Thursday, April 19, 2018

Jordan Peterson on Lobster Hierarchy: A Response to P. Z. Myers' Critique

P. Z. Myers, an evolutionary biologist, has attacked Jordan Peterson's account of lobster hierarchy as utterly stupid in its ignorance of Darwinian evolutionary science. Here are the videos.  The total time for all three is about thirty minutes.  The first one is eight and a half minutes.

Peterson argues that the similarities between lobster hierarchy and human hierarchy show that human hierarchy is rooted in an evolved human nature, and therefore that it cannot be a purely cultural construction of capitalist patriarchy, as some radical feminists have claimed.

Against this, Myers raises four objections.

(1)  Hierarchies in the animal world have not evolved to be fixed and identical, as Peterson claims, because they are variable in response to variable social circumstances; and therefore human hierarchies really are social constructions, and as such they are open to change.

(2) Peterson claims that the hierarchies of lobsters and human beings are the same in being derived from a common evolutionary ancestor, but this is denied by the logic and evidence of evolutionary science, which therefore refutes his assertion that human hierarchy is biologically determined.

(3) Peterson claims that the hierarchies of lobsters and human beings are the same in being based on the same nervous system that runs on serotonin, but this is denied by the fact that the nervous systems of lobsters and humans are very different, and by the fact that serotonin serves diverse functions in different nervous systems.

(4) Against Peterson's claim that all hierarchies are simple, linear, and competitive, Myers argues that in fact they are complex and nonlinear, and they are based not just on competition but also on cooperation.

All four objections fail because they are based on a straw-man fallacy: Myers is refuting claims that Peterson has not made.

Notice that like Cathy Newman, Myers is engaged in a dominance contest with Peterson.  For Myers, an intellectual discussion like this is an opportunity to show his superiority over those with whom he disagrees, as shown by his smug insulting dismissal of Peterson: "he is a loon!"  So Myers gives us a good illustration of what Peterson identifies as one of the eight kinds of conversation--the dominance-hierarchy conversation.  This debate over the idea of hierarchy is itself a manifestation of the natural human inclination to hierarchy.

I will concede that Peterson is not always as clear and explicit as he should be in laying out the evolutionary logic and evidence for his position.  So responding to Myers' critique forces us to clarify Peterson's argument.

Contrary to what Myers asserts, Peterson does not claim that in arguing for hierarchies as natural rather than purely social constructions, he is arguing for hierarchies being absolutely fixed and identical.

This should be clear in his use of the chess analogy in the Newman interview.  Hierarchy is like a chess game: there are lots of ways to play chess, but you can't break the rules of chess and continue to play chess.  Biological nature sets the rules of the game, but within those rules, you have a lot of leeway for individual and cultural variation.

Actually, the game analogy is even more complicated than this in 12 Rules, where he emphasizes that there are "many good games" of hierarchy (87, 303).  If you're losing in one game of hierarchy, you should look for other games where you have a better chance of winning.  So, for example, if Myers is a loser in many games of hierarchy, he can always play the YouTube video game and challenge Peterson, who is one of the highest ranking players of that game. 

Liberal pluralism promotes this by allowing a great diversity of hierarchical games for people to play, instead of the oppressive order in which there is only one game with few winners and many losers.

In explaining hierarchy, Peterson observes, there is no strict separation between nature and culture, because it is an "erroneous concept" that "nature is something strictly segregated from the cultural constructs that have emerged within it."  "There is little more natural than culture" (12 Rules, 14).  Thus, hierarchies really are "cultural constructs," but it is natural for human beings to culturally construct hierarchies.  So, against the nature/nurture dichotomy, Peterson argues for what I have called "nurturing nature": while we commonly separate nature and nurture or nature and art, animal nature--including human nature--must be nurtured if it is to reach its natural completion (Darwinian Natural Right, 36-44). 

Modern biology shows that innate traits in most cases are not absolutely fixed, because the observed phenotype emerges from the complex interaction of inborn potential, developmental history, and external physical and social environments.  Hierarchy is an natural propensity for human beings, as indicated by studies showing that even babies less than a year old recognize hierarchical relationships.  Yet the full expression of that innate propensity will emerge through the life history of each individual as shaped by cultural experience.

