Ratha (papertygre) wrote,

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Pleasure, Altruism, and Geekhood

I was reviewing my quote buffer today (the text file I keep quotes in until I can get them into the database) and found one that seemed to directly address the pleasure burnout I posted about recently:
A chronic lack of pleasure, of any enjoyable, rewarding or stimulating experiences, produces a slow, gradual, day-by-day erosion of man's emotional vitality, which he may ignore or repress, but which is recorded by the relentless computer of his subconscious mechanism that registers an ebbing flow, then a trickle, then a few last drops of fuel -- until the day when his inner motor stops and he wonders desperately why he has no desire to go on, unable to find any definable cause of his hopeless, chronic sense of exhaustion.
Guess who wrote this? The use of "man" and "his" for a generic person is a clue. It's Ayn Rand, from The Voice of Reason. I was surprised.

I was thinking about Randian egoism the other day when I read an article in the Scientific American: Mind magazine I picked up last week. There's an article called "The Samaritan Paradox" about group selection and how that evolutionary model is gaining scientific currency after being eschewed for the last 40 years. Here's a link to the online preview of the piece (if anyone wants to read the whole thing let me know). The nutshell version is: For years it's been puzzling to scientists why people help other people, often strangers. Humans are the only species that will help other humans who are not related to them, when no reward is returned. One solution proposed to this was the idea that there was "group selection," where a group of humans who all acted altruistically would, together, have increased genetic fitness. But this was argued down because, it was supposed, a renegade egoist entering the group would quickly break down any advantage by free-riding on the others' altruism, and eventually the egoists would outnumber the altruists, ergo group selection couldn't possibly have worked to evolve altrustic behavior. But recent studies and computer models have suggested that group selection actually may have been possible due to a punishing behavior evolving along with the altruism. As a study related in the article demonstrates, humans who observe other humans acting selfishly will sometimes punish them, even when it costs them to do so and they derive no personal benefit. This may have caused infiltrating egoists, in the evolutionary scenario above, to be singled out and castigated for their free-riding, which would give them two choices: leave, or imitate the altruists. Before long, so the argument goes, the egoists-in-altruistic-disguise either would have become true altruists, or else have been marginalized and cowed to the point where they were practically eliminated.

If this is right, it seems to actually vindicate Rand's crazy conspiracy-theorist views. That is, evolutionarily speaking, an egoist in a human culture really is likely to be persecuted and marginalized. And at the same time, it shows that Rand's views really are crazy: an egoist in a world such as ours would be an aberrant individual, a relic of a failed genetic strategy, a mutant.

Even though in our world it's no longer a failed strategy. One can be a moral egoist just as one can be a moral atheist. In our time, in our culture, one can cooperate or go it alone, just as one pleases, without necessarily becoming a free-rider. In fact, failure to be preoccupied with other people can have its positive attributes. The asocial types of our time are often the artists, the rocket scientists, and the computer programmers: people who contribute a huge amount of value to society, who figure stuff out, who keep the works running and make them better. But to pursue these interests intensively, to the point of geekhood and perhaps even to the point of excellence, frequently means to fail to pursue relationships. As Paul Graham put it, "Nerds serve two masters. They want to be popular, certainly, but they want even more to be smart. . . . [In social matters, t]hey're like someone trying to play soccer while balancing a glass of water on his head. Other players who can focus their whole attention on the game beat them effortlessly and wonder why they seem so incapable."
Tags: culture, economics, geek, psychology, rant

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