44) Jordan Peterson, Part 2: More problems…; Subsection 2: Bear Food reasoning in Darwinian/Functionalist clothing

Accusing Jordan of Bear Food reasoning is, I admit, a Straw Man attack if it’s taken superficially.  I mean, c’mon, you’ve watched the YouTube videos; Jordan DESTROYS weak Leftie arguments with ease…. He is way too smart to build so much of his thinking on top of such elemental errors in reasoning, logic flaws that any first-year philosophy student would see through in a second.

But what makes Bear Food reasoning more difficult to see in many cases is that it rests on top of much more powerful arguments coming from a Darwinian-Functionalist perspective, which pretty much everybody agrees with (extreme Creationists aside, perhaps).  For example, when we look out into the world and see the incredible diversity of Life, we understand that this immense flourishing of biodiversity, these millions upon millions of different species, exists because each species adapted to its particular circumstances in particular way, “natural selection” then preserving the more adaptive traits.  What we see existing in the present — like claws and gills and fins and lions and forests and coral reefs — exists because it has functional value.  It was selected for, it won, more often than others, in the Great Evolutionary Struggle of Life.

This same logic is endemic in Psychology as well.  When we see a behaviour pattern, we assume it has functional value.  When we study a brain system, we are trying to understand how it functions, how it helps humans adapt to different challenges, etc.  Outside of science and academia, back on the streets and living rooms and work places of everyday life, “functionalism” is just called “common sense.”  Something has value if it “works.”  It’s as simple as that…


But then, people commonly take an additional step in reasoning that seems so small, so innocuous that they don’t see where common-sense Darwinian/functionalist thinking turns into the good ol’ Naturalistic Fallacy yet again.  Just because something had “adaptive value” does not mean it is Good.  Just because something serves particular functions, does not mean that it is Good.  In Darwinian reasoning, just because some species won the evolutionary battle over some other species, doesn’t mean the winner is “Better.”  It just means that it WAS better at adapting to the particular challenge of out-surviving the others.  But in a different circumstance, a different adaptive strategy would be called for.  In a pluralistic, ever-changing reality, what is Good changes with the times, you might say…

For example, consider the way that Dominance systems have been successful, so successful that they have led to the obviously effective strategy of hierarchical organization — in families, institutions, society itself.  Societies that are better at hierarchical organization typically have succeeded (been selected for), and risen to the top of the power hierarchy (of course).  These societies will tend to have greater division of labour, therefore greater technological innovations, and greater ability to organize themselves (e.g., militarily, economically).  Over time, these hierarchically structured societies will become more powerful in certain ways, such that when they run into some other less hierarchical culture, they will probably slaughter them.

To illustrate this march of progress, Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, gives an excellent example of the relatively peaceful and laterally-organized Moriori people being practically wiped out of existence in short order by the more militarily powerful Maori invaders.  The Moriori barely even put up a fight; instead, they tried to communicate, assuming they could all share resources somehow, work out an agreement and usher in the Age of Aquarius together in one big happy family.  These are two peoples who, just a handful of centuries earlier, came from exactly the same population; there were no genetics involved in making the Maori superior.  But superior they were, at least in terms of whose gonna survive versus who gets put to the sword.

It would be tempting to conclude that the Maori were “better”.  They were certainly more evolutionarily fit in this contest.  They were certainly better at waging war and exterminating a non-resisting people so they could take over their land.  But is being better at violent conflict the same as being “better?”  Were the Moriori inferior at being happy?  At living creatively, joyfully, at finding meaning, creating art, loving their children?  Were they inferior at achieving wisdom, at working things out peacefully between people in their society, of co-existing in a harmonious way with their ecosystem?  Just because the ‘victors’ of history are often determined through bloodshed, doesn’t mean that warfare is the most adaptive way towards “better” cultures.

What if we ask these same questions about the Dominance Hierarchy more generally?  Just because being a dominance-seeking, low-agreeableness, claw-waving lobster with straight shoulders might be great for climbing a Dominance Hierarchy and wielding power in ways that prevent others from dethroning you, is it Good?  Is Dominance-striving really the key to a meaningful life, to happiness, to a harmonious society, to the least suffering for the least number of people?   Is it the antidote to Chaos?  Or….maybe this is all backwards?  Maybe Dominance Hierarchies are an Agent of Chaos!  Maybe the excessive focus on Dominance Hierarchies is making things worse, not better?  Oh my god!!!  But….but….but…..they’re Natural!!  350 million years!!  And “that’s a long time”!!

