(image from — https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1348627-jordan-peterson)
I discussed in the previous section “philosophical foolishness”, which led, by the end, to an argument that took Jordan’s reasoning to completely opposite conclusions — his unqualified rejection of socialism and Marxist-inspired thought in general (which, I should note, is consistent with his larger narrative of conserving the value of traditional hierarchies and respecting the established order before we go messing with it), turns instead into a radical call for socialist revolution.
I believe this same sort of imbalance is at work in Jordan’s consideration of theory, and unpacking this leads to a similar near-reversal of much of what he has been saying over the past couple of years. This goes right to the heart of Dominance Hierarchies, and this is what I would like to focus on now. As anybody knows, if your foundation is flawed or ‘built on sand’ in the Biblical analogy, then the house is gonna collapse, and the more you’ve built on top of that shaky house in the meantime, the more harmful the resulting collapse will eventually be…
Before I get into this, I have to say, I am finding this part in particular, difficult to get through. I feel like I am in BizarroWorld where nothing makes sense, because I know that Jordan knows everything I am about to say. He even says most of it himself in his own academic work. But then, it is as though he sweeps half of it under the carpet, even derogating and ridiculing it, to emphasize the other half, and this is where I believe a deep Foolishness has crept into his overall public narrative.
So here’s the thing — Jordan, myself, and practically every other socio-biologically-oriented scientist working today recognizes that there are multiple systems within the human animal (plus others that are more interdependently constituted; i.e., animal-interacting-with-external-world). There are systems for aggression/dominance/power and all that jazz. And there are systems for empathy/compassion/kindness, and all THAT jazz. Nobody disagrees with this, so far as I know, and in all the fields of human psychology/biology/neuroscience, social sciences in general AND in philosophy, literature, the humanities — basically, everywhere — people describe a tug-of-war within the human psyche, a “struggle” maybe, or a “dance” maybe, between two basic views: the lobster-based, me-first, Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, power and aggression, Hobbes-friendly, individualistically-framed, dominance-emphasizing view, and “the other side”.
What is “the other side”? Let’s call it the Compassion side as a handy short-hand. You’re probably thinking “Blah blah….I’ve heard all this before….” Lots of people have taken Jordan to task over compassion, and aren’t there YouTube videos where he DESTROYS these people with his much bigger claw?
“Excessive compassion is a VICE!” screams the YouTube title. Paul Bloom argues Against Empathy! And Republicans and ‘traditional males’ and drill sergeants and hard-asses all over the place nod. Amen brother! Spare the rod and spoil the child. Give handouts and you make people lazy and dependent. Damn straight.
There are two main problems with all this (specifically, with Jordan’s rejection of the Compassion/Empathy/Kindness argument in overwhelming favour of the Dominance argument)
1) it largely ignores the absolutely crucial insights of “developmental scaffolding”
2) it is based on cherry-picked examples
1) Developmental scaffolding
People need compassion, kindness, help from others, all that pro-social ooey-gooey stuff, in order to flourish. Jordan acknowledges this, when he says that sure, compassion is useful sometimes, like with very young children, and probably the elderly and infirm. People who are really, really vulnerable. But much more than that and compassion is toxic. Toughen up, buttercup. Sort yourself out. Even if your challenges are enormous, don’t whine about them, just put your mind to the task in front of you, and bear down!
There are two sub-claims here to examine carefully:
a) compassion is good; it serves important functions, developmentally speaking; and
b) aside from the “really vulnerable” as defined above, compassion to others is a near-vertical slippery slope to being “excessive” and bad. Helping people makes them weak, and if you instead just challenge people to be stronger, they will buckle down and get stronger.
a) Compassion is good (at least for babies)
This is straightforward and totally not contentious.
Babies and young kids need to feel emotionally secure in order to flourish in practically every way. From handling stress functionally, to feeling competent, to self-control and ‘motivation’, to having good relationships, to being successful, healthy and emotionally well adjusted over the long term, to proper immune system development, to neurological development, emotional security is absolutely central. We have known this at least since the 1950s when research on “attachment” in primate and human relationships started to really take off. The research backing this up is practically endless, and Jordan knows this and you probably do too, so let’s accept this and move on.
