On Jordan Peterson and Lobsters — A Response to Leonor Gonçalves

Gonçalves ‘s article: https://theconversation.com/amp/psychologist-jordan-peterson-says-lobsters-help-to-explain-why-human-hierarchies-exist-do-they-90489

Leonor Gonçalves has written an article critiquing Jordan Peterson’s understanding of lobsters and dominance hierarchies back in January of this year. This article will critique Gonçalves’s argument by touching on the major points more or less in the order he analyzes them. Before turning to the Gonçalves piece, I think it is necessary to lay out Peterson’s arguments regarding lobsters and dominance hierarchies as laid out in 12 Rules for Life and his online lectures. Leonor Gonçalves includes a link to Jordan Peterson’s then-recent interview with Cathy Newman. This interview is not the best way for one to familiarize oneself with Peterson’s scientific views at any deep level. I bring this up in the beginning because I will NOT be drawing from Peterson’s news interviews.

Jordan Peterson on Lobsters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw1m87XsMgI

Jordan Peterson uses the lobster primarily to show how old dominance hierarchies actually are. Lobsters and humans last shared a common ancestor hundreds of millions of years ago.[1] In 12 Rules, Peterson mentions the difference between the brain chemistry of a lobster winner vs. a lobster loser. “A lobster loser’s brain chemistry differs importantly from that of a lobster winner. This is reflected in their relative postures. Whether a lobster is confident or cringing depends on the ratio of two chemicals that modulate communication between lobster neurons: serotonin and octopamine. Winning increases the ratio of the former to the latter.”[2] Hierarchies of authority have been evolving for millions of years. Though humans and lobsters have not shared a common ancestor for hundreds of millions of years, hierarchies of authority are clearly natural.[3]

Jordan Peterson also touches upon the role of female selection. In his lectures, he frequently contrasts chimp and human mating. In the former case, dominant males chase the subordinates away in order to mate. In the latter case, female selection plays a fundamental role in passing genes on to the next generation.[4] In 12 Rules, Peterson examines female choice in lobster mating. “The female lobsters (Who also fight hard for territory during the explicitly maternal stages of their existence) identify the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him. This is brilliant strategy, in my estimation. It’s also one used by females of many different species, including humans. Instead of undertaking the computationally difficult task of identifying the best man, the females outsource the problem to the machine-like calculations of the dominance hierarchy. They let the males fight it out and peel their paramours from the top.”[5] Dominance hierarchies, Peterson asserts, are older than trees.

Another feature of Jordan Peterson’s argument is the instability of dominance hierarchies based solely on power. In his lectures, he often mentions chimpanzees. He states that ‘tyrannical’ chimp leaders can be overthrown (And torn to pieces) by a small number of angry subordinate chimps. Here, he cites the work of Frans de Waal (and, to a much lesser extent, Jane Goodall). He notes that de Waal’s observations show that “among the chimp troupes he studied, males who were successful in the longer term had to buttress their physical prowess with more sophisticated attributes.”[6] These sophisticated attributes include reciprocal altruism.

In 12 Rules, Peterson touches upon the evolutionary nature of human cognition. We as a species developed increasingly complex brains but still with these structures that have evolved for millions of years. The oldest structures in the human brain are among the most stable (And are not necessarily the most rational from an empirical point of view). Colloquially, people may speak of the reptilian, mammalian, and simian parts of the human brain.

Leonor Gonçalves explores the question of nature vs. nurture throughout the piece. Though not overtly political, Gonçalves’s article strongly suggests the author’s problems with Peterson’s classical liberal political stance. Gonçalves starts off the article by asserting that ‘white men’ benefit from hierarchies to have power over others. This smacks of identity politics.

