Jordan Peterson is a controversial figure. He’s made some provocative statements in interviews and discussions. And inconsistent ones. One inconsistency was in his (in)famous interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54, on the subject of the gender pay gap. Peterson says it doesn’t exist (5m45s). Later, when Newman refers to his comment, he denies that’s what he said. He should, of course, have said that’s not what he meant. But then he adds “Because I’m very, very, very careful with my words” (8m27s). Verbal slips are easy to make. I guessed Peterson might be more careful in his writing, and might present a clearer picture of his worldview. So I read 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
The rules emerged from Peterson’s experience as a clinical psychologist and had proved popular on the Quora website. Each rule gets a chapter in the book, explaining its rationale. Peterson’s worldview is grounded in ancient myths that have stood the test of time and resonate with us today. Fundamental, for him, is the yin-yang principle; the interdependence of two opposite forces, notably order/chaos and masculine/feminine. He’s also intrigued by the account in the book of Genesis of chaos, order, man, woman and the consequences of sin.
Peterson draws further support for his philosophical framework from comparative zoology – in the form of lobsters. Lobsters are crustaceans, an ancient sub-phylum believed to have arisen around 350m years ago. Male lobsters compete for territory using aggressive displays and sometimes fights, resulting in a social dominance hierarchy. Female lobsters choose dominant male lobsters to mate with, so high status lobsters get the best territory and “all the girls”. A lobster’s social status is mediated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter with a role in the human nervous system. In lobsters and humans, social status correlates positively with serotonin levels.
What this means for Peterson, is that biology determines culture. “…the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism…communism…the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy – that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence…There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.” (p.14)
If lobsters and humans exhibit dominance hierarchies mediated by serotonin, Peterson reasons, the dominance hierarchy must be what drives their behaviour and its outcomes. “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain… It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society… If you’re number one… you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” (p.15)
Note that Peterson is not talking to lobsters here – in the next paragraph he refers to the “verbal tricks and strategies” available to high status females. But in Peterson’s model serotonin doesn’t result in the disorder of unfettered competition; it leads to order because high status humans in whom “the serotonin flows freely“, are “confident and calm, standing tall and straight. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.” (p.17)
The passages I’ve quoted are in the chapter about Rule 1: Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back. Peterson’s argument is essentially that Nature is Nature and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better. The argument is a persuasive one. But the evidence Peterson marshals for it is highly selective. What he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. Let’s start with serotonin.
Serotonin is far more ancient than lobsters. It’s made by all bilateral animals, which first appeared around 550m years ago. It’s also found in many plants and some species of amoeba. Most of those organisms don’t have dominance hierarchies. That’s because serotonin’s role is primarily to mediate the perception of resources – usually food. It’s no accident that most human serotonin is produced in the gut, where it regulates intestinal movement. In the brain, the serotonin pathway works in concert with dopamine pathway that mediates reward. It’s only a couple of short steps in neurological terms, to associate food with territory, then territory with social dominance signals. So it’s not surprising that neurologically more complex animals have made that connection.
male and female
Then there’s male and female. Peterson claims “when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the pre-human animal social world. …Our most basic category – as old, in some sense as the sexual act itself – appears to be that of sex, make and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.” (p.40, Peterson’s emphasis.)
Peterson assumes that if a category distinction is used by an entire species, or by several species, it must be ‘inbuilt’. This is a risky assumption. It was what zoologists assumed about imprinting (newly hatched birds following their mother/other conspecific/primary carer) until Konrad Lorenz discovered they would follow his wading boots if they were the first thing the hatchlings saw. And there’s been a heated dispute for decades over whether the structure of language is hardwired or constructed or both, but you’d never know from Peterson’s account that there is any biological evidence suggesting that the male/female categories, (as opposed to male/female biological characteristics) might be constructed rather than inbuilt.
He overlooks research showing that infants construct categories from the features of things in their environment such as sounds (e.g. Kuhn, 2004) or objects (e.g. Rakison & Oakes, 2008). The research shows that categories develop as the children’s knowledge of the environment increases. This suggests that if young animals are surrounded by conspecifics that generally show sexual dimorphism, they will start to form the categories male/female. It doesn’t follow that there are no alternatives. On the contrary, some crustaceans are hermaphrodites and parthenogenesis (producing viable, but unfertilised eggs) is not uncommon. Similarly, although sexual dimorphism is typical of human beings, there’s a range of biological variations on that theme in homo sapiens.
Peterson also conflates sex with gender. Sex is a set of biological characteristics. Gender is a social construct. Biology largely determines sex. It plays an important role in determining gender, but many other factors come into play. Peterson doesn’t have much time for social constructs, which is odd, because that’s what myths are.
Peterson’s focus is on order/chaos and masculine/feminine; order is inherently masculine (“the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” p.40) and chaos, presumably, inherently feminine. There are many other opposites in life of course; pleasure/pain, loss/gain, activity/rest etc. But pleasure, gain and rest don’t feature much in Peterson’s world. We’re told “life is suffering” (pp.161, 227) and reminded that it’s “nasty, brutish and short” (p.177). There are many references to the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain’s resentment and murder of his brother, and the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.
Peterson says myths are “moral in their intent, rather than descriptive” (p.xxvii). For him “the great stories of the past” have “more to do with developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness” (p.xxvii). He can’t seem to decide whether his worldview is prescriptive or descriptive; whether it’s about what life should be like, or what it is like. On the one hand, he can’t emphasise enough the grim factual realities of life – “life is suffering” and “dominance hierarchies are older than trees“. On the other hand, he blithely ignores facts about serotonin, crustacean reproduction, and human cognition that don’t support his model.
And despite citing considerable evidence showing that lobster dominance hierarchies hinge on whichever lobsters are more physically powerful, he denies Jacques Derrida’s claim that power is a prime determinant of human social status on the grounds that … it shouldn’t be. “In well-functioning societies, competence, not power is a prime determiner of status” (p.313). Wasn’t that Derrida’s point – that few societies are well-functioning?
For Peterson, “life is suffering” and the way to deal with that is “to stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open” (p.27). I understand why he wouldn’t advocate untrammelled hedonism as a guiding principle, but in reality life is more of a mixed bag. Once our basic needs are met we don’t spend all our time fighting over who gets first dibs on resources or mates; we sing, dance, tell stories, play games, solve problems and make stuff. We often do those things very well, to our enjoyment and the benefit of others.
Nor do people usually select mates by behaving like lobsters. It might feel like women get to do all the choosing if you’re a young man with low social status living in North America, but for much of human history, women have rarely had much choice about anything. One mate selection strategy popular with top human lobsters was droit du seigneur. Not popular with anyone else, however, so most communities make other arrangements.
Much of what Peterson says is true, and most of his 12 rules are sensible, in principle at least. His arguments are plausible and convincingly made. But although his worldview is based on evidence, it’s based on only some evidence. He doesn’t consider evidence that doesn’t support his hypotheses.
He plays to the disappointment, resentment and fears of young white, North American males. Their feelings might be real, and might need attending to, but that doesn’t make them normative. Peterson’s entire worldview appears to be constructed around how tough it is to be one of them.
His worldview is also internally contradictory. He points out “Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period.” (p.316)
Absolutely. So where does that leave Peterson’s sweeping generalisations? Maybe he needs to be more careful with his words.
Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.
Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion. Oxford University Press.