What I want to emphasize though, that you might have overlooked, is WHY compassion is good, developmentally speaking.
It’s good because it provides “scaffolding” in the person’s neurobiology (as well as in their social world), that supports more complex development. Scaffolding is like a rougher, more simplistic layer of organization — like the ‘rough sketch’ that guides an artist; the plot outline and character sketches that guide a novelist; or literally the skeletal frame that the construction worker stands on in order to stabilize themselves and reach higher.
It’s like, when you’re trying to explain something difficult, it’s useful to ‘scaffold’ your approach with a story or an example which is easier to grasp and will help the person ‘connect the dots’ and see what you’re trying to explain to them.
Scaffolding in young children occurs primarily through providing the means for emotional security. A second important source of scaffolding is behavioural modelling (as described by Albert Bandura long ago). But emotional security is absolutely critical, providing that feeling of safety or ‘okay-ness’, that allows a kid to explore outside the safe and comfortable confines of the Known.
For example, kids don’t explore, play or act in creative ways very readily, if they are scared, self-conscious, or otherwise insecure. None of us do! Positive emotions associated with feeling secure in the moment are fundamentally important for creative flourishing. Jordan acknowledges this too in many places, and you have experienced this countless times in your own life, no doubt. (Granted, “negative” emotions like sadness and anger can in some cases lead to creative output; otherwise there wouldn’t be depressed emo-artists.) Most of the time, “flourishing” happens when the tribe is at peace, there’s enough to eat, and people have the freedom to hang out with Miss Frizzle, get messy, and make mistakes.
The creative action orientation that is afforded by emotional security, builds a whole set of networks or sub-routines of adaptive and skilled behaviours. People who do stuff, get better at it. If you do lots of different types of creative stuff, you get better at doing lots of different types of things. If you’re just scared and hiding, or angry and fighting, then sure, you’ll get better at that too. But as the old Cherokee story goes, “which wolf are you feeding?”
But scaffolding is far more subtle than that. It happens not only at the emotional-to-behavioural level, but right down at the millisecond level of human consciousness, the level at which our emotions are guiding our perceptions which in turn are constructing a reality in accordance with our emotions — the level of our implicit story-telling hardware (and software).
The essential, long-term reason why compassion is so important for babies, is because it helps their own neurobiology learn to regulate itself. This is the basic insight of attachment research; receiving attentive care (i.e., compassionate, loving, responsive attunement with others) allows one’s own infant, raging, chaotic neurobiology to be, in effect, soothed by the more stable, grounded, controlled, resilient, more ‘ordered’ neurobiology of the attachment-figures.
Like, when a baby or toddler is frustrated or scared, yelling at them or getting stressed out yourself is not gonna do them much good, and neither is trying to rationally explain to them your perspective. If you don’t believe me, go find an angry toddler and try it out! 🙂 Ignoring them (“let them cry it out”) does them no good either, except to make them shut up eventually; but it teaches them nothing about how to regulate their own emotions in the future, and although the negative developmental effects of this don’t show up right away, the long-term consequences of emotional neglect are truly devastating.
What the kid needs, is the better-regulated-caregiver’s physical presence. They might not be ready to receive a touch or hug, at first. They might push you away, shout at you or throw something at you, if they are sufficiently enraged. And sure, you can overwhelm them physically, but that doesn’t teach them a thing about how to handle their own raging neurobiology. Instead, sit with them. Stay there. Share space. Let your body be calm, centred and grounded, as much as you can. Pay attention to them. Let their emotions run their course. It won’t take long (in almost all circumstances except the truly extreme), before they start to settle down and become more responsive to you and willing to receive some kind of overture – a moment of eye contact, a reassuring hand on the shoulder perhaps. Eventually, they will be open to reason and verbally processing their feelings.
This approach teaches children, implicitly, how to regulate themselves. It’s obviously more nuanced than a few sentence description can capture, and there are situations in which other approaches are better. But you get the general point. In most of the day-to-day situations of life that comprise childhood, the good-functioning of the Others in a kid’s life, provides the scaffolding for that kid to become a well functioning person themselves. This is basic psychology, going back to Albert Bandura, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and indeed right back to Jung and Freud. We didn’t always have the language to finely articulate scaffolding, but we’ve known it forever, and it is implicit in the sort of passing-on of skills that we’ve always done, where kids learn from their parents, apprentices from the master, etc. What the past century or so of psychology has added is an understanding of how scaffolding happens at the emotional and social levels, and how important this is for the individual’s long-term quality of life.
