A review of Atlas Hugged
An utopian tale by David Sloan Wilson of how prosocial culture may emerge and evolve for the betterment of the planet
This review of Atlas Hugged was initially formed during a book club arranged by David Sloan Wilson and the organisation he founded Pro Social World. The book club (where consent was granted) also doubled up as a research project. The four to five week period of the regular meetings, across October 2023 passed by very rapidly. The late hour in Europe of the online meetings, precluded me from attending. However I particpated a little on the community platform and attempted the weekly written reflections, on various sections of the book. I barely submitted the 500 plus word assignments on time! It then took quite a while to consolidate and compose this review from my initial ponderings. This summary may also be found on Goodreads and possibly Amazon at a later date.
Atlas Hugged on one hand is a courageous fictionalized attempt, to counteract the pernicious influence of the philosophy of objectivism, created by Ayn Rand. As expressed and outlined in her novels Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead and extended into the present moment by her neo liberal adherents. On the other hand, this novel is also based on the author’s scientific research into kinship and evolutionary cooperation. The book offers a protopian, if not utopian, possible pathway, through the meta global crisis. A huge proviso for this possible future being, that the core breakthroughs of this field of study, outlined in the book, take hold in the popular imagination.
The novel relates the whole journey from the objectivism of Ayn Rant (placename holder instead of Rand), the hero’s grandmother, to the worldwide viral success of the movement, which is launched by the book’s protagonist John Galt III. I totally applaud the ambition of the book, I too long for a powerful grassroots global movement, that puts Gaia at the center of all of its psycho-social, cultural and entrepreneurial activities. Which then, would hopefully overturn the current exploitative, extractive, capitalist paradigm that is destroying the planet. I also fully support any art form, that emphasizes the collective planetary social obligations and unrealized potential, of those citizens based in westernized democratic societies.
There are numerous novelistic attributes that make Atlas Shrugged an enjoyable read. Though I am less convinced that the underlying messages would really grip the mainstream population, as described in the latter passages of the book. What I enjoyed about the novel was its pacing, humor, descriptive powers and depiction of human relationships. For example friction, tensions and oppositions between John III and his family, are set mostly aside and are characterized by the deep affection humanity and maturity, shared between them. Where hereditary and familial connection, ultimately trump potential for division and discord. What if all families could reconcile post rupture or absence, with such warmth and pro social compassion?
Additionally the way the author describes the natural world is stunning, plus the enthusiasm, with which he depicts, the environmental experiments undertaken in the Wyoming mountains, come across very convincingly.
The author also vividly describes the regenerative thrill and revivifying effect of embracing and embodying the evolutionary impulse. As mediated through the persona of Howard, John Galt III’s mentor and university professor. These sentiments are also mirrored in the relief and relaxation of the students when they take part in Howard’s course ‘The Secret of Life’. The underlying creative and liberating power of the cosmos’ evolutionary urge, instigates a powerful cooperative egalitarianism throughout the whole group. Sloan portrays some telling social observations, like the intimacy and vulnerability of post coital self disclosure, that are shared between John and his lover Eve.
Where the book is less convincing is its overemphasis on the strengths and self organizing capacities, of small village-like size groups. The village school where John is educated, the Wyoming University cohort where he evolves and matures. The nearby community that helps build and develop John’s stunning mountain lodge are all portrayed in glowing, idyllic terms. The members of these groups, almost all of whom, are unfailingly good hearted, warm and supportive to the hero and almost anyone else. It is understandable that a scientist, whose works uncover the multilevel selection advantages in social groupings, would emphasize this in his novel.
However parochial mindsets, collective and hereditary trauma often assert their existence through unconscious othering and more latterly in some, unreconciled feelings of being left behind. These sentiments, to this reviewer, are some of the core drivers behind Trumpism in the USA. So the small group life, as portrayed in the book is out of keeping with the current mostly non urban political realities of mainland USA. Likewise the under emphasis of the shadow side of social cultures, like backbiting, gossip, competitiveness, bullying, sexism and prejudice are conveniently bypassed, in these halcyon sections of the novel.
Furthermore, the core scientific epiphanies of John Galt III in the book, while revelatory to the hero and his mentor. Contain interesting truths but to this reviewer, do not contain the kind of universal visceral appeal that would capture the imagination of the masses. The core drivers of evolution are skillfully and usefully condensed in the book to variability, fitness consequences and heritability. Yet, these are all still pretty abstract terms and only have real significance, if you are presumably, an afficionado of the science of evolution. Additionally another revelatory moment for the narrator is to treat factual truth as sacred. This illumination presupposes in a way, that there is or would be, some kind of social agreement or shared recognition, of what is a true fact. Given the polarization present in the digital space, manipulative disinformation, political correctness, conspiracy theories and alternative facts, it is difficult to envision that the current zeitgeist, is in any way near, to acknowledging and agreeing that specific and true facts even exist!
Another critical turning point for the hero is to have discovered that a suffering free world, can be seen in the inside, of any healthy organism. Also that John Galt’s III’s True Objectivism reveres the Sanctity of the Earth as an individual. As a lifelong seeker of truth and spiritual adventurer, these two principles have some degree of resonance with me. The healthy functioning of an organism, to me is a correlate of the inner realization of wholeness. As well as the holonic natural hierarchy of complexity, that underlies the whole universe. Treating the earth as a living organism is really, the universal perennial wisdom, curated by indigenous cultures for millenia.
These two truths are very appealing, but it has taken years of development, for me to be able to listen to my inner voice and discern what might be the deepest truths might be, according to my own perceptions. When we perceive that advertising companies have been tapping into the collective unconscious, to drive consumer economies for the last 70 years. We realize they have saturated the market, while driving the populace, into anti earth behaviors with slogans like ’Just Do it’ and ‘Think Different’. Thus it is difficult to see the more abstract rational, intellectual core of the novel, seizing the popular imagination as described in the later ecstatic stages of the book.
Some equate the polycrisis or metacrisis, as a crisis of the imagination. This book uses fiction, sound science, descriptive power and subtle social commentary to tell a tale of possibility. It also is a brave attempt to describe the potential unifying power of the evolutionary story and points to a possible pathway forward, for the whole of humanity, centered around the preservation of our shared sacred home, the Earth.
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About the author Dave Pendle; I am synthesising almost 30 years experience in non profit enterprises with over 40 years of deep personal development experience. Passionate about enabling others’ sense of fulfillment, impact and trust, to engage wholeheartedly with inspiration and commitment to 21st century work and life.
My website Generative You, explains my interests in more in depth, so do sign up for my newsletter or express an interest in my services, or share there how you best like to connect with me. I also run a monthly conversation series Phenomenal Conversations co-exploring life defining topics, with pioneering changemakers who embody systemic and regenerative change in their whole life.