Paragraphs 2 and 3 present a simplified description of the argument Jordan Peterson makes with regard to lobsters and hierarchies. Leonor Gonçalves appears to have grasped many of the basics of what we can call ‘lobster argument’ as a kind of shorthand in this article. Though Leonor Gonçalves presents a simplified version of the argument (which is admittedly necessary), I question the low-resolution statement ‘we are wired to live in them’ (paragraph 3). Peterson draws from a vast array of thinkers from psychology and evolutionary biology to delineate a detailed argument about the development and antiquity of dominance hierarchies. I would also argue that it is quite reductionist and simplistic to ask, as the author does: ‘can a brain chemical really explain the organisation of a human society?’ Peterson examines the impact of serotonin and octopamine on lobster behavior (and behavior more generally). Human society, while resting on these basic chemical reactions, is far more complex to be reduced to ‘a brain chemical’ explaining the organization of a human society.

Leonor Gonçalves clearly knows the relevant scientific literature regarding serotonin and crustaceans. Neither man lacks in terms of familiarity with the scientific literature of their respective fields. However, I do think the inclusion of the Cathy Newman interview in the ‘lobsters versus humans’ section of the article is not exactly the best choice for the topic at hand. I do understand that the interview went viral at the time this article was produced but its relevance has more to do with how not to interview someone.[7] Leonor Gonçalves succeeds in demonstrating the necessity of a nuanced approach to serotonin in various species but does not undermine Peterson’s specific arguments about the antiquity of hierarchies and the fact that they are overwhelmingly due to nature rather than (though not to the exclusion of) nurture. Gonçalves mentions the fact that Prozac has been shown to block serotonin uptake in lobsters.

In the ‘plastic brains’ section of the article, Gonçalves mentions the plasticity of the human brain. Yes, the human brain has a great deal of plasticity to it. This does not mean it can (or should) be rewired. This does not mean that elements of human cognition which have evolved for millions of years before people existed can be done away with because they do not conform to popular ideologies. The human brain is incredibly complex (the most complex thing we know of in the cosmos_ and yet we know precious little about it (and much of what we do know about it has only been learned in the past half century).

The author clearly has a problem with the societal implications of the ideas Jordan Peterson is exploring. I would remind readers that proponents of many scientific views have faced staunch opposition because such theories offend religious ideas, political authorities, or (increasingly) radical partisans. The popular idea of the mind as a blank slate has been comprehensively obliterated by the mountains of evidence to the contrary. Psychological discoveries over the past half century have delivered serious blows to Rousseauian and Lockean notions of human goodness in the state of nature and the mind as a blank slate.

Gonçalves finally addresses the question of ‘winners’ and losers’ near the end of the article. Put simply: he does not like the implications of ‘winners’ ad ‘losers’ in the lobster analysis. the latter portion of this paragraph is optimistic and appears a response to the realities of winners and losers. Perhaps if Gonçalves read the entirety of 12 Rules, he would have seen that Peterson spends much of it on how people can improve their lives substantially.

The last two paragraphs suggest a lack of familiarity with the Great Books of civilization. The point of a liberal arts education (yes, this is a bit of a digression but still important to an understanding of both Peterson’s argument and Gonçalves’s critique) is to promote the excellence of the individual through studying the human condition as it is portrayed in the great works of human civilizations. Part of the reason for this is that one should study great works written by influential dead people (those dead for hundreds or thousands of years). The reason that I bring this up is because human nature really does not change. Scientific and technological progress has sped up quite rapidly over the past two centuries perhaps contributing to an illusion that perhaps human nature does change substantially in a short time. This is not the case.

While Gonçalves shows an understanding of serotonin and lobsters, he does not seem to want to dwell on humans or even chimps for that matter. He critiques Peterson’s analysis of lobster hierarchies but does not bother to explore the massive impact of female selection as it relates to human evolution. Nor does he want to touch the issue of what heterosexual men and women find attractive in a partner (outside of personality). Leonor Gonçalves’s is interesting commentary on lobsters and serotonin but falls short in key areas, most notably in that it lacks any real analysis of human nature.

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[1] at least 350 m.y.a.

[2] Peterson, Jordan. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. p.7.

[3] This is not to argue that every element of every hierarchy is 100% due to ‘nature’ nor to discount the role of ‘nurture’ (for lack of a better term) in shaping the development of hierarchies to a certain extent.

[4] It should also be noted that human female hidden ovulation is a significant factor.

[5] Peterson, Jordan. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. p.9.

[6] Ibid., p.10.

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nS9W-wlJHPA