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Roger J. Williams and the Science of Individuality

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08/19/2010Jeff Riggenbach

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Roger J. Williams."]

It seems to have been in the 1950s that Roger J. Williams began turning up here and there in the libertarian world. This would make a kind of sense, because it was in the '50s that Williams began publishing the books that one would think might make him and his ideas interesting to libertarians. First there was Free & Unequal: The Biological Basis of Individual Liberty, which came out in 1953, when Williams was 60 years old. Three years later, in 1956, there came Biochemical Individuality.

It seems to have been these two books that won Williams an invitation to address a "Symposium on Individuality and Personality" sponsored in Princeton, New Jersey in September of 1956 by the Foundation for American Studies, which was concerned about what it described as "the problem of man's freedom in the face of modern society's seemingly irresistible urge to socialize and regiment the thought and action of the individual." Other participants in the conference included Felix Morley and Milton Friedman.

Then, more than a decade later, Williams published what is probably his best known book, the only one of his 26 books to be brought out under the imprint of a major New York trade publisher, You Are Extraordinary, which appeared in 1967, when he was 74 years old. In 1973, Murray Rothbard cited all three of these books — Free & Unequal, Biochemical Individuality, and You Are Extraordinary — in his classic essay, "Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature."

Roger J. Williams was a biochemist. He was born in India, of American missionary parents, in 1893 — the month has variously been reported as August and October. When Williams was 2 years old, his family returned to the United States, where he grew up in Kansas and California. He earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Redlands in Southern California in 1914, then moved on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he earned a PhD in the same field in 1919.

In 1920, he joined the faculty at the University of Oregon in Eugene. In 1932, he moved up the road a piece to Oregon State at Corvallis. Then, later in the '30s — the exact year has been variously reported as 1934, 1939, and 1940 — he took a faculty position at the University of Texas in Austin, where he stayed for the rest of his professional life. He became professor emeritus of Chemistry there in 1971, at the age of 77, and retired from that position in 1986 at the age of 92. He was 94 when he died in 1988.

In the beginning, Williams concentrated his research on nutritional issues. During the '30s and '40s, according to his obituary in the New York Times, "he discovered the growth-promoting vitamin pantothenic acid … a member of the important family of vitamins known collectively as the B complex." He also "did pioneering work in the discovery of folic acid, an important agent in combating pernicious anemia and another member of the B complex" and "was credited with making significant advances in knowledge of the way nutrients [affect] health, aging, psychological disorders, alcoholism and mental retardation, among other diseases."

Back in 1921, however, during what Williams later called "my first year as a university teacher of chemistry at the University of Oregon," he had had an experience that would eventually provide him with a second and very different research specialty. As he tells the story in You Are Extraordinary,

I had an ulcer operation years ago in Eugene, Oregon. … In the hospital after the operation I was given a shot of morphine to relieve my pain and put me to sleep. It abolished my pain but didn't put me to sleep. In fact it kept me wide awake and made my mind very active. To remedy the situation the doctor ordered a second and heavier shot. There was hell to pay. My mind speeded up with agonizing rapidity from one thought to another, second by second, all night long. And it was a long, long night full of torture.

The following day, "after it was over," Williams recalled feeling "thankful it was past, but being a scientist by inclination and training I was disposed to ask: Why did I react to morphine in this unusual way?" Williams found that he couldn't get a satisfactory answer to his question. "Words," he would write years later,

sometimes cover up ignorance, and the word used to cover up this particular bit of ignorance was "idiosyncrasy." Reacting to morphine in this way was my idiosyncrasy. But to give a phenomenon a name doesn't explain it. This rather silly answer didn't satisfy me, but it was the only one I was to have for nearly twenty years — during which time the question lurked in the back of my mind and occasionally popped out at me. But I had many other things to do and think about.

This included things like identifying B-complex vitamins and considering various nutritional issues, as we have seen. "I didn't realize at all — at the time," Williams wrote nearly 50 years after receiving those fateful morphine shots,

how important this question was nor where it would lead. I didn't suspect — at the time — that attempts to answer this question would lead to asking and answering many other questions, and that out of it all could ever evolve a book such as this one. If I had realized it then, I would undoubtedly have given more time and effort to trying to find an answer.

Over the next 20 years, Williams gradually began to realize that "idiosyncrasies might be widespread rather than extremely rare." In time, he decided that they were in fact extremely widespread. In time, he decided that "each of us is built in a highly distinctive way in every particular, and that this is the basis of individuality." He decided further

that human bodies can't be averaged and that an adequate single picture of the human body, or any of its major parts, cannot be drawn. A picture which purports to show the human body is bound to be misleading and may be vicious in its effects.

Williams wrote that

normal individuals are highly distinctive with respect to their stomachs, esophagi, hearts, blood vessels, bloods, thoracic ducts, livers, pelvic colons, sinuses, breathing patterns, muscles and their system of endocrine glands. In all of these cases inborn differences are observed which are often far beyond what we see externally.

