteristic of living organisms. Is it the most dominant or important characteristic? Ayn Rand evidently didn't think so:

On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex -- from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of man -- are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism's life. [VOS Chap. 1, p. 6hc]

One may argue that this passage overstates the role of "internally generated action" and "growth through metabolism," as compared to "reproduction." But observe that Ayn Rand is describing organisms in general, here. When we focus specifically on man, we find that man's actions are, first of all, open to his power of conscious choice (free will), and that there is no objective necessity for man, i.e., all men, to engage in reproductive action. In fact, even in many nonhuman species it is very common for only a relatively small percentage of the population to engage in reproductive actions. All that is needed for species perpetuation is a sufficient number of reproductive individuals, not the entire population. Reproductive opportunity is often a kind of "ultimate reward" for survival efficacy, open only to the most efficacious. And those nonhuman organisms that do reproduce, do it automatically, not by any conscious (free) choice (if the organism is conscious at all, i.e., an animal).

Man does not engage in reproductive action automatically. Since reproduction is open to man's power of choice, man can ask (and needs to ask): Why should I do it? What for? The answer for any particular individual isn't necessarily "for nothing," but man needs a reason for anything he chooses to do. The ultimate reason, certainly in man's case, is "to live." Many people do find great joy in having children and helping them to grow and develop. But it's entirely an individual choice, not any kind of moral obligation (other than accepting responsibility for the consequences of one's choices).

If it is claimed that there is some other factor in reality that somehow requires man to reproduce, against his will, what is it? Reason identifies no such factor, and denies that man should believe in any kind of factor for which there is no evidence of its existence. Even if the alleged "factor" is some "force from above," why should man on earth care about it? If there is some kind of "eternal afterlife," perhaps, man might have a reason to heed the supposed or imagined "force from above" (again in order to live -- in the other dimension if not on earth); but reason denies that there is any evidence of any such thing and therefore concludes that there is no reason to believe in it. Earthly life, on the other hand, is here now, directly perceivable, with no need for faith instead of evidence.

If it is claimed that "perpetuation of humankind" is a reason for individual humans to reproduce, why? Why should man be moved by a supposed "duty" to "do one's part for humanity" by reproducing? For man, reproduction is completely optional. Objectivism regards it as neither bad nor good (depending on the context of one's life). And normally enough humans do it anyway so that the human species is in no danger of becoming extinct anytime soon.

I would conclude, then, that even if Ayn Rand did understate the significance of reproduction for other species (or certain species), that in no way undermines her conclusions about man -- nor about the great importance of "internally generated action" and "growth through metabolism" as well as "reproduction" even in species where reproduction may play a greater driving role than for man.

Many readers of Ayn Rand's discussion of man's survival qua man as his standard of value may assume that Ayn Rand's answer to why man should adopt that standard is something like: because all other species act that way. The essence of her answer, however, is that (a) man has a choice about what to believe and act on, and (b) life or death is the most fundamental, all-encompassing alternative that can give any human being a reason for acting, particularly life in fully human form (man's life qua man). She also points out that morality of any kind presupposes (implicitly if not explicitly) that its intended adherents are living human entities seeking to remain alive, and she observes further that only those who are life-seeking would have any reason to be concerned about morality (or to be affected by it) at all. (If one doesn't choose to live, one is free to die and will die sooner or later, as his body's automatic functions eventually cease functioning. If, for no possible rational reason, a death-chooser goes on a rampage against the living, like some kind of monstrous wild animal, it is no contradiction for the life-seekers to defend themselves, summarily granting the death-chooser's stated wish if necessary.)

answered Jan 11 '11 at 23:42

Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

Ideas for Life ♦

Dr. Harry Binswanger answered these questions very specifically in his book The Biological Basis for Teleological Concepts. You (or the critique you have read) are misconstruing the concept of "goal direction action" and the "purpose" of life.

answered Jan 13 '11 at 00:29

John%20Hoffman's gravatar image

John Hoffman ♦

edited Jan 13 '11 at 09:00


For those who are curious, Harry Binswanger's main discussion of reproduction appears in Chapter 9 of his book, The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts. The chapter is titled, "Objections II," and subtitled "Is Reproductive Fitness, Not Survival, Selection's Goal?" His analysis is "multi-generational," i.e., it focuses on what is common from one generation of a particular type of living organism to the next generation of the same type. The analysis focuses on "genotype" ("gene allele") as the common factor between generations.

