MEMBERS ONLY: Jordan Peterson’s Bastardization Of Biology

I’ve largely written about Jordan Peterson in the Banter Members section and not on the main site to avoid the onslaught of pestering I would no doubt receive from his devoted fans. I do not fear intellectual criticism from his army of hardcore acolytes, but I do value my time and do not wish to spend it arguing with true believers who hang on his every word.

For all Peterson’s noise about avoiding dogma and ideology, his supporters are a remarkably narrow minded bunch who seem to spend most of their time on Youtube watching videos of him “owning” feminists.  I’m sure there are many interesting, open minded Peterson fans out there, but the vast majority I have come across display a religious zealotry matched only by the most hardened of Bernie Sanders supporters. They are mostly male, mostly white, and utterly convinced that they are the only rationally minded people on earth. With Peterson’s blueprint for “restoring order” to a chaotic, feminized world, they preach paternalism, discipline, and a vitriolic disdain for gender and identity politics. While this may be good for young men on a personal level (just as fundamentalist religion is good for others), their contribution to the political dialogue is not only tiring, but intellectually shallow.

Underpinning much of Peterson’s overarching philosophy of human societies is an bastardization of evolutionary biology — specifically his belief that “nature is red in tooth and claw” and should dictate how we organize ourselves as a species. Peterson’s views are not only wrong, but several decades out of date, as anyone in the field of evolutionary biology would gladly tell him. 

Peterson is a big believer in hierarchies, famously using lobsters in his book “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos”. He argues that, like humans, lobsters live in hierarchies and have a nervous system that runs on serotonin (like ours) that his highly attuned to status (like ours). The higher up the status hierarchy a lobster is, the more serotonin it produces. More serotonin = more happiness, more breeding, and longer life, while less serotonin = more stress, less breeding, and early death. According to Peterson, our hierarchies work the same way and we ignore this at our peril. 

“Let’s start with the notion that hierarchies are not the secondary consequence of the West, or the patriarchy, or capitalism,” Peterson said recently in an interview with Brian Rose. “That’s wrong.”

“How do we know it’s wrong? Well, animals organize themselves into hierarchies, so it’s obviously not a mere consequence of human construction, much less a human construction of Western society over the past 500 years — it’s in animals,” he went on. 

“Well, how long has it been around? Well how about 350 million years! How’s that for ‘not a consequence of capitalism’? Yeah, that’s pretty damn solid.”

Well, it isn’t “pretty damn solid” actually, no matter how forcefully Peterson says it. A master of vague absolutes, Peterson is masking a very shaky understanding of evolutionary biology, taking the bits that corroborate his world view while ignoring the inconvenient ones that don’t. 

I have spent countless hours researching forest ecology and plant biology in over the years due to my interest in the natural world, and I knew that Peterson’s take on evolutionary biology was sorely lacking. The latest research on evolutionary biology, particularly as it pertains to the functioning of complex eco-systems, fundamentally challenges the notion that evolution is driven solely by competition. In fact, it appears that the avoidance of competition plays a key factor in drivings ecological diversity and evolution, meaning cooperation is the biggest factor in how life sustains itself on planet earth. New research on plant communication  also corroborates this notion, with the discovery that Mycelial networks (fungi) provide the basis for extensive communication and cooperation between plant and fungi species. The new paradigm emerging in evolutionary biology is radically upending the 19th century notion that life is simply a race to the finish between competing individuals, and those who ignore it cannot claim to be an authority on the subject. 

Peterson’s amateurish understanding of evolutionary biology was on full display in his book when he made sweeping comparisons between two species that evolved separately over hundreds of millions of years. As actual biologists will tell you, this isn’t particularly helpful when trying to understand their behavior. Writes marine biologist Bailey Steinworth in the Washington Post:

To understand the similarities between any two organisms, biologists look back through evolutionary time to their most recent common ancestor. In the case of humans and lobsters, our most recent common ancestor was defined by the remarkable evolutionary innovation of a complete gut — meaning that the mouth and anus are two separate openings (the importance of this morphological novelty is clear when you contemplatethe alternative). The living animal that probably most closely resembles this ancestor is the acoel, a mostly harmless marine worm no bigger than a grain of rice. Acoels’ social interactions are limited to mating — they’re typically hermaphroditic, so each individual acts as both “male” and “female” — or sometimes to cannibalism, if a hungry acoel encounters another small enough to fit in its mouth. I suppose cannibalism is a sort of dominance hierarchy, but acoels don’t engage in the complex displays of aggression seen in lobsters or form social hierarchies like primates. If the common ancestor of humans and lobsters lacked dominance hierarchies (which seems likely, based on what we know about living animals), then our two species’ social behavior evolved independently, and the one can’t inform us about the other.

Steinworth goes on to cite other oceanic species that have been used in serotonin studies, including sea hares that are “hermaphrodites that mate in groups, alternating between the “male” and “female” roles.” In fact, hermaphroditism is so common in nature that Steinworth argues “it’s possible the ancestor of all animals was a hermaphrodite,”

This flatly contradicts Peterson’s binary interpretation of biology and strict definitions of gender in human societies. He is entitled to his belief that there should be a neat separation between men and women and that humans require ordered hierarchies, but he is not entitled to state his belief as biological fact. 

Part of Peterson’s schtick is to make sweeping generalizations about a broad array of topics that help create a narrative beneficial to himself and others like him. It is natural of course that he, a 6ft tall, wealthy white male, should be at the top of the food chain. To him, capitalism is merely nature replicating itself in human trading systems, so must be accepted as a fact of life. Those who succeed in it are virtuous, while those who don’t are by default, of no evolutionary benefit to the species.

This type of right-wing drivel is nothing new, but Peterson packages it superbly and presents himself as a revolutionary thinker with ideas so big most people are intellectually incapable of coming to terms with them.  According to Peterson, if you don’t agree with him, you don’t understand him — a line used by many a bullshit artist throughout history.

Peterson is a psychologist by trade, and has many useful things to say about the human mind and its foibles. He offers some excellent practical advice for those struggling to find order in their own lives, and he is doing some good in reaching out to psychologically disturbed right wing extremists. But Peterson is not a biologist, or a political philosopher, or even a particularly good writer (I’m half way through ’12 Rules For Life’ and am struggling with his brutalist prose). Normally, I wouldn’t have a problem with entertaining some of his ideas, but he presents them as an unimpeachable template for the survival humanity. His assertions must be taken as gospel, because, well, he is a rich, educated, white man with a commanding voice.

Peterson’s unflappable assuredness might be appealing to young men in search of a father figure, but to those interested in truly furthering their understanding of the world around them, he is becoming a rather tiresome impediment.

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