Anyone teaching young men to seek responsibility and meaning has a place near my heart, especially when he or she delivers their message in a humane way. And Professor Peterson has certainly done that, at great personal cost. Nonetheless, I’m hearing from young people, asking me to address another part of his teaching that is impacting negatively upon them. And after getting substantially the same report from multiple directions, I feel compelled to write about it. Ah well…
The idea I’m addressing is found in the first chapter of Peterson’s 12 Rules book, which one of my correspondents describes this way:
I think his position can be very briefly summed up as hierarchy and status are biologically given and one had better puff up one’s status to not be dominated by others.
I was able to read through the chapter in question, which does convey this general message. The professor spends pages on lobsters, birds and so on, then he moves on to humans, outlining a Hobbesian (“war of all against all”) view of human life. He evokes evolution and paints status as an inevitable core of our lives… something we should embrace.
And so I’ll explain, as briefly as I can, why the professor is wrong.
We Are More
If we’re to look to evolution, we should begin with what really matters, which is the development of the human prefrontal cortex, beginning roughly two million years ago. This change of brain structure (not merely brain size) is the fundamental fact of both human evolution and human behavior.
If you examine ancient skulls at natural history museums, you’ll see that the pre-2 million BC skulls (homo habilis and prior) have ridges at the eyebrow level, and that the skulls go directly backward from there. That is, they have no foreheads. But beginning at homo erectus, the skulls rise in the front. They don’t get substantially wider or longer; they rise in the front. That is precisely the space occupied by our prefrontal cortexes, and the prefrontal cortex is what allows us to do all the advanced things we do.
And just to establish our uniqueness, here’s is a passage from Carel P. Van Schaik’s The Primate Origins of Human Nature:
Even some non-cultural features of humans are sufficiently unique to leave our usual approaches to understanding their evolution close to ineffective.
We are not only unique, but better. Chimps don’t build hospitals and write symphonies. We do, and we oppose ourselves by embracing the model of lesser primates.
Status And Hierarchy
Peterson’s argument is that status and hierarchy are built into us, therefore we’ll be healthier and better if we embrace them. The first part of that is true, but the second is false.
It is the case that humans differentiate between high and low status presentations within a mere 40 milliseconds. That’s faster than conscious thought, and so it is built into us. But so are a lot of things we don’t act upon. We become angry just as fast, but we don’t immediately slap the snot out of everyone who makes a stupid comment or tries to shortchange us. And we don’t do those things for good reason: Cooperation is far more important to us than the animalistic satisfaction of punishing norms violations.
Humans, radically unlike animals, are hyper-cooperative. Without this, we couldn’t have the aforementioned hospitals and symphonies. In fact, without incredible levels of cooperation, we couldn’t have bread, cars, central heat, books, medicine and everything else that makes our lives worth living. And we became hyper-cooperative precisely by transcending animal-level impulses.
“Yeah, but…” the argument goes, “”we do have hierarchy and status! Humans are ruled by governments, which embody those things!”
That argument is correct, of course, but more or less everyone complains about rulership, generally on a daily basis: such hierarchies restrain human progress rather than spawning it. This passage from Buckminster Fuller describes the situation quite well:
If you take all the machinery in the world and dump it in the ocean, within months more than half of all humanity will die and within another six months they’d almost all be gone; if you took all the politicians in the world, put them in a rocket, and sent them to the moon, everyone would get along fine.
We don’t like to say such things openly, but we think them privately.
On top of that, more or less every moral teacher of note has come up with a version of the golden rule, which functions entirely on self-reference, to the absolute negation of hierarchy and status.
There is much more to say on this point, but I promised to be brief. Suffice it to say that hierarchy and status remain because we carry manipulable primate chemistry. But that’s an unfortunate circumstance, not something we should embrace.
The path that has carried us far beyond animal life is that of cooperation and co-dominance. And so the facts we should act upon are these:
The dominance strategies of animals generate animal results.
The cooperative strategies of humans generate human and humane results.
We would be fools to cultivate the former, and we’re not fools.
I would have much preferred to discuss this with Professor Peterson over dinner, but I have no real connections to the man and thousands of people are simultaneously vying for his time. Apologies where due.