When “competence” is over-stressed, when “sort yourself out” is not skillfully, wisely balanced with Compassion, when a person is put under pressure they are not psycho-biologically capable of handling in that moment, the results are dramatically NOT to make the individual “grow and get stronger.” The results instead can be to traumatize the individual, give them negative beliefs about themselves, and cause immense harm, both personally or to others if they take their failure and subsequent feelings of shame and inadequacy out on the rest of the world (we’ll expand on this in Part 3: The Bucko Mistake).
In short, compassion/kindness/helping are important for generating emotional security, which in turn is a basic, foundational ‘scaffolding’ which determines much of the rest of our lives, including the inner machinery, the architecture, that gives us the self-regulatory capacity to “sort yourself out” in the first place. Without this inner-machinery, your life will be chaos, indeed! This is what Jordan’s book was about, right? “The antidote to chaos.” But the advice to ‘sort yourself out’, and in particular the overwhelming rejection of the importance of compassion, kindness, helping and ‘sensitivity’, is simply going to be wrong, in many, many cases, Or, stated more accurately, it’s going to be unwisely applied because Jordan himself presents it in such a deeply un-balanced fashion. Instead of being an antidote to chaos, “sort yourself out” can be a recipe for more chaos.
b) aside from the “really vulnerable”, compassion is likely excessive, and weakens the person. Instead, sort yourself out!
Now, here’s the twist in the story. And it’s something you also already know. I said above that if you wanted to demonstrate for yourself the importance of being compassionate, sensitive, emotionally attuned, kind, loving, etc., vs. other-stuff, then go try things out with an angry toddler. Right?
The twist is — go try this out with an adult. Pretty much any adult.
Hehe…….you can see where this is going… I don’t need to “rationally man-splain” it for you, right? Because we all know it is annoying as hell when some person treats you coldly and dispassionately, when you feel like they’re talking down to you or not acknowledging what you’re expressing to them. It is insulting to be invalidated or ignored, like when you are feeling emotional, or passionate, or angry, and someone “calmly, rationally” tries to explain things to you. And it sucks when you’re in an intimate relationship in which the person isn’t compassionate towards you. Sure, sometimes we need our partner to whip our butts into shape (interpret that as you wish…haha….), but most of the time, we need them to “be there for us.” To listen. To validate our feelings. To let us know we are SEEN.
Even when we need to be challenged, we want to be validated too. Every conflict negotiator in the world knows this, as does every clinical psychologist and counsellor. This is the important of the “therapeutic alliance”. You have to feel secure in the relationship, accepted and validated as having a perspective that will, at the very least, be respected by this person, before you will be receptive to their insights. You have to believe that they see YOU, and have your best interests at heart, or it’s going to be very, very difficult to be open to what they have to offer.
The reason why compassion continues to be important throughout life, even when you are a strong, stand-on-your-own-two-feet person with a clean room and straight shoulders, is that you still have vulnerabilities. You still have stress, moments of weakness, self-indulgences, moments of anger or fear or shame or guilt or whatever. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody, everybody has flaws.
(As an aside, my #1 Red Flag, after a rather “lessons learned” lifetime of relationship experience, is the person who presents an overly positive image of themselves and won’t admit to their flaws. The person who always needs to be larger-than-life and “wise” and who is seriously resistant to acknowledging that they might wrong or have flaws– run, yes, run the hell away from that person. Building The Wall in that circumstance is not “fear” or hate or failure; it’s having healthy boundaries. It’s self-respect. And it’ll save you from a world of hurt. And ultimately, it is the moral thing to do, because that person and others are better off if you don’t enable, through your acquiescence, their harmful tendencies.)