The analysis explains that there are two possible perspectives on genetic natural selection: the "survival" perspective, in which reproduction is the means for individuals to produce more individuals, and the "reproduction" perspective, in which an individual is the means for reproduction to produce further reproduction. The analysis then observes that the two perspectives are equivalent, and concludes:

What genetic selection favors is the chain of causation as a whole -- i.e., the perpetuation of organisms of a certain genetic type. The difference [between "survival" perspective and "reproduction" perspective] concerns only whether this fact is to be summarized under the heading of "life" or "reproduction." But in reality, each goal contains the other: every living organism was produced through a successful act of reproduction, and every successful act of reproduction is performed by an organism that is alive and produces an organism that lives. To promote reproduction is to promote the formation of living descendents. [pp. 155-6]
Hence reproduction is goal-directed by the individual-survival concept of genetic selection: reproduction is a self-generated action caused by the survival value to the agent of past instances of the goal. The goal here is the production of viable descendents; the past instances of the goal are the past instances of the production of viable descendents -- including the production of the organism now engaging in reproductive actions. [pp. 156-7]

Is the "reproduction" perspective better than the "survival" perspective? Harry Binswanger explains:

...there are good grounds for the position that the ultimate basis of genetic selection may be viewed either as reproductive success or individual survival, the two being merely different perspectives on the same fact: differential perpetuation of alternative genetic units. ... For a number of reasons, including simplicity and the fact that the concept of "reproduction" depends on the concept of "life," I prefer to view genetic selection from the standponit of survival rather than reproduction, and this is the perspective I have adopted in this book. (I do not presume to suggest, however, that the survival viewpoint is preferable in biological inquiry -- the choice of perspectives there is best judged by the biologists themselves.) [pp. 158-159]

The next section of Dr. Binswanger's analysis discusses the difference between genotype perpetuation and the survival of a species or group, rejecting the latter view as a teleological cause of reproductive action. An entire species or group may be comprised of multiple differing genetic types, for instance, and certainly vast numbers of different ancestral lines.

Comparing this analysis to Ayn Rand's statement in TOE (which I quoted in the answer that I posted previously for this question), I find the following statement in OPAR highly significant:

The alternative with which reality confronts a living organism is its own life or death. The goal is self-preservation.

Leaving aside reproduction, to which every organism owes its existence, this is the goal of all automatic biological processes and actions. [pp. 230-1]

In other words, the goal (teleological cause) of reproduction by a nonhuman living organism is not the organism's own survival, but the propagation of descendents of the same genetic type. It is the multi-generational genotype perspective that explains the reproductive capacity in individuals and the exercise of that capacity by living organisms other than man. (Man does not reproduce automatically, but has a choice about doing it or not).

(Jan 14 '11 at 03:07) Ideas for Life ♦ Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

That is an awesome clarification!

(Jan 14 '11 at 08:44) John Hoffman ♦ John%20Hoffman's gravatar image

The characteristics of species of organisms are best explained by reproduction. That is not the same thing as the characteristics of organisms per se.

But, considering the first statement, ask yourself: what else would be exhibited? Define a group according to its ability to breed (species), and then abstract the invariant features of that group over time, and what will you get? You'll get what is the result of reproduction!

It should be noted that Darwin's concern was not with life as such, but with the appearance of and relations among different types of organism. The application of a theory of the origin of species to life per se is, on the face of it a category mistake. Confounding that by taking it to define the proper grounds of a theory of ethics is philosophically naive.

answered Jan 13 '11 at 00:35

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦

To say that reproduction is the goal of reproduction surely strikes most readers as absurd. We don't make a photocopy of something because it IS a photocopy of something, but because we want to preserve it itself.

Lives come to an end. Except for their relation to their own offspring, they are fully finished and absent when death occurs. (That is precisely the basis of Rand's emphasis on life as the basis of ethics.) The fact that from the third-person point of view, their belonging to a species which is identifiable across time--across the deaths of innumerable individuals--is the sole remaining evidence of their existence does not imply that it was of primary importance in that existence.

The fact that being a member of a species explains their coming into existence, or being the form of organism that they are, plays no role in setting the priorities logical to that existence. That the priorities of the individual will or will not result in the survival of the species is, (if it could be,) important only in the continuance of the species.

Evolution draws a parallel between the "life" of a species and the life of an individual, in that a species is shown, via the theory of evolution, to come into and possibly go out of existence. Within that analogy, it is reproduction that plays, in the "life" of the species, the role of production, (or the pursuit of rational self-interest,) in an individual man's life. This parallel would seem to be the basis of the present claims about the relevance of Darwinian evolutionary theory to ethics.

The development of, differences between, extinction of, and mechanisms pertaining to species are not true of individuals per se. They only operate and pertain at the level of groups of organisms.

It might help to speculate that there were no species at all. Reproduction was the result of the behavior of some organisms, or we divided like amoeba do, whatever. The fact that life is vulnerable would remain in force, and the necessity for the individual organism to act to sustain its life remains, and thus the Objectivist basis for ethics remains.

answered Jan 15 '11 at 21:44

Mindy%20Newton's gravatar image

Mindy Newton ♦

edited Jan 15 '11 at 22:04

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Asked: Jan 11 '11 at 05:04

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Last updated: Jan 15 '11 at 22:04