When Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson was interviewed on Britain’s Channel 4 last month, gender was the main topic of discussion. The first question set the tone for the rest of the interview: “Jordan Peterson, you’ve said that men need to, quote, ‘grow the hell up.’ Tell me why.” This led to questions about the percentage of men among Peterson’s followers, about whether parts of academia are hostile to men, about the gender pay gap, about the number of women running FTSE 100 companies, about an underlying threat of physicality in discussions between men, about whether the market is driven by men, about whether companies should adopt more female traits, and about why free speech rights should trump transgender people’s rights to not be offended. Even the last few minutes’ talk about lobsters related indirectly to the gender issues they had discussed previously.
The interviewer, Cathy Newman, had clearly picked out the parts of Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, that could form the basis for a discussion on gender, despite it being a general self-help book. The reason for this, I presume, is that Peterson’s views on gender were considered especially controversial by Newman and her producers and therefore of special interest. Channel 4’s description of the video on YouTube suggests as much:
Channel 4 News’ full, fiery interview with clinical psychologist and professor Jordan B Peterson, whose views on gender have amassed great controversy – and a huge online following. He discusses the pay gap, patriarchy and his new book “12 Rules for Life.”
Newman quickly homed in on the controversies. She asked whether it was divisive that Peterson’s followers are mainly male, and when Peterson suggested that YouTube is mainly male and Tumblr mainly female, she asked whether that was divisive. She was clearly dissatisfied with Peterson’s explanation that the pay gap and relatively low number of women executives was due to differences in interests between men and women, suggesting that he was trying to put hurdles in women’s way. And she took issue with generalisations about men and women, remarking that all women are different.
The interview was very awkward, for several reasons. Most importantly, I think, was that Newman didn’t approach it the way interviewers typically approach an interview: asking questions and—if necessary—playing devil’s advocate to draw out the interviewee’s opinions for the benefit of the audience. Instead, she turned it into a debate, trying to defeat Peterson’s opinions with her own. This failed badly, because—as I wrote in a previous article—she appeared to have never heard Peterson’s arguments before and was taken aback to discover they existed. Had she tried to work with Peterson in drawing out his opinions instead of setting up a debate-like situation, the interview would have proceeded better. Even worse, after her debate strategy failed, she began moralising to him, for example telling him that his comparison of transactivists’ underlying ideology to Chairman Mao’s was “grossly insensitive”.
Newman’s approach reflects a trend towards more overt activism in the news media in recent years, increasingly rejecting neutrality even as a goal to strive for. Not that long ago, I think most news people would have said that Newman’s task as an interviewer was to draw out Peterson’s views as fully as possible, and then leave it to the audience to form their own judgements. That was clearly not how Newman approached it. She seemed intent on refuting Peterson’s arguments, as well as making sure everyone watching knew they were morally deficient. Hence her repeatedly interjecting that she “takes issue” with his answers to her questions, or similar qualifiers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an interviewer do that to the degree she did.
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So what are Peterson’s views, and why did Newman consider them so controversial? He laid them out in part towards the end of the interview, when they were discussing lobsters:
Peterson: “[T]he reason that I write about lobsters is because there’s this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy. And that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. And I use the lobster as an example, because we diverged from lobsters in evolutionary history about 350 million years ago, common ancestor. And lobsters exist in hierarchies, and they have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy, and that nervous system runs on serotonin, just like our nervous systems do. And the nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.”
Newman: “Let me just get this straight. You’re saying we should organise our societies along the lines of the lobsters?”
Peterson: “I’m saying that it’s inevitable that there will be continuity in the way that animals and human beings organise their structures. It’s absolutely inevitable, and there’s one third of a billion years of evolutionary history behind that. That’s so long, that a third of a billion years ago, there weren’t even trees. It’s a long time. You have a mechanism in your brain that runs on serotonin that’s similar to the lobster mechanism that tracks your status, and the higher your status the better your emotions are regulated. So as your serotonin levels increase, you feel more positive emotion and less negative emotion.”
Newman: “So you’re saying like the lobsters, we’re hardwired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tramlines and there’s nothing we can do about it?”
Peterson: “No, I’m not saying there’s nothing we can do about it, because it’s like in a chess game, right, there’s lots of things you can do, although you can’t break the rules of the chess game and continue to play chess. Your biological nature is somewhat like that, it sets the rules of the game, but within those rules you have a lot of leeway. But one thing we can’t do is say that hierarchical organisation is a consequence of the capitalist patriarchy, it’s like that’s patently absurd. It’s wrong. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s seriously wrong.”
Newman interprets Peterson as suggesting we should use lobsters as a model for human society, but that’s not what he’s doing. Rather, he’s searching for the origins of our social hierarchies. Several thinkers—from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Herbert Marcuse—have argued that modern human civilization, especially capitalism, has made humans competitive and status-seeking, causing them to form systems of domination against their true nature. These ideas are popular with parts of the political left, but Peterson argues they’re false; human hierarchies rely on similar biological mechanisms to lobsters, which we diverged from hundreds of millions of years ago, so they can’t possibly be the result of something that began a few hundred years ago. To truly understand our social hierarchies, we need to understand our biology, which forms the basis for our culture.