Everybody also needs help, sometimes. They need someone to listen to their rantings and opinions and troubles. No man is an island, indeed. Now, you might say people don’t need compassionate listeners; they just need an audience; maybe they ‘need’ a challenging audience who calls them out on their bullshit! While that may be true much of the time, it is most certainly a difficult thing to put into practice when it comes to things that people feel sensitive about. Like childhood wounds, regrets, hurt feelings, uncertainty, self-doubt. Have you ever known a Strong, Independent, Self-Reliant person who struggled to sustain close relationships in their lives, who struggled to express their feelings? Most of us have met enough of them to write a book, or we are one ourselves. Has any wife out there with the classic, stiff-upper-lip, tough-as-nails ‘masculine’ husband ever seen their man break down, let his feelings out, either through anger or through the occasional breakdown while drunk, or after a death, or during sex?
In a less extreme sense, think of the people you have known in relationships, how people’s insecurities leak out in all sorts of nasty ways — jealousy, control, anger, withdrawal, teasing, yelling, affairs, lying, emotional distance, unwillingness to be intimate, ridicule, threatening. You’ve undoubtedly experienced these things in others, and if you’re honest with yourself, you probably have engaged in some of these things yourself, and have experienced how your “childhood shit” still affects you. I have.
Everyone has vulnerabilities. Everyone has moments of weakness. Everyone has unaddressed ‘wounds’ and areas of neglect in their personal development. Everybody has a Shadow.
But the way to deal with these areas of “weakness” is NOT with an overly stiff “sort yourself out, straighten your shoulders and face your damn existential responsibility!” type of approach. (That’s part of it, yes, and helpful to a point, and I already talked about this at length (see Prologue). But taken too far and applied unskilfully (i.e., without wisdom), this becomes terrible advice. Of course, the way to deal with areas of weakness is ALSO NOT a simplistic, compassion-all-the-way kind of approach that lets people just sit around feeling sorry for themselves, virtue signalling while they wait for the next handout.
The right way, is to balance these approaches skillfully. I see very little of this reasoning in Jordan’s work, and far more of it that holds up ‘sorting yourself out’ as the overwhelming solution, to the point that he derides proponents of, or arguments for, compassion. This is simply not based on ‘facts’, but is ideologically driven, and this is why I think it is Theoretically Foolish.
(NOTE: there is one specific way in which I think Jordan is right (and then in a deeper way, wrong) about emphasizing Dominance and warning against excessive compassion, which in essence is about how people’s Dominance needs can, in some cases, get linked to Compassion-seeming activities. The results are virtue-signallers and empire-builders and generally nasty people who put on a good front but are twisted and power-seeking in their true intentions. These are people who use the social (and internal) rewards that go along with appearing to be a good person (such as working for charitable causes, being in prayer-chains, posting pro-social Leftie-stuff on Facebook….like I do all the time….), but in truth are just the person perversely meeting their Dominance needs by duping everyone into thinking they’re a great person. Jordan warns frequently against such people, and feeds into a narrative that sees “the Left” as just hypocritical, resentful pricks, throwing temper tantrums and trying to bring down the successful and get stuff for themselves that they didn’t actually work for. Jordan seems to believe that exposing this apparent hypocrisy of “the Left” is a really important thing to do. This is worth looking at carefully, because it is often weaponized, you might say, and used inaccurately in many cases, to disparage activists and people genuinely concerned and trying to enact positive change around environmental and social justice issues. We unpack this in Parts 5 and 7 where it is more relevant and can be given the attention it deserves.)
Let me give you one more quick example, from all of our lives — Conflict. Arguing. Getting pissed at somebody in a relationship. We’ve all been there. Parents, spouses, siblings, extended family, neighbours, co-workers….any social network is going to experience conflict, sooner as well as later. It’s an ironclad guarantee.
It is practically a truism in studies of conflict, that in almost all cases (except rule-through-fear, or “mutually assured destruction”, perhaps), the single most important thing to do to de-escalate conflict and turn it into productive dialogue, is to be a good listener: attentive, respectful, accepting, attuned.
