45) Jordan Peterson, Part 2: More problems…; Sub-section 3: Issues of Scale

I think it is a mistake that has not been sufficiently pointed out, to assume that the Dominance system is responsible for our successful adaptation in the first place! (I think it’s also a mistake to assume that the Dominance system came first; but that’s a whole different topic, and unimportant here; we’re pursuing the internal logic of arguing that what-came-first-is-best, not the assumption of what actually did come first.) This logic is itself “bootstrapped” upon mistaken assumptions that “the individual” is primarily the locus of control, of consciousness, and of evolutionary selection.

This is far too big to unpack here. But in brief form, we need to ask whether humans predominantly survived the billions of years by functioning at an individual level or at a group level. I believe we are predominantly a group-selected species, and that therefore, our “fundamental human nature” has far more to do with processes that connect us to one another and allow us to function harmoniously together, than with processes of individual power and competitive dominance-striving. (As I’ve said many times already, there’s no denying the importance of individual-power-variables, of Bucko sorting himself out; what’s missing, to a disastrous degree, from Jordan’s discussions is how our lobster-nature is itself intertwined with, restrained by, indeed even given “meaningfulness” within the larger context of our interpersonal-prosocial-moral nature.)

The mistake of focusing on Dominance hierarchies only gets bigger as you go up levels of scale, that is, as you consider larger scales of social organization. Humans now cover the entire planet to the tune of near-8-billion-and-counting. We already have overtaken ALL OTHER LIFE as the dominant driver of ecological processes on the planet. We now live in Human-Era, the Anthropocene. We have no choice, at all, not even the tiniest bit, to cling to any illusion that we can function as anything other than a collective. We are already functioning as a collective, one with many wonderful qualities and achievements (as Stephen Pinker rightly argues, for example, in his recent work), but one also with many colossal challenges and rapidly-exploding crises (as Stephen Pinker wrongly overlooks, for example, in his recent work…).

Attributing our Goodness, our accomplishments and amazing ‘dominance’ (no pun intended) over the rest of the planet, to our Dominance System, is misplaced. It’s not our Dominance-seeking tendencies (and the hierarchical forms of social organization that presumably grew out of it), that we need to thank; it’s our “we-ness.” Real strength is found in kindness and compassion, expressed through generosity and caring, long-suffering humour and support and helping each other and protecting the vulnerable. This is what patched and supported and strengthened our species all the way along, from the savannah of pre-history to the neighbourhoods and sky-scrapers we live in today.

I think it’s our prosocial, moral Nature that restrained and wisely guided our Dominance-seeking tendencies enough that we actually formed larger and more complex societies in the first place, instead of remaining organized in small tribes who would never achieve internal peace long enough to allow for complex economies to develop, cultural knowledge to accumulate over time, or enough social capital to form to enable larger-scale collaboration. Maybe we didn’t rise to the top through dominance contests, lobster-style; maybe we helped each other up like, you know…..mammals? 😉 Maybe it’s not “the Male” archetype that we need to thank the most for bringing us out of the dirt; maybe it’s the “Female” archetype and the social-bonding, family loyalty, community support and other we-level attributes that make us what we are at our “most human.”

It’s pretty easy, when you think about it, to see the importance of Compassion, pro-sociality, generosity, helping. Just look around at your life and those of people you know. Who takes care of babies? Of the sick? Those facing the end of their lives? What motivates the people who provide wisdom and guidance to their communities and families? How important are the people who cater to the needs of the soul, who share stories and art and poetry, who volunteer in their communities and give time, joyfully, to improving the lives of other people? And sure, SOME of their motivations, action by action, are undoubtedly driven by competence/mastery drives, and other by dominance-hierarchy-related drives. But not all of their motivations are driven in this way; in fact, most of them are not, I suspect. I think the meaningfulness that underlies their commitment comes from something much softer and less power-seeking, something you might call love.

My family comes from a long line of farmers, and indeed our whole society comes from the increased scale of human organization that the Neolithic Revolution gave rise to. In other words, farming.

From what I know of farmers, their lives are not primarily about being competitive or better than anyone else. On a moment-by-moment basis, they take care of their crops and animals not out of an economic mindset primarily (although that is of course a pragmatic concern, especially nowadays), but they do so because they love the smell of hay, the squish of mud under their boots, the lowing of the cows roaming around the fields, the dank, lively smell of the barn, the morning sun glinting off their crops, the zinging zipping buzzings and chirpings and tweets of the animal world filling the air, the sore muscles and callused hands of people who put in an honest day’s work and know Who They Are.

And they love the cow that they have watched grow up since the little slimy calf that arrived that morning last spring, the chickens that run around their legs, clucking and cooing amongst themselves, knowing that some pea pods or bread crumbs or seeds are going to be coming their way from their farmer friend. They love the fresh earth that the plow turns over, the tender shoots in the spring, the communal celebration of thrashing and harvest times, the collective gathering to help make huge quantities of jams and pickles, the beer and laughter, the quilting bees and barn dances….the slaughtering of animals, one by one in an intentional fashion, carefully and expertly carving the animal up and using every part of it because Life Was Hard, yes, in material circumstances.