And remember that the differences we can see among individuals externally are sufficient that we can identify a particular individual from among hundreds or even thousands who are superficially similar in appearance just by looking at him or her. If the internal differences among individuals are even greater than these, then they must be significant indeed.

Nor is this all. Williams wrote in 1967 that

it is an inescapable fact … that every individual is highly distinctive with respect to the numbers and distribution of nerve endings of all kinds — in eyes, ears, noses and mouths, as well as in all areas of the skin. This has tremendous meaning because our nerve endings are our only source of information from the outside world. If the nerve endings are different in number and are distributed differently, this means that the information we get from the outside world is somewhat distinctive for each of us.

A few pages on, he approvingly quotes the American botanist Albert Francis Blakeslee as having said that "different people live in different worlds so far as their sensory reactions are concerned." Williams himself took an only somewhat more moderate position. "From the fact … that different human brains are as unlike each other as are the brains of different species and even different orders of animals," he wrote, "you may conclude that your brain probably differs from your neighbor's far more than your facial features vary from his." Further,

while no one knows precisely how our brains work, we are all convinced that the brain has something to do with thinking, and it would be surprising indeed, in view of the differences in the structure of our brains, if it should develop to be a fact that we all think alike.

In sum, according to Williams,

the basic answer to the question "Why are you an individual?" is that your body in every detail, including your entire nervous system and your brain (thinking apparatus) is highly distinctive. You are not built like anyone else. You owe some of your individuality to the fact that you have been influenced uniquely by your environment, which is not like anyone else's. But from all that may be known about basic inborn individuality … it seems clear that the amount of individuality we would possess if we were all born with exactly the same detailed equipment would be puny, indeed, compared with the individuality we actually possess.

Williams believed he saw larger political implications in all this. "Politically," he wrote, "individuality is fundamental. If we did not possess individuality we would all have the same tastes in eating, drinking, reading, art, music, religion, and all other pursuits and would willingly submit to regimentation and censorship in all matters." We do not submit willingly to regimentation, however, and the reason, according to Williams, is our mainly biochemical individuality. "As the peoples of the earth continue to multiply," he wrote, "the 'wide open spaces' tend to be replaced more and more by cities where crowding takes place. As an inescapable result of crowding, there is a need to organize people and to regulate them more and more. This means rules, and rules can cause conflict if people have strong individuality." Put another way, which Williams is kind enough to do on the very next page, "it is a fact that 'normal' people may respond very differently when they are treated in the same way."

The challenge before us, then, is clear — or at least so Williams believed. "We need to become expert," he wrote,

in the making of rules. These should be of high quality, ones that will not be disruptive or damaging. Unless we have a basic knowledge of what people are like, especially regarding their individuality, we are like workmen trying to be skilled carpenters without any perception of the characteristics of wood.

Above all, Williams believed, "we" (by whom he seems to mean those who run the government) must learn to "sort" people more efficiently. "The problem of how to sort and classify people in a valid manner," he wrote,

is a pressing one. … We need to be able to sort children so that they can be effectively educated — each to suit his or her own make-up. Children do not have exactly the same food requirements because of their biochemical individuality; we need to know how to sort them so they can all get what they need.

And these are only two of the many examples Williams cites. "The recreations that suit some individuals," he continues,

will not suit others at all. People need help in sorting themselves. We need to know how to sort people because of the fact that they will not need the same books, the same music or the same religion. Expertness must be developed in sorting people in connection with the selection of marriage mates. … Expertness in sorting people is a challenging objective which must be sought in the decades to come. It will not be easy, but I have confidence that human minds, aided by computers, will find ways of accomplishing it.

This is a far cry from libertarianism of any sort, of course. What it really is, is technocracy — rule by enlightened experts. Williams showed where he was really coming from on the fundamental question of political philosophy in the paper he wrote for that 1956 symposium at Princeton on individuality and personality. "Government by the people is justified," Williams wrote in that paper, "only because we all have distinctive patterns of mentality and by pooling our faculties we can hope to come out with better answers than if we heed one man (a dictator) who has his own mental pattern and may be very incompetent in some respects." If our "patterns of mentality" were less distinctive, then, one supposes, a dictator would be just fine.

So why did Roger J. Williams start "turning up here and there in the libertarian world" back in the 1950s? Why was he cited approvingly by as wise a libertarian thinker as Rothbard as late as 1973? I think part of the answer is that in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was so rare to encounter any intellectual who was willing to go to bat for any kind of individualism, that if a new one came along, especially one with legitimate academic credentials, there was perhaps a tendency, at least at first, to overestimate that new intellectual's importance.