It does not mean to be rational necessarily, to provide corrective feedback or advice, EVEN IF THAT’S WHAT THE PERSON NEEDS TO HEAR. For everything, there is a season, remember? Certainly, if you want to get to the point of being able to voice your disagreement or criticism and have the other person listen to you, respectful acceptance of the other person’s self-expression is essential. Kindness IS the foundation for reducing conflict and making social interaction not only less harmful, but even enjoyable. It’s kind of like foreplay, you might say…
2) Theoretical Foolishness at the Evolutionary-Biological level: The problem of cherry-picked examples
A final piece that needs to be added is the imbalance in Jordan’s theoretical emphasis in the evolutionary-biology domain. Yes, situations have culled our species and favoured our reproduction and survival in particular ways over many millions of years to give us the hard-wiring we now have as a species that IS our biological organism’s adaptive capacity for dealing with the challenges that a complex world is going to throw at us. Cool; I’m super-down with Darwin.
We are hardwired to adapt to the physical challenges of Life on Earth, but as a highly social, group-dependent species for many millions of years, we also also hardwired to adapt to the social challenges of Life in Society. We’ve been social animals for a bloody long time, so long in fact that it is unclear where to draw the line between our survival as individuals, vs. families, groups and other scales of social organization. It is strikingly NOT the case that we have been “individuals” primarily, for most of our history, but rather, “individuals-in-families-and-small-communities”. If we are any kind of animal in particular, that’s what we are — an individual-in-families-and-small-communities. And that is what has determined the majority of our evolutionary conditioning over the history of our species and ancestral genetic tree.
As a result, we have hardwired systems not only for Dominance and aggression and such, but also for pro-social qualities of kindness and empathy and compassion and altruism and generally-not-being-a-dick. We see this biological embeddedness of human “goodness” in mountains and mountains of evidence that links social outcomes to individual outcomes, through far more systems that merely the lobster-based dominance-serotonin systems.
Research in health, well-being, resilience, personal growth, and many other fields has shown how the social world is reflected in the individual’s own biology, through simple expressions of love, acceptance, and compassion that are relatively difficult to reconcile with Jordan’s emphasis on Dominance Hierarchies. The importance of our pro-social nature, and interactions with people that reflect it, is standard, intro-level science in any Health or Psychology textbook nowadays (e.g., see the life’s work of John Caccioppo, or google “social determinants of health”). We see this in attachment theory all the way back to Bowlby, and in modern social neurobiology, such as the work of Dacher Keltner on the compassion system and the biological substrates to our moral systems.
Although Jordan emphasizes lobsters, this is by no means our only, or most representative, primitive ancestor you could point to. Life, for lobsters is about dominance and reproduction, and otherwise, staying away from each other.
In other words, Lobster Life = fighting + fucking – (friends + family).
But Human Life = family + friends + fucking + fighting. (And usually, in that approximate order.)
Many of our ancestral species seem to agree with us, emphasizing group-based adaptations in their Batman utility belt of survival tricks. This means that, for many of our Ancestors, life is mainly about getting along with each other and having good times.
The particular emphasis between self-based and group-based survival strategies is heavily determined by just how precarious existence is, especially in terms of security from attack/predation (i.e., physically protective strategies like building homes, burrows, inhabiting inhospitable environments for others species, growing exoskeletons, shells, or just being super-bad-ass yourself), and food security. Food security is especially important for how “groupy” the species is; when you’re all competing for the same meagre scraps, your friends start looking pretty threatening, and tasty…But when everyone can have potlucks all the time and chill with their homies, then social life turns out to be better than stalking the wilds alone, and species veer towards group-favouring survival strategies.
For example, lobsters, as Jordan explains, have evolved their dominance displays because they have to — when good homes and food sources are at a premium, there are much greater rewards for The Strong to go all alpha on everyone. But when species have less precarious ways of protecting themselves, and when they are well enough adapted (or in a rich enough environment) so that food is not scarce, then, gee, “Imagine all the lobsters…..living in harmony….wuh-hooo!-ooo–oo—ooooo….”
