February 3, 2018


A Deep Dive into Jordan Peterson's Channel 4 Interview (Uri Harris, 2/02/18, Quillete)

So what are Peterson's views, and why did Newman consider them so controversial? He laid them out in part towards the end of the interview, when they were discussing lobsters:

Peterson: "[T]he reason that I write about lobsters is because there's this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy. And that is so untrue that it's almost unbelievable. And I use the lobster as an example, because we diverged from lobsters in evolutionary history about 350 million years ago, common ancestor. And lobsters exist in hierarchies, and they have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy, and that nervous system runs on serotonin, just like our nervous systems do. And the nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it's part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn't."

Newman: "Let me just get this straight. You're saying we should organise our societies along the lines of the lobsters?"

Peterson: "I'm saying that it's inevitable that there will be continuity in the way that animals and human beings organise their structures. It's absolutely inevitable, and there's one third of a billion years of evolutionary history behind that. That's so long, that a third of a billion years ago, there weren't even trees. It's a long time. You have a mechanism in your brain that runs on serotonin that's similar to the lobster mechanism that tracks your status, and the higher your status the better your emotions are regulated. So as your serotonin levels increase, you feel more positive emotion and less negative emotion."

Newman: "So you're saying like the lobsters, we're hardwired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tramlines and there's nothing we can do about it?"

Peterson: "No, I'm not saying there's nothing we can do about it, because it's like in a chess game, right, there's lots of things you can do, although you can't break the rules of the chess game and continue to play chess. Your biological nature is somewhat like that, it sets the rules of the game, but within those rules you have a lot of leeway. But one thing we can't do is say that hierarchical organisation is a consequence of the capitalist patriarchy, it's like that's patently absurd. It's wrong. It's not a matter of opinion, it's seriously wrong."

Newman interprets Peterson as suggesting we should use lobsters as a model for human society, but that's not what he's doing. Rather, he's searching for the origins of our social hierarchies. Several thinkers--from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Herbert Marcuse--have argued that modern human civilization, especially capitalism, has made humans competitive and status-seeking, causing them to form systems of domination against their true nature. These ideas are popular with parts of the political left, but Peterson argues they're false; human hierarchies rely on similar biological mechanisms to lobsters, which we diverged from hundreds of millions of years ago, so they can't possibly be the result of something that began a few hundred years ago. To truly understand our social hierarchies, we need to understand our biology, which forms the basis for our culture.

And it's not just hierarchies. Earlier in the interview, Peterson argues that men and women on average exhibit distinct personality differences, and that these become most clear in places like Scandinavia where people are most free to choose their occupation. Here also it's clear Peterson is referring to biology, although he doesn't say so directly. This brings us to the core of the disagreement between Peterson and Newman: the role biology plays in human society, and the constraints it sets on it. Peterson's views--as he lays out in the interview--are well-known: he believes that biology plays an important role in human behaviour, not just with respect to hierarchies, but also how men and women differ in their interests, and he believes that attempts to force equality of outcomes are harmful to men, women, and society. It's these views, quite clearly, that Newman finds problematic.

Newman's view--and the general attitude towards Peterson--demonstrates what psychologist Steven Pinker wrote about in The Blank Slate fifteen years ago, where he argued that any suggestion that biology plays a role in human social behaviour is often met with derision and hostility, despite the abundant evidence that biology and culture each play a role. As Pinker wrote in the introduction:

My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing--no one believes that--but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.

Peterson is considered 'controversial' because he suggests that human social behaviour, including career choices, are determined by a combination of biology and culture, and that the biological differences between men and women influence their choices. The view he's opposing, which Newman appeared to hold, is that human social behaviour is determined entirely by culture, and that any differences in outcomes between men and women are due to culturally-imposed barriers.

And that view is wrong to precisely the same degree as the biological (material) determinism ideology of the New Atheists he also jousts with.

Posted by at February 3, 2018 6:44 AM