But no….it is ***VITALLY IMPORTANT*** to remember that Functional is not the same as Good.  Not even if ‘Functional’ extends over many circumstances.  Sure, Functionality, especially across many situations, is OFTEN an indicator of “Goodness”, but it is not necessarily the case, and in fact it is easy to understand examples in which what is Functional, even across long periods of time or issues of Life and Death importance, may be Dysfunctional in other circumstances.   

For example, imagine a child growing up in an abusive home. They experience violence and neglect on a regular basis.  Chances are, this child is going to grow up finding social relations stressful — never feeling entirely secure, never knowing when the other person is going to ‘lose it’, never being able to fully trust and instead, spending most of their time daydreaming and keeping to themselves, putting on an emotional mask to hide their vulnerabilities from others, and generally not trusting people.  These are excellent strategies for an abused child to use, but obviously, over the long term, these strategies cease being useful and become quite harmful.  Nevertheless, they were “good” at the time that they initially developed.

Another, even more egregious error of confusing Functional with Good is to start with outcomes (e.g., white men are in more positions of power than every other gender/race grouping), and then assume that those outcomes MUST HAVE been selected for, must have been more functional.  White men are in power; therefore, white men must work harder than everyone else, and/or be more intelligent, and/or be more deserving in some way or another.  The reason that people at the bottom of the heap are at the bottom of the heap, is,…..well, because they deserve to be!  This ignores the other “selective pressures,” such as nepotism, preference for those similar to oneself, corruption, greed, fear of The Other, prejudice, etc., all of which MIGHT have contributed to those in power using this power to shape the system so as to preferentially benefit themselves and those most like them.  This more subtle Bear Food reasoning becomes harder to spot when it’s couched in functionalist reasoning, and Jordan makes this error over and over and over as he extolls the virtues of the Pareto principle that he seems to feel “lefties” simply don’t understand.  (We’ll explore the fallacy of society-as-a-meritocracy in a later essay: Part 6:  The myth of “the myth of white/male privilege”).

In short, just because something WAS functional, or is functional in some ways, does not mean it’s good. Similarly, just because something is ‘natural’ certainly doesn’t mean it’s good.  And just because something is “the winner” in some contest, doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best outcome, or even a desirable one.  You can’t reason backwards from what exists now, to infer that it is better than what ceased to exist.  Cain was not a better man than Abel; he was just a better murderer.


Bootstrapping:  The Naturalistic Fallacy’s Final Frontier

An even more subtle and difficult-to-see-through version of Bear Food reasoning is to couple it with Bootstrapping logic.  In essence, it’s very similar to the Functionalist stuff we were just talking about; but the way it is expressed can sometimes make it seem like a different argument.   

It goes like this.  At one point in time, something is selected for because it has adaptive value.  E.g., Dominance Hierarchies.  Then, over time, other adaptive challenges come along, and The Thing complexifies, syncing up with other systems or internally diversifying into subsystems, in order to fulfill more complex functions.  This more complex set of systems emerges out of (one often says “is built on top of”) the earlier system in a “boot-strapping” fashion; thus, the functions of the more complex system rest upon the proper functioning of the earlier-evolved, simpler system, which is understood to be still there, at the foundation so to speak.

However, while systems DO bootstrap in this way, the assumption that the FUNCTIONAL VALUE of the earlier-evolved system remains the same (i.e., is “Good” in the same way) in the later-evolved more complex system, is not necessarily true.  It is Bear Food reasoning.

Take the body for example.  Although our most ancient brain areas are important for keeping us alive and conscious, and although they will, in extreme circumstances, take control of the rest of the brain (e.g., Fight-Flight-Freeze reactions in a crisis situation), it’s the PreFrontal cortex and limbic system, broadly speaking, which determine so much of the rest of our lives.  It’s our emotional brain and our “higher cognitive centres,” in particular, that give us so much of what we value about ourselves — imagination, meaning, self-control, even the ability to sort ourselves out and become responsible for ourselves!  