Being nice to each other and thriving as a result, is Human Nature too and there is no prima facie reason to build a theory of human nature, and a consequent political philosophy, centred on lobsters and dominance hierarchies, nor does the relevant evidence support such an emphasis. One interestingly subtle move is of course to argue, as Jordan does sometimes, that the biological embeddedness of “niceness” and all this chillin’ with your homies stuff, is itself subsumed under the Dominance Hierarchy system. For example, one might argue that Dominance came first, and ultimately our biology is organized around Dominance at the very core. Thus, any subsequent systems that evolve and serve adaptive functions, are ultimately part of the dominance system — kind of like a multi-level marketing company, where the guys at the top still benefit from the labours of the people at the bottom. Hey wait…..this sure sounds like dominance hierarchy logic to me…..But…..could there be any other kind of logic?
A Brief Dip into Dynamic Systems Thinking
Yes. Actually there can be. In general systems theories, it is understood that what comes first, often has greater power than what comes after. The first ‘system’ is generally able to establish at least partial dominance over other systems. After all, it’s been around longer so is probably better at extracting resources from the relevant context; also, it is able to respond adaptively to the emergence of new systems, and in many cases, “outcompete” those systems or just crush them out of existence. This kind of understanding can be found in things like “path dependence”, “sensitivity to initial conditions”, “the early bird gets the worm”, the advantage of being first out of the gate, etc. Examples abound in economics of the dominance of a system because it just happened to come out first (e.g., the QWERTY keyboard), in science in terms of theories (and theorists) which/who are published first, in electoral systems in the general advantage held by the incumbent, etc.
But “often” is not “always”. There are many exceptions, when what-comes-after is able to exploit certain niches so much better than the dominant system, that it surpasses it, wholly (e.g., homo sapiens displacing and genetically interbreeding with Neanderthals in ‘Europe’), or partially (e.g., Mac outperforming Microsoft for many years in some markets such as graphics and the entertainment industry). And of course, revolutions happen, mutinies, children rebel against parents, upstart corporations sometimes revolutionize the market and put the ‘dinosaurs’ out of business, etc. From a systems’ perspective, this is understood as lower level systems gaining enough internal coherence and self-organized stability, that they are able to not only resist destructive pressures from the higher-order systems, they can sometimes begin to change those higher-order systems directly — for example, the civil rights movement and its ‘trickle-up’ effect on laws, social mores, and institutional practices.
Back to the brain/body
Within our own neurobiology, the most obvious example of the same thing is seen through the tug-of-war between our “higher-order” systems like the prefrontal cortex and all the wonderful Reasoning and Self-control it affords, and our “lower-order” systems like our amygdala and brainstem and all the security-seeking, self-protective functions that they afford. Although the brainstem came first, we can “override” our base desires and impulses with things like long-term goals, self-control, and compassion for the other. Psychologists have been talking about these inner struggles at least since Freud, and this understanding has held right up to cutting edge 21st century neuroscience.
In other words, while the lusty, insecure buggers that we are might want to fight, fuck, or flee from whatever is in front of us, the more reasoned and ‘civilized’ parts of us can say, “calm yourself down there, Jimmy…..get a grip on yourself — no, not THAT kind of grip…sheesh! …..yeah, that’s right, deep breathing, “this too shall pass”…..clear your head….now, let’s think about this; what is the right thing to do here? What’s in your long-term best interest here?”
But it’s way more complicated than just this kind of dualistically-framed struggle. The brain/body is organized into many different systems and sub-systems, all interacting with each other in a crazily-complex way that is endlessly surprising and mysterious to scientists trying to understand how it all works. While Jordan emphasizes the serotonergic system, a much, much bigger story comes from also emphasizing other neurochemicals that play important social (and other) roles, like oxytocin, acetylcholine, dopamine, and the many systems in which they are implicated. Jordan knows all this stuff, and in his academic work is more careful to talk about many different biological systems at work in the human personality. In our neurobiology, it’s not the case that the serotonergic system and its dominance functions deserve to be King of the Hill. It is just one of many basic, super-ancient systems that are at work.