Another and more important reason that many libertarians adopted Roger J. Williams half a century ago is the fact that Williams's ideas do fit in rather nicely with what one might call a certain minor tradition within libertarian thought. This minor tradition argues, essentially, that because every individual is unique, no general rules applicable to all can be justified. This idea appears, for example, in the writing of the German philosopher Max Stirner.

"We need to become expert in the making of rules."
Roger J. Williams

Stirner's major work, Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum, first published in 1844, was translated into English about a hundred years ago by Steven T. Byington, under the title The Ego and His Own. Some scholars have suggested that a more literal translation of Stirner's title would be "The Unique One and His Property." More recent revisions of Byington's translation, which is still in use after a century of wear, have not adopted this suggestion, but have modified the title a little, rendering it a bit more idiomatically (for English speakers) as The Ego and Its Own.

In The Ego and Its Own, Stirner asserts an early and radical version of what today we call methodological individualism. Man or Humanity, he contends, does not exist in reality. It is an abstraction, a "fixed idea." All that really exists in the world is individuals. Each one of these is unique. And the purpose of the state is invariably "to limit, tame, subordinate the individual — to make him subject to some generality or other."

Roger J. Williams wrote very similarly at times. In one of the later chapters of You Are Extraordinary, for example, he argues against what he calls "overgeneralizations." He asserts that

if one writes a book or article having to do with "the child" (this has been done many times), this is an effective way of overgeneralizing without calling attention to the fact that a generalization has been made. It implies (but is careful not to state) that all children are alike and that the prototype, child, should be our primary concern. Similarly one may surreptitiously generalize about the newspaper reader, the churchgoer or the criminal. The honest thing is to speak of "children," "newspaper readers," "churchgoers," "criminals." If one wants to make generalizations, he can then do so at his own risk; the sneaky thing to do is to try to get the generalization by without stating it.

And on the following page, Williams notes that Stirner's least favorite fixed idea, "Man," is just "another way of saying 'the human being.'"

Yet another variant of this minor tradition within libertarian thought — the idea that anyone who properly acknowledges the uniqueness of each individual human being must also oppose coercive government — is to be found in the work of John Stuart Mill, specifically in his great essay On Liberty, first published 15 years after Max Stirner's magnum opus, in 1859. In Mill's view, "it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives," and "whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men." To Mill, as to Stirner, Emerson, and Thoreau before him, self-realization was a good thing, in and of itself. "What more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs," Mill asked,

than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? Or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this? Doubtless, however, these considerations will not suffice to convince those who most need convincing; and it is necessary further to show … those who do not desire liberty, and would not avail themselves of it, that they may be in some intelligible manner rewarded for allowing other people to make use of it without hindrance.

What Mill proposes as an argument for this view is ingenious. What good does freedom of self-realization and self-expression do for those who don't care to exercise it? What good are Bohemians to bourgeoisie? "I would suggest," Mill wrote,

that they [the bourgeoisie] might possibly learn something from them [the Bohemians]. It will not be denied by anybody, that originality is a valuable element in human affairs. There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices, and set the example of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices.

Mill was not unrealistic about the usefulness of lifestyle experimentation to society in general. "It is true," he wrote,

that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.

And though

persons of genius, it is true, are, and are always likely to be, a small minority … in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are … more individual than any other people ─ less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of moulds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character.

In a way, you could say that John Stuart Mill drew the correct implications from Roger J. Williams's analysis of biochemical individuality a hundred years before Williams presented that analysis. If every individual is unique, there should be very, very few general laws that everyone is expected to obey. There should be a minimum of that and a maximum of personal liberty.

Williams argues, like Mill, that "because we all have distinctive patterns of mentality," we can benefit "by pooling our faculties," but he frets that "effective pooling of our faculties is not easy."

No, it isn't. But the most effective mechanism ever devised for making effective pooling of our faculties as easy as it can be — the free market — is also the natural result of reducing general laws to a bare minimum and leaving people free to make their own choices about their own values. Roger J. Williams failed to see all this. But his work on biochemical individuality is full of valuable insight and useful information for any libertarian drawn to certain of the views of certain of our intellectual forefathers — Max Stirner, for example, and John Stuart Mill. In that sense, Williams made an important contribution to the libertarian tradition.


Jeff Riggenbach

Jeff Riggenbach was a journalist, author, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A member of the Organization of American Historians and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, he wrote for such newspapers as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle; such magazines as Reason, Inquiry, and Liberty; and such websites as LewRockwell.com, AntiWar.com, and RationalReview.com. His books include In Praise of Decadence (1998), Why American History Is Not What They Say: An Introduction to Revisionism (2009), and Persuaded by Reason: Joan Kennedy Taylor & the Rebirth of American Individualism (2014). Drawing on vocal skills he honed in classical and all-news radio in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston, Riggenbach also narrated the audiobook versions of numerous libertarian works, many of them available on Mises.org.

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