Jordan Peterson, Lost Nuance, and Biological Hierarchies

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Jordan Peterson has exploded in popularity over the last 2 years. As with any fame, a great deal of his nuance is lost in the vast echo chambers of trending culture. He manages just fine without it, but I think it’s a real shame, because his best work lies within the extremely subtle and fine points of his arguments. Admittedly, he takes an unapologetic slant towards the far-right wing — if you had spent that much time in academia, you would too. But the point of this post is not to defend or attack Jordan Peterson, but to focus on a specific argument that seems to be thoroughly underappreciated by many.

For example, the author of this Vox article, (which is riddled with jealousy) writes:

[Jordan Peterson] argues that because we evolved from lower creatures like lobsters, we inherited dominance structures from them. Inequalities of various kinds aren’t wrong; they’re natural.

The relationship between human and lobster brains is outside Peterson’s area of academic expertise. Experts in the field who have evaluated his claims have found them lacking, as lobsters’ and humans’ neurological systems are radically different.

Well Vox author, the relationship between human and lobster brains is well within my area of academic expertise. And let me tell you, Jordan Peterson’s argument not only holds up, but can be extended far beyond what he is willing to say. The differences in lobster and human neurobiology is EXACTLY the point. They are drastically dissimilar, as the next line in the article clearly shows:

One important distinction is that humans have brains and lobsters (technically speaking) do not.

This only drives Peterson’s point home more strongly. He’s not saying that we are lobsters. Okay, well maybe some of his less nuanced followers are, but he has millions of them. Some are bound to be on the lower end of the bell curve. His point is that dominance hierarchies are MUCH older than human society (and specifically Capitalism). It is irrelevant if lobsters don’t technically have brains, or even if their dominance hierarchies operate in exactly the opposite way that ours do (which, they do). The point is that they have a hierarchy, and it has a shared neurobiological basis with ours (it is evolutionarily conserved).

Amazingly, the specifics of this argument seem to sail right past many academics. Even neuroscientists fail to appreciate his reasoning, which is the basis of all neuroscientific study (that neurobiology is conserved across diverse and varied species). In this article, the author writes: 

What’s more, the animal kingdom is full of examples of hierarchies, with the highest level of organisation observed in insects. These are as closely related to us as lobsters are – they also have serotonin and nervous systems. 

Exactly!! Now you’re getting it (they aren’t actually getting it). This article is not the first place I’ve heard this argument used. Something along the lines of, “If you think a comparison between human and lobsters is valid, you might as well say that humans were meant to be collectivists because bees (another arthropod that uses serotonin in their nervous system) live in collectivist hives.” 

But people can and do use bees as models for human social structure.

This kind of thought process drastically oversimplifies Peterson’s point of view. He is thoroughly aware of the malleability of humans and our propensity for collectivism. His arguments for the parameterization of human sociability and dominance hierarchies are not only extremely sophisticated, but very well-evidenced.

I can’t speak for him, but my guess is that he uses the specific example of lobsters for two reasons:

1) He strongly believes that individualism is the most functional mode of operation within the context of human society. His entire life’s work has been the demonization of group identity politics.

2) The relationship between serotonin and the dominance hierarchies of lobsters is very well-established. The point isn’t that lobsters act in exactly the same way as humans, but that dominance hierarchies are ancient evolutionary developments (divergence between humans and lobsters happened some 600 million years ago), or at the very least, that these hierarchies operate using shared convergent machinery across diverse species.

In this vein of thought, the point about bees is spot on. I would guess that future work will provide evidence of the relationship between bee social structure and serotonin. In fact, why not use bacterium as an example of the relationship? Most of our serotonin is produced by our gut microbiome after all.

The point is that serotonin is intrinsically linked to dominance hierarchies, which are extraordinarily old constructs. This is very likely because serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is tightly coupled to stimulus valence, and specifically, the acquisition of food. Hence, its presence in our guts as well as bee guts.

Perhaps if these authors could take a moment to stop being threatened by Jordan Peterson’s immense status as a cultural icon in our social dominance hierarchy, they could see the subtlety in his calls for purpose.

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