And it’s not just hierarchies. Earlier in the interview, Peterson argues that men and women on average exhibit distinct personality differences, and that these become most clear in places like Scandinavia where people are most free to choose their occupation. Here also it’s clear Peterson is referring to biology, although he doesn’t say so directly. This brings us to the core of the disagreement between Peterson and Newman: the role biology plays in human society, and the constraints it sets on it. Peterson’s views—as he lays out in the interview—are well-known: he believes that biology plays an important role in human behaviour, not just with respect to hierarchies, but also how men and women differ in their interests, and he believes that attempts to force equality of outcomes are harmful to men, women, and society. It’s these views, quite clearly, that Newman finds problematic.
Newman’s view—and the general attitude towards Peterson—demonstrates what psychologist Steven Pinker wrote about in The Blank Slate fifteen years ago, where he argued that any suggestion that biology plays a role in human social behaviour is often met with derision and hostility, despite the abundant evidence that biology and culture each play a role. As Pinker wrote in the introduction:
My goal in this book is not to argue that genes are everything and culture is nothing—no one believes that—but to explore why the extreme position (that culture is everything) is so often seen as moderate, and the moderate position is seen as extreme.
Peterson is considered ‘controversial’ because he suggests that human social behaviour, including career choices, are determined by a combination of biology and culture, and that the biological differences between men and women influence their choices. The view he’s opposing, which Newman appeared to hold, is that human social behaviour is determined entirely by culture, and that any differences in outcomes between men and women are due to culturally-imposed barriers.
To be fair, I think it’s important to emphasise that—while left-leaning thinkers have attempted to identify the causes of gender and other societal elements—they’re generally far more interested in changing society than in describing it. So what really matters to them is not whether biology influences human social behaviour, but whether it stands in the way of changing it. Hence, views like Peterson’s are typically not deemed false, but morally deficient. The assumption is that society should be changed to become more egalitarian, and anyone who objects—for example by pointing to human nature—is viewed as standing in the way of progress, expressed in phrases such as ‘defending the status quo’ or ‘justifying oppression’ or ‘reactionary’.
Newman seems to do just this when she accuses Peterson of “putting hurdles in their way” when he argues that women are paid less than men on average due to different interests and less disagreeableness. She also exclaims: “a lot of people listening to you will say, I mean, are we going back to the dark ages?” The underlying assumption is that there’s a moral arc pointing towards equality, and that anyone objecting to this, regardless of their arguments, is on the wrong side of history.
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It’s clear why people who want to change society are drawn to the belief that culture is the sole cause of our behaviour: culture is much easier to change than biology. Pass a few laws, make some adjustments to the language, introduce a new set of schoolbooks, and people will no longer resist the push towards equality. If bad culture is leading people to resist equality, then all one has to do is replace it with good culture. But how do we determine what’s good culture and what’s bad culture? The assumption is that ‘equality’ is the value we use to evaluate the culture. But wait a minute. If our values are determined by the culture, how can they be used to evaluate it? The price one pays for rejecting causes from outside the culture is that one no longer can evaluate it from the outside.
People realise that this applies to other cultures, hence people holding the ‘culture is everything’ belief tend to be very reluctant to criticise other cultures, believing their values are shaped by their own culture and therefore don’t apply to other cultures. But the same thing must apply to what they loosely consider their own culture as well. For example, if conservatives behave differently than liberals, and culture shapes our behaviour entirely, it must be because conservatives are in a different culture than liberals. (We might call them subcultures, but the principle’s the same.) The same applies to men and women. It makes no sense from the ‘culture is everything’ perspective to declare male culture toxic, any more than it makes sense to declare Inuit culture toxic. And, of course, this applies indefinitely. If culture determines behaviour entirely, then anyone who behaves differently must be in a different culture, by definition.
What quickly becomes apparent is that the term culture isn’t much help in determining the cause of human behaviour. It’s just a vague term that we use to describe complex interactions between people in simple terms. But it can’t cause biological entities’ behaviour; it’s at a different level of abstraction. Any attempt to look too closely, and it breaks down. Once one accepts that the term culture is a simplification of interactions between biological entities, the problem goes away. Biological mechanisms have evolved over millions of years, as Peterson points out, so they easily qualify as being ‘outside’ any given culture. Hence the many cross-cultural similarities between human societies.
Which brings us to equality. People promoting the ‘culture is everything’ perspective tend to combine it with equality as a normative element. They want the malleability of social behaviour that goes with a ‘culture is everything’ perspective, but they also want a normative element with which they can criticise their culture. But you can’t have your cake and eat it too. Psychological research suggests that the former, at least, is almost certainly false. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated that moral intuitions—including a desire for equality—differ from person to person. He has also argued that they are products of biological evolution, which cultures operate on top of.
This resolves the problem: values are partly biologically determined, and that includes equality, which is one of many values in the human value system. Trying to suppress all other values in pursuit of equality is bound to have negative repercussions. For example, trying to impose equality of outcome culturally (through laws, cultural indoctrination, etc.) takes away people’s ability to pursue values related to status-seeking and competitiveness, which is especially harmful to men, as Peterson has argued, because these values are deeply embedded through hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Life becomes meaningless without the ability to pursue one’s values.
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