According to Myers, Peterson infers that since both lobsters and human beings have hierarchies, the ancient common ancestor of lobsters and human beings must have been hierarchical, which shows the ancient evolutionary lineage of human hierarchy.  It is easy for Myers to ridicule this claim as unsupported by the logic and evidence of evolutionary science.

But Myers ignores Peterson's suggestion in 12 Rules that the evolution of hierarchy among animals shows convergent evolution, which is the independent evolution of similar traits in species of different evolutionary lineages, where species in similar ecological niches facing similar problems have evolved similar solutions.  So, for example, the capacity for flight has evolved independently among insects, birds, and bats because flying was a similar solution for the similar problems they faced, and not because this trait was inherited from a common ancestral species.

Although Peterson does not explicitly speak about convergent evolution, his account of the evolution of hierarchy in 12 Rules suggests convergence.  He speaks about lobsters, wrens, chickens, wolves, lizards, dolphins, and humans as very different species, and yet they have faced a similar problem in evolutionary history--fighting over territorial resources--for which hierarchy was the solution.  "Over the millennia, animals who must co-habit with others in the same territories have in consequence learned many tricks to establish dominance, while risking the least amount of possible damage" (4).  The reference here to "learning" suggests gene-culture coevolution.  And the idea that hierarchy has evolved in species of different evolutionary lineages as a similar solution to the similar problem of territorial conflicts suggests convergent evolution.  Myers says nothing about this.

Myers ridicules the idea that hierarchy among both lobsters and humans can be explained as the product of a nervous system run on the neurotransmitter serotonin.  No nervous system runs on a single neurotransmitter.  Serotonin is a simple molecule that is ubiquitous in the living world, and it functions differently in different organisms and in different nervous systems.  Serotonin is found in bananas.  Does that mean that bananas are hierarchical?

"This man is lying to you!" Myers exclaims.

In 12 Rules, Peterson supports his account of serotonin and hierarchy by citing six articles on serotonin in lobsters and one survey article on serotonin and dominance in humans and other primates (371-72, nn. 5-10, 17).  Myers doesn't explain what is wrong with these articles or with Peterson's interpretation of them.

One of the cited articles--Ziomkiewicz-Wichary (2016)--really is a good brief summary of the research.  Other articles that Peterson does not cite provide good longer summaries of the research--Watanabe and Yamamoto (2015) and Van Vugt and Tybur (2016).  Myers is silent about this research.

This research does not claim that hierarchy can be explained by the action of serotonin alone, because there are many factors that influence the evolution of hierarchy (Van Vugt and Tybur 2016).  But in males high levels of serotonin do correlate with dominant behavior, and low levels of serotonin correlate with submissive behavior.  Dominant male vervet monkeys have twice the level of serotonin as subordinate monkeys.  If the dominant monkey is removed from a group, and certain subordinate monkeys are given tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, or fluoxetine (Prozac), which increases synaptic concentrations of serotonin, the subordinate monkeys exhibit more dominant behavior (Raleigh et al. 1984, 1991; Raleigh and McGuire 1994).

The administration of serotonin to humans has a similar effect on social dominance.  Humans who have been administered tryptophan over 12 days begin to exhibit an increase in dominant behavior (Moskowitz et al. 2001).  When citalopram (a serotonin drug) is administered to human beings, these individuals are rated as more dominant by observers, and they also increase their eye contact when interacting with strangers (Tse and Bond 2002).

The serotoninergic system affects the recognition and establishment of social dominance in three ways.  Serotonin affects the processing of facial cues, so that dominant individuals react with less anxiety to angry and fearful faces.  It affects the processing of voice cues, so that dominant individuals are less responsive to angry voices.  And it affects the mechanisms of aggression and cooperation, so that individuals can achieve dominance by first increasing affiliative behavior to establish coalitions with some individuals, and then engaging in aggressive encounters with competing individuals (Ziomkiewicz-Wichary 2016).

Regrettably, Peterson does not present this research, which would strengthen his argument.  Myers says nothing about any of this research.

Against what he takes to be Peterson's position, Myers argues that human hierarchy is not simple but complex, not linear but nonlinear, not based only on competition but also on cooperation.  Moreover, Myers insists, male dominance does not exclude female power, because female sexual selection gives females the power of mate choice.

