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My novel Atlas Hugged is a rebuttal of one worldview and affirmation of another. The rejected worldview is the kind of Individualism associated with neoliberal economics and Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, which maintains that the unfettered pursuit of self-interest robustly benefits the common good.

The affirmed worldview is modern evolutionary theory, or “The Secret of Life” as it is described in Atlas Hugged. Spiritual seekers are often said to be searching for the Secret of Life as if it can be discovered by visiting a wise hermit in a cave on top of a mountain. But scientists routinely boast that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. If that’s true, then why shouldn’t evolutionary theory be called the Secret of Life? If it can explain the length and breadth of biology, why not the length and breadth of humanity? And if that is possible, why can’t it be used to address the kinds of questions that send some people off on spiritual quests?

That’s my day job. Along with many others, I’m at the vanguard of expanding evolutionary theory to include all things human, including the individual person and whole cultures as rapidly evolving entities. One thing that everyone needs to know about evolution, whether genetic, personal, or cultural, is that it doesn’t make everything nice. When everyone is allowed to pursue their separate self-interests, as Ayn Rand would have you do, then it results in a Dystopia, not a Utopia.

What modern evolutionary theory tells us is that prosociality—everything oriented toward the welfare of others and one’s group as a whole—can evolve, but only under special conditions. We must consciously create those conditions at all scales, from our personal welfare to the planet. Only then will evolution take us where we want to go.

That’s what the hero of Atlas Hugged, John Galt III, accomplishes with the help of his wise mentor, Professor Howard Head, by his 25th year. I wrote the novel for the same reason that Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged—because fiction has a way of communicating a moral ideal better than dry intellectual prose. Writing it was so interwoven with my day job that it’s hard to tell the difference between art imitating life and life imitating art.

It was therefore a delight when one of my most highly respected scientific colleagues, Dr. Stuart Libman, read and thought well of Atlas Hugged. Stu is medical director of PLEA, a nonprofit mental health and education provider in the Pittsburgh area. He is a master at helping individuals and groups manage their evolution to achieve their valued goals, using techniques such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/Training (ACT), Relational Frame Theory (RFT), and Prosocial.

If these terms are new for you, then fear not. Stu explains them beautifully as part of our conversation. If you are among the Cult of Scholars that already traffics in these terms, then you are also in for a treat as Stu and I discuss the role that stories play in first imagining a better world and then turning the fiction into a reality.

Published On: March 17, 2021

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .

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