But Life was not hard for farmers, in the sense of being filled with suffering. It’s not a terrible existence from which post-industrial-revolution economic growth has freed us. Jordan characterizes life in the past as being brutal and terrible and people living in misery for most of human history. But this is just not true. It IS true for the impoverished masses that exist in societies that are more hierarchically organized, yes. But it’s precisely the opposite for most others, the smaller, more communally-organized, and relatively ‘short’ hierarchically-structured societies which have generally been the norm for most of humanity until recently. Even for farmers!  Although it is pretty crappy to be an impoverished transient worker, mistreated by your employer and paid very little to slave in the hot fields all day, this is not the only way to farm. This is what farming becomes under conditions of brutally hierarchical societal organization. There is no shortage of examples of societies that existed peacefully and happily, working relatively little by modern standards, surrounded by beautiful environments and having deep roots in communities that went back for generations. These places, which I think comprise most of human history (just not the military-economic-power part of history that we spend most of our time learning about), ran on love. Ironically, life has been the hardest, for the most people, BECAUSE OF imbalanced dominance hierarchies.

Maybe our Dominance-tendencies have even held us back! Are you absolutely, 100% sure, that we would not have developed better technologies, more harmonious societies, maybe even a globalized world that was not founded on ecological destruction and an ever-growing arms race, if we had structured society more laterally and less hierarchically, if we had tilted society even more towards dialogue-between-relative-equals rather than centralizing power in the hands of the few who are able to exert control over the many?


In conclusion, across the whole continuum of Bear Food reasoning from the straightforward Naturalistic Fallacy through to Functionalist/Darwinian arguments, through to bootstrapping reasoning, it should be clear by now that subsequently-evolved systems are not necessarily subservient to or inferior to earlier-evolved systems. The Apprentice can indeed overcome the Master.

In the case of human evolution, I would argue that it is our group-based tendencies that give humans our “Goodest” characteristics, and that are our greatest asset as we head into the adaptive challenges of the future. I will revisit this in Part 7: Psychology at the Ending of the World.

There are many different ways in which Naturalistic Fallacies creep into and guide Jordan’s arguments, and when you expose their interwoven tendrils, I think the lobster-story just flat out falls apart. It is a highly misleading guide to “human nature”, and leads to reasoning errors that result in often-bad advice. The Valiant Individual Hero as a paragon of human goodness, is just a myth; rather than being The Truth (or even Jordan’s version of truth as he explained to Sam Harris). You have not been being told about the archetype of the Hero; you have instead been misled by the archetype of the Trickster. We will discuss this in more depth in the next essay: Part 3: The Bucko Mistake.

  3 comments for “45) Jordan Peterson, Part 2: More problems…; Sub-section 3: Issues of Scale

  1. Nadia
    October 6, 2018 at 4:05 pm

    I was literally reading Peterson’s ’12 Rules for Life’ (I’ve almost finished Rule 10) and suddenly I got an email saying you have new blog posts. Crazy timing! I’m not even kidding. As cool as it is, it’s also a bit sad because two great inspirations of mine are disagreeing! And I like you both, so I don’t know what to make of it. I was in your class when you taught PSY100 two years ago and I just want to thank you Prof. Dolderman. I don’t have a specific thing I’m thanking you for; it’s more of a general ‘thank you for your existence and impact’. I guess things are not black and white. I think I can still like you both and agree and disagree with some parts of both of your ideas. I hope it doesn’t have to be either/or. Both of you have helped me in life, each in your own way, and I am extremely grateful!
    But anyway, I like reading your posts (although I must admit some parts are sometimes hard for me to understand. I guess I still have a lot to learn) and I look forward to your next ones 🙂
    (Sorry if this comment is not really a comment or question related your specific post.)


    • October 9, 2018 at 7:59 pm

      Thanks Nadia! I really appreciate that, and I’m so glad you feel you got something out of my course. For what it’s worth, I don’t think you have to agree or disagree with a person overall. Like you said, maybe things don’t have to be either/or? Instead, you can agree with some parts and disagree with others, although it is extremely useful to think carefully about exactly what parts those are, and what your reasons are for agreeing or disagreeing….

      This is true for me and Jordan, for example. I do agree with a not-insignificant proportion of his reasoning. Even some of the parts I disagree with, I don’t disagree with entirely, but rather think the advice/insights are too easily misunderstood and misapplied. So…..if I can encourage you to think about the arguments themselves, and not the people making them, then….cool! I’m so glad you’re getting something out of them, and wish you all the best! 🙂


      • Nadia
        October 11, 2018 at 3:21 am

        Wow Prof. Dolderman you replied, thank you so much for writing back! I also really appreciate everything you told me, especially when you said to “think about the arguments themselves, and not the people making them” – these words are extremely reassuring! Because now I’m relieved I don’t have to pick sides and can finally calm down (I can also apply this to other situations in my life, so thank you again!). And in general, I like questioning and analysing my beliefs and thinking about arguments carefully, so I’ll keep doing that like you said.
        Thank you again and I wish you all the best too! 🙂


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