It’s also not the case, within our neurobiology, that these many systems are engaging in dominance battles in their own biological arenas. Human consciousness is not like a stock-trading-floor of voices shouting over each other in an endless struggle. No, in contrast, even within the complex, multi-levelled systems of our own “Being”, our many systems also cooperate with and learn to synchronize and harmonize with each other. Consciousness is more like a choir than a trading-floor, with each ‘voice’ learning to harmonize with the others, and to maintain a dynamic balance — sometimes, the altos need to get louder and drown out the other sections, because it sounds good that way, but other times the sopranos need to be highlighted, soaring and dancing ecstatically in only the way that sopranos can. I think it is simply incorrect to view “human nature” as primarily a struggle, contest, or battlefield. Sometimes it is, of course, and all that Dominance logic holds true. But MOST of the time, and for MOST of the situations that we face as individuals, groups or even as a species, it’s better to sing in the choir than to wave your claw around.
I would go so far as to say that lobsters are, in fact, poor representatives to focus on in our ancestral tree, both in terms of our evolutionary history, and especially in terms of our future potential. (We revisit this point in Part 7: Psychology at the Ending of the World). I would argue that the crusty crustaceans need to be knocked down a few pegs from their current place in the dominance hierarchy of public opinion.
We have not only been dominance-seeking animals. We’ve also been compassionate snuggly, playful, humorous, kind animals. There are countless examples in the (animal sciences) of tribes and packs that take care of their sick and old, recognizing the value of diversity, the pragmatic wisdom of elders, the long-term benefits of supporting the weak, and who sure seem to enjoy the emotional bonding that goes along with being “nice” to each other. Go check out elephants for awhile (e.g., the book, When Elephants Weep, will absolutely crack your heart open with the pro-social emotional vitality of many of our cousin species with whom we share common ancestors.) Heck, even trees help each other out, exhibiting behaviour that can only be seen as “altruistic” from an individualist perspective….and our common ancestors with trees are wayyyyy older (~1.6 billion years) than our common ancestors with lobsters, if you want to play that game yo.
Group-level evolutionary theories have long recognized that while Nature IS often “red in tooth and claw,” one of the most important adaptive strategies we have as a species, is to Unite, to stand together based on bonds largely forged from actually liking and trusting each other and WANTING to be in the same clan.
United we stand. And this has been one of humanity’s predominant adaptive strategies for at least as far back as the lobsters.
Hey Dan, I’m enjoying this series so far. Thank you for articulating nuanced and thoughtful critiques. I find myself enjoying Jordan Peterson’s talks, although I agree that he’s hyperbolic (and I can see why you think that’s dangerous, although I see it as less dangerous than, say, some of the SJW rhetoric I hear in SF). You conclude this article saying that we must unite, precisely because this is a strategy that is older than perhaps even dominance hierarchies. However, I don’t think JP is trying to say that we can’t unite or have compassion, but rather that there are natural hierarchies that still dictate our social interactions, and that liberal identity politics masks this with reckless naïveté. We are not created equally, so there will be natural hierarchies that arise, and we need to be aware of that, instead of insisting that our society is broken because there are unequal outcomes. Would love to hear your thoughts.
Great question! Part of my answer I have to leave on the back-burner, because this is what I’m going to address in Part 6: The myth of “the myth of white/male privilege. Specifically, Jordan’s policy of “equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcomes” has a lot of good reasoning in it, but a deep flaw, which I’d like to unpack more fully in that essay. It boils down, in the simplest terms, to a misunderstanding of the reality of hierarchical structures that arose over the course of history tending to perpetuate themselves through a whole host of biases and motivations. Jordan overemphasizes the role of merit and genuine competency in producing and recapitulating the various hierarchies at work in society, but dramatically underappreciates the self-perpetuation of the power structures from the past. As a result, he seems to be surprisingly naive to the reality of “old boys’ networks” and nepotism and such things making the playing field anything but level. This leads him to separate, rigidly, “equality of opportunity” from “equality of outcome”, but in reality, they are not separable in the way that he believes. So, that’s one part of this I’d leave aside until that essay (sorry for the wait….) 🙂
I agree, in broad strokes, with Jordan’s reasoning about the Pareto principle and such — in short his argument that the dominance hierarchies that exist are based to a considerable degree on merit. I also agree that “liberal identity politics” masks the importance of the hierarchies that exist (although I wouldn’t call them natural). However, I would argue that ALL identity politics do the same thing, and it’s a bit of sleight-of-hand to saddle the “liberals” with this problem, without also noting the exact same ingroup-justifying tendencies of the other side of the political spectrum.