What comes earlier, even what is foundational (e.g., the brain stem, the heart, spinal reflexes), does not ‘dictate’ the functioning of the organism.  They certainly don’t determine or define what is Good or desirable.  No!  We regularly understand that it is ‘Gooder’ to use one’s higher reasoning and self-control centres to override the lower-level, “primitive” urgings of your more base self.  Jordan describes himself as a classic British liberal; he of all people then would understand the importance of a later-evolved system (e.g., the pre-frontal cortex and its wonderful inhibitory and selective attention capabilities) being able to override an earlier-evolved one.  And hey, didn’t Freud have a few things to say about the id, ego, and superego?  😉

Jordan seems to forget this when he’s talking about lobsters.  You see, the dominance hierarchy systems that humans’ & lobsters’ common ancestors apparently evolved to rely on so heavily has persisted for, as Jordan says, 350 million years or more.   And “that’s a long time”.  As we have gotten increasingly complex, evolving all the way up to our highly capable Homo Sapiens form, this complexification has been bootstrapped on top of the earlier, Dominance-hierarchy-system.  Throughout all our myriad evolutionary challenges over the ages, the Dominance-system has been there, at the foundation of “Being,” guiding us and structuring the subsequent development of all our other systems.  Therefore, it is Good.

But this is still Bear Food reasoning, in the sense that it assumes that what is Good at one point in time, remains Good at another.  What is “most natural” is what came first, and therefore, it’s the Goodest, more fundamental, more Gooder, than anything that came after.  If the Thing that comes first is the “foundation” of all other processes, then if those other processes are Good, the Thing must be Good too.  For example, because Dominance Hierarchies are so important (and ancient), they play a foundational role in the functioning of our species, and by extension, our society.  Therefore, behaving in Dominance-consistent ways is Good; it contributes to the stabilization of society.  To go against Dominance Hierarchies is to be an Agent of Chaos.  Right?

No.  Wrong.  Just because something was functional at one point in time, and just because that thing has persisted, and just because in persisting it has become intertwined with the functioning of other systems, The Thing is still, in and of itself, not necessarily “Good”.  What is natural WAS good, in the sense that it had functional value in the past.  This does not mean that, as the systems continue to evolve and complexify, as ‘external’ circumstances change, that what WAS good will continue to be good.  It’s even possible that what was once Good ends up becoming Bad, that its initial functionality actually becomes dysfunctional over time, or it’s possible that an even Gooder Good evolves out of the very need to restrain the over-powered previous Thing.

For example, let’s say you accept the lobsters-serotonin-dominance-etc. argument in the first place.  Okay, but it still does not logically follow that maintaining the dominance-hierarchy approach is necessary OR desirable in how humans manifest themselves now.  In particular, if 21st century humans “fix our gaze upon a star”, as Jordan frequently tells people to do, upon what star should we fix our gaze?  Should we aim for more individualistic, competitive, power-striving?  Or should we aim for more communal, caring and kind societies, less hierarchical and more collaborative and participatory decision making?

Consider the idea of “functional autonomy”, which describes how a Thing, once it has come into existence, can sort of “take on a life of its own.”  That is, even though it served (and presumably continues to serve) functions for the organism, these functions do not remain the same as the Thing complexifies.

As a common example, think of avoidance-based coping strategies.  If your life sucks, and you have little to no power to make much of a difference, then it makes perfect sense to adopt avoidance-based coping strategies.  For example, denial, “becoming numb,” or in more severe cases, dissociating from the experience, are quite effective ways of coping with a terrible situation.  Kids are actually very good at this kind of thing; it’s a survival mechanism.  When their lives are upended for any number of reasons, children very commonly report that it was no big deal, it didn’t really affect them all that much, they’re “over it”, etc., and they can talk about it without evincing much emotion at all.  Rather than going through the terrifying, awful and often overwhelming feelings of rage, worthlessness, shame, anger, fear, it’s easier to just turn away.

Then you can bootstrap other strategies on top of this — fantasizing, day-dreaming, imagining themselves in the future as being powerful and super-successful.  Hedonic indulges work great too and can become part of effective avoidance strategies, as everyone who has ever been addicted knows; you can bootstrap all kinds of complex behaviour patterns on top of these avoidance tendencies:  from masturbation and porn to junk food and TV bingeing, to drug and alcohol consumption, to keyboard warring in online comments sections.  And this is great; it sure works to keep those problems at bay.

Except, D’OH!  The problems just get bigger!  And the person becomes less capable of rising to the challenge.  Instead of being better adapted to the world, their continued reliance on a sub-optimal strategy, and their bootstrapping of other short-term functional strategies on top of it, just made everything get worse over time.  Thus, even Bootstrapping logic does not allow one to reason backwards from what exists in the present, to what is “Good”.

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