Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mankind's First Heroes

While reading the story of man’s evolution recently, I got a fresh perspective on how accurate Ayn Rand’s understanding of human nature was. I learnt that the earliest steps in mankind’s ascent from ‘ape-man’ to human consisted of the development of those very skills that Rand considered distinctly human.

According to this article, the first one in a book titled ‘Time’ (The Life Science Library – 2nd edition), the reason why even the most intelligent animals are a complete evolutionary plane below man is because they cannot project a future and act for it. They only act when an action is necessitated by an immediate impulse, need or threat. The earliest ancestors of man graduated from this level in gentle steps, but the most obvious indication that their mental skills had gone beyond what any animal possessed was when they developed the ability to make crude tools to prepare for a later hunt.

Think about it – this is probably the most significant step in the history of man’s development. Simply the act of sharpening crude stone pieces to make the earliest tools reveals that man’s ancestor had some knowledge of identity (the properties of a sharp stone make it more effective for a hunt) and causality (what happens when a sharp tool hits an animal). However, when he learnt to make his tools in the evening for the next day’s hunt, with the animal not in front of his eyes, he could now separate an action from its consequences, which meant that he could act without an immediate impulse or need, for a benefit still in his future. This act of working for the future shows that early man had developed his ability to conceptualize his understanding about tools and animals. Conceptualizing allowed him to retain his knowledge, recall it whenever he wanted and think about it. This was man’s giant leap of evolution – the ability to form concepts opened the door to infinite knowledge and achievement. Several hundred thousand years later, man began to develop language to identify his concepts, and therefore talk about things he had seen, experiences he had had and things he wanted to do. At about the same time he also applied his conceptual ability to learn how to tame fire. These two skills dramatically improved his ability to survive and flourish. Ayn Rand did not provide or use any reference to this historical context, yet she considered this very ability to conceptualize as man’s distinct characteristic and means of survival, on which both his knowledge and his life continue to depend.

The ability to conceptualize also involved another crucial skill for early man that has been indicated above, and that is also central to Ayn Rand’s vision of a human being: the ability to project a goal in the future. With an effort of his will and a conscious decision, man’s ancestor was no longer a slave to the present. He had learnt to control and manage time. In fact, the first man who decided that he was going to use his evening to make tools for his tomorrow can perhaps be considered John Galt’s grandfather. He brought all his knowledge and ability to bear upon an action that was dictated by a productive goal as far into the future as he could possibly envision. He integrated his past knowledge with his present, and his present with his future, and he could not have done it any better. The lesson he taught his brothers was one that would eventually allow man to fire rockets to the moon. Though not yet man himself, he was mankind’s first hero.

All the heroes Ayn Rand created were rational human beings who set a productive goal for their respective futures as the central value of their lives, and then weighed their actions according to whether they helped them achieve their goal or whether they thwarted it. It was such human beings who consolidated early man’s position on this earth as the dominant species. After making tools for a hunt, someone invented tools to make other tools. Then someone organized his brothers to gather fuel for the night’s fire. Then someone decided that summer was when they should make some form of garments for the winter. Had it not been for such people, mankind would have either stagnated or gone extinct.

There are people who make the mistake of thinking that it was some kind of automatic instinct which led man to necessarily use the conceptual ability that he had acquired with his growing brain. In other words, they think that it was inevitable in an automatic sort of a way. However, there are enough people in today’s world to prove such a thought process wrong. Even now there are those who cannot project a future and work for it, who live range of the moment and don’t have a time sense further evolved than early man. Consider, as an example, any thug, hedonist or loafer. Strip these people naked, transport them back 500,000 years, and they would have lived like stagnant savages, and died at the first sign of trouble. This brings back yet another lesson learnt from Rand: ‘man has to be man by choice.’ Change the tense, and you have: ‘man had to be man by choice’. The fact that he exercised it is why the ancestor finally became man, as we know him now.

Thanksgiving season is still in the air; perhaps we should all offer our thanks to mankind’s earliest heroes!

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