But still, Jordan’s argument is important — in short, that when people find themselves at the bottom of the heap, they should take a good, hard look at themselves, rather than JUST blaming “the patriarchy” or whatever other “oppressive” structure they wish to blame. I do agree with all that.
But I think it has to be coupled with a genuine appreciation for the structural limitations/challenges that are presented by “the system” being designed to maintain power for the already-powerful. In other words, while people have to take a good, hard look at themselves and however they may be failing to rise to the challenge of being successful in this world, I also believe that people have to take a good, hard look at the power structures that tilt the playing field so heavily in favour of those with “privilege.”
As with practically everything, I agree in large part with Jordan’s reasoning, but I think he makes errors in his fundamental assumptions, which leads to as much error as it does truth. The difficulty lies in teasing them apart.
So, if you can dredge this question back up in a few weeks, when I post Part 6, that would be awesome. I’d be really interested to hear your take after I’ve had the chance to develop the reasoning in more depth.
Final thought — you highlighted the fact that I said that “uniting” is perhaps even older (or as old?) as dominance hierarchies. I just want to clarify — I think it’s extremely important to challenge Jordan’s logic that, in short, things that evolved super-long ago, should be given value-prominence. (i.e., we should see Dominance Hierarchies as good, because they’ve been around forever and thus have structured much of our subsequent evolution). While this is, “roughly speaking”, true, it is also wrong in a way that completely changes the conclusion you would reach by following this reasoning. I have to leave this hanging for now, because this is the topic of the next JBP-related essay — Part 2: More fundamental problems with fundamenta assumptions.
Thanks, by the way, for your comment. I love that you are engaging with this and thinking about it. I hope the upcoming posts do address your questions in the way I’m anticipating! 🙂
A minor quibble: I believe the purpose of Jordan’s use of the lobster as a cross-species comparison was precisely due to the vast difference between them and humans, to illustrate the universality of dominance hierarchies -If organisms that split from us so early in the phylogenetic tree possesses an analogous social mechanism to humans and our more closely-related relatives, we should definitely expect it to play out in some form regardless of societal leveling.
In that respect, I think the use of a relatively weak comparison was intentional. As a scientifically rigorous reference it definitely doesn’t work, but it has a stronger illustrative value than more obvious examples like our closer relatives like the chimpanzee.
Also, my impression of his point on dominance hierarchies is not that they are inherently good, but that they are not in themselves evidence of systemic oppression, precisely because of their deep roots in evolution. This of course segues into his equality of outcome beef… He does acknowledge the tendency of these hierarchies to stagnate and corrupt, although he definitely does not emphasis that point with equal vigor.
Excellent points James! I definitely agree, and understand the strategic choice of lobsters to illustrate the fundamental nature of dominance hierarchies etc. And I understand what you mean that “systemic oppression” as an explanation for unequal outcomes seems to fall apart if you realize that unequal outcomes are built right into the way biological systems function. However, to me there is a flaw in then moving from that argument to much of the rest of Jordan’s logic, which to my reading does emphasize the “goodness” of dominance hierarchies. Certainly most of the advice in 12 Rules for Life stems directly from emphasizing dominance-systems, (e.g., “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”) and I think this is an error in thinking. It is in fact the subject of the next blog post — “Part 2: More problems with fundamental assumptions”. So, hopefully you stick around! 🙂 I’d be interested in your take on what’s to come…..it should be ready in about a week.
And yes, I agree, Jordan does not emphasize the tendency of dominance hierarchies to corrupt; in fact, he generally emphasizes the opposite (for example, “set your house in perfect order”), seeming to argue that because dominance-striving is innate, the cream rises to the top (e.g., his emphasis on the Pareto principle fits into this), and therefore, what has arisen to the top in the past is pretty bloody good and useful; it reflects the combined achievements of all the winners from the past, and therefore, people should be pretty leery about messing with it now; in particular, people who have not themselves achieved the kind of better-functioning that allows people to be successful in dominance hierarchies, should definitely not criticize or seek to reform them….etc. — If you’re interested in this part, we’ll be looking at it carefully in one of the upcoming essays I’m calling “The Perfect House Problem”.
Thanks for your comment; very thought provoking!