Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Darwinian Aristocratic Liberalism: The Cathy Newman Interview (Part 3)

Now, in the last part of the interview (25.57), Newman finally brings up the topic everyone wants to hear about--The lobster! Tell us about the lobster!

The lobster is the star of the first chapter of 12 Rules--"Rule 1/ Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back."

This reminds me of how I introduced another crustacean--the hermit crab--to make a point in Darwinian Natural Right (24-25).  These small crustaceans occupy the empty shells of dead snails.  They are most easily seen in tidal pools along ocean coastlines.  Their shells protect them from predators, reduce their physiological stress, and promote their reproductive success.  Some shells are better than others in satisfying these natural desires, and as the animals grow, they need to move to larger shells.  Finding the right shell means the difference between life and death, or at least the difference between being cramped or cozy in one's portable domicile.  A hermit crab will carefully inspect a new shell to assess its weight, size, and structure.  Biologists who study this animal have see a complex pattern of behavior by which it evaluates the quality of a shell to decide how well it satisfies the animal's desires.  The good is the desirable for hermit crabs, and in seeking that good, they show the natural teleology of animal movement.

The process of evaluation becomes even more intricate when they fight over shells.  Then they must assess not only the relative value of their shells but also the size, strength, and resoluteness of their opponents.  This competition often displays a hierarchy in which the most dominant crab gets first choice of a shell.  If the dominant crab moves into a new shell, the old shell is occupied by a less dominant crab, which creates another vacancy for a third crab, and so on down the hierarchy.  Sociologists who study the social structure of "vacancy chains," in which resources are passed from one individual to another down a social hierarchy, have discovered remarkable similarities between hermit crabs occupying vacant shells left behind by more dominant crabs and human beings occupying jobs and houses left vacant by those of higher status.

This shows the normative structure of animal movement as Aristotle studied it in The Movement of Animals: animals have natural desires, they have natural capacities for gathering information relevant to their desires, and they are naturally inclined to do whatever seems to satisfy their desires according to their evaluation of the information.  Thus, animal biology cannot be a value-free science, because of the inherently normative and teleological character of animal movement.  Nietzsche recognizes this in his middle writings when he speaks of "morality as animal," as covered in some of my posts (here).  Contrary to what people like Leo Strauss have said about modern science denying Aristotelian natural teleology, modern Darwinian biology--like Aristotle's biology--must affirm the immanent teleology of animal movement.  (I have written about this here and here.)

Peterson often invokes the is/ought or fact/value distinction in suggesting that science must be value-free (see, for example, 12 Rules, xxvii).  But he contradicts this in his biological psychology, because he knows that any biological science of animal movement must be value-laden and teleological.  In his practice as a clinical psychologist, he helps people solve their moral problems.  And, of course, 12 Rules is ultimately a self-help book showing how his Darwinian science of biological psychology can help his readers solve their moral problems.  Peterson implicitly endorses my point about the normative structure of animal movement when he says that every action manifests a value-judgment, and thus the idea of a value-free choice is a contradiction in terms (12 Rules, 87).

He also shows this in what he says about lobsters in response to Newman.  Male lobsters fighting for dominance teach us about the importance of being combative to advance oneself.  They should also teach us that the idea that hierarchical structures are a social construction of the Western patriarchy cannot be true.  They show that hierarchy originated in evolutionary history hundreds of millions of years ago, long before the appearance of human beings. 

They also show a nervous system attuned to their hierarchy that runs on the neurotransmitter serotonin just like the nervous system in the human brain.  Their nervous system is so similar to ours that antidepressants (like Prozac) work on lobsters. 

It's the same system in your brain, he tells Newman.  Your brain has a serotonin system that tracks your status, and the higher your status, the better your emotions are regulated. (This is a nice move because it intimates to the viewer that she is showing her lobster psychology in fighting over dominance with Peterson.)

If Darwin evolutionary science is correct, Peterson observes, this is exactly what we should expect--that there will be continuity in the way animals and human beings organize their social structures.

Newman responds (28:00): You're saying we're hard-wired to act as men and women, and there's nothing we can do about it.  Here she's repeating the most common criticism of Darwinian evolutionary psychology--the charge of biological determinism.

Peterson responds to this charge--correctly, I think--by rejecting the implied nature/nurture dichotomy as a false dichotomy.

No, I'm not saying that, he says.  Rather, it's like a chess game.  There are lots of things you can do in playing chess.  But you can't break the rules of chess and continue to play chess.  Your biological nature sets the rules of the game.  But within those rules, you have a lot of leeway.  (I make the same point in Darwinian Natural Right in speaking about "nurturing nature.")

You cannot say, however, that hierarchical structure is the consequence of capitalist patriarchy.  That's patently absurd, Peterson insists.

Here again we see Peterson's Darwinian aristocratic liberalism.  He gives us a Darwinian explanation of aristocratic hierarchy that affirms liberal pluralism.  As he explains in 12 Rules (85-92, 302-303). liberalism does not deny hierarchy in the pursuit of absolute equality, as does utopian socialism, because liberalism accepts that as long as society has any standards of value at all, some people will be more successful than others in meeting those standards, because individuals are naturally different in their capacities and propensities.  This means: "culture is an oppressive structure. It's always been
that way. It's a fundamental, universal existential reality" (12 Rules, 302).  "Absolute equality would therefore require the sacrifice of value itself--and then there would be nothing worth living for" (303).

But then how can liberalism ensure that those at the bottom have something worth living for?  Peterson's answer in 12 Rules is that even those at the bottom--like the many failing young men--can choose to sort out their lives, take on adult responsibilities, and discover that they have a lot to contribute to their families, their friends, and their society.  Liberal pluralism makes this possible, because there is not just one game in which everyone competes, with winners and losers, but many good games, which allow people to find a game in which they can succeed. 

Aristotle points to this in the books on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, where one can see the liberal pluralism in Athens.  This is also the point made by Charles Murray in arguing that in a liberal society with equality of opportunity there will be inequality of outcome, with a "cognitive elite" at the top; but with many different domains of life, there will be "a place for everyone" to find their happiness (see my posts on this herehere, and here).

At the end of her interview, Newman brings up again the question of whether Peterson has had an unhealthy influence on his young male followers, who have often become vicious in harassing Peterson's critics on the Internet.  (Within hours after the interview, Newman will complain that she has become the victim of such threatening harassment.)

Peterson responds: I've had 25,000 letters since June from people saying I've brought back from the brink of destruction.  I will put that up against the vague accusations that my followers have made the lives of my critics miserable through Internet harassment.

After the interview, Peterson's critics were quick to ridicule his Darwinian lobster psychology of hierarchy.  One of the best of these critiques came from P. Z. Myers, and evolutionary biologist.  In my next post, I will look at his critique.

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