The problem, however, is that Peterson actually agrees with all of these points.  As I have already pointed out, Peterson sees human hierarchy as complex and nonlinear, because he sees that there are "many good games" of hierarchy that people can play, particularly in societies with liberal pluralism.

Myers says that the social pyramid hierarchy of premodern times leads to social inequity and long-term instability.  Peterson agrees with this when he contrasts hierarchies based only or primarily on power and those based on competence (12 Rules, 135).

Like Myers, Peterson stresses the importance of rcciprocal cooperation in which people work together for "mutual betterment" (135).  Parents need to teach their children to be cooperative and thus "make their children socially desirable" (60, 124, 143).  To be successful in society, people need to be both cooperative and competitive.  "Cooperation is for safety, security, and companionship. Competition is for personal growth and status" (337).

Peterson also agrees with Myers that female mate choice matters for empowering females.  Peterson stresses the power of "human female choosiness," which causes so much anxiety for us males.  "It is Nature as Woman who says, 'Well, bucko, you're good enough for a friend, but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation'" (41).

This stands behind Peterson's point with Cathy Newman that his message to young men about the need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives benefits not just men but women as well:
"If they're healthy, women don't want boys.  They want men.  They want someone to contend with; someone to grapple with.  If they're tough, they want someone tougher.  If they're smart, they want someone smarter.  They desire someone who brings to the table something they can't already provide.  This often makes it hard for tough, smart, attractive women to find mates: there just aren't that many men around who can outclass them enough to be considered desirable (who are higher, as one research publication put it, in 'income, education, self-confidence, intelligence, dominance, and social position').  The spirit that interferes when boys are trying to become men is, therefore, no more friend to woman than it is to man. . . . And if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of" (332).
I'll be writing a few more posts on Jordan Peterson.


Moskowitz, D. S., G. Pinard, D. C. Zuroff, L. Annable, and S. N. Young. 2001. "The Effect of Tryptophan on Social Interaction in Everyday Life: A Placebo-Controlled Study." Neuropsychopharmacology 25: 277-89.

Raleigh, M. J., M. McGuire, G. I. Brammer, and A. Yuwiler. 1984. "Social and Environmental Influences on Blood Serotonin Concentrations in Monkeys." Archives of General Psychiatry 41: 405-410.

Raleigh, M. J., M. McGuire, G. L. Brammer, D. B. Pollack, and A. Yuwiler. 1991. "Serotonergic Mechanisms Promote Dominance Acquisition in Adult Male Vervet Monkeys." Brain Research 559: 181-90.

Raleigh, M. J., and M. T. McGuire. 1994. "Serotonin, Aggression, and Violence in Vervet Monkeys." In Roger D. Masters and Michael T. McGuire, eds., The Neurotransmitter Revolution: Serotonin, Social Behavior, and the Law, 129-45. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Tse, W. S., and A. J. Bond. 2002. "Serotonergic Intervention Affects Both Social Dominance and Affliative Behaviour." Psychopharmacology 161: 324-30.

van Vugt, Mark, and Joshua M. Tybur. 2016. "The Evolutionary Foundations of Status Hierarchy." In David M. Buss, ed., The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology, 2: 788-809. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Watanabe, Noriya, and Miyuki Yamamoto. 2015. "Neural Mechanisms of Social Dominance." Frontiers in Neuroscience 9 (June), article 154, 1-14. Available online.

Ziomkiewicz-Wichary, Ania. 2016. "Serotonin and Dominance." In T. K. Shackelford and V. A. Weekes-Shackelford, eds., Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.  Available online.


Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

"I'll be writing a few more posts on Jordan Peterson."
Fine. Unless you like arguing with abusive fools, though, Myers is a waste of time.

Malcolm Kirkpatrick said...

Myers, "Catching up" (15-Nov.-2016) calls his Professor's $64,110 salary "lower-middle class." He'll call you a "racist" if you suggest that the human nervous system has evolved differentially in regional varieties of human in the last 50,000 years. He'll call you a "climate-change denier" if you observe that the geological record of natural climate change is an element of the case against the anthropogenic CO2-induced global warming hypothesis. He claims that the K-12 education industry offers significant economies of scale (it does not), and recommends consolidation of school districts.
He's an angry fool.