One day, a friend of mine sent me a video of one of Jordan Peterson’s interviews.
I didn’t watch that interview fully. I realised I’d heard his reference to ‘lobsters’ one too many times to not google “What the heck is with Jordan Peterson and lobsters” before I finished it.
The search quickly lead me to the viral interview by Channel 4’s Cathy Newman.
Another Pelican article “The Slippery Slope of Jordan B Peterson” by Cormac Power also talked about this particular interview and covered more about Jordan Peterson’s influences.
I did not forget that I came here for lobsters, of course. And I eventually found them towards the end of the interview.
Peterson argued against “…the idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western Patriarchy”, with an example: lobsters exist in hierarchies due to their nervous systems being “attuned” to it.
This argument by itself is logically sound: he didn’t explicitly specify “human hierarchies”, and since the lobster hierarchy is not a social construct of the “Western Patriarchy”, so indeed it is a counter example for “the idea”.
Also, as someone without clear political leanings, I do believe that hierarchy in human societies probably do have a biological origin instead of being purely social-cultural, much like how tribalism is probably the product of an evolutionary process with biological roots.
However, his elaboration on the lobster example quickly made me question my sanity. Peterson says: “We diverged from lobsters’ evolutionary history about 350 million years ago. Common ancestor. And lobsters exist in hierarchies. They have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy. And that nervous system runs on serotonin, just like our nervous system does. The nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters”.
Peterson made a silly little mistake at the beginning about human and lobster evolution: we vertebrates diverged from the rest of the animal kingdom during the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago, not “merely” 350 million years ago.
This mistake is forgivable since I can’t expect anyone to remember everything correctly (well, I never got 100% in exams), and merely getting a number wrong isn’t a fatal logical flaw. However, it leads to a serious issue that undermines his argument:
The complex nervous system didn’t exist long before the Cambrian explosion, which means there was little shared evolutionary history between the nervous systems of humans and lobsters. As a result, the human nervous system and lobster nervous system largely developed independently of each other with few shared roots.
Of course, independently evolved biological systems can be very similar to each other under certain environments. This phenomenon is called convergent evolution. For example, whales look like fish even though they are mammals just like us humans, because… there aren’t that many ways for a large vertebrate to be good at swimming day and night, other than having the body of a fish!
But humans and lobsters live in completely different environments and occupy completely different places in the food chain, so there is little reason for the lobster and human nervous systems to converge evolutionarily. This indicates that Jordan Peterson is rather ignorant about the biology of lobsters and the process of evolution, which is understandable.
Although an academic is usually well trained in the scientific method and critical thinking, they can be as ignorant as the average Joe on matters outside their field of specialisation. This can be problematic, as an academic’s words can easily be taken seriously by the public as ‘expert advice’ despite them not being an expert on the matter at all.
Jordan Peterson is not the only scientist guilty of this, of course.
Oh, and the human nervous system is radically different from the one of a lobster, just as our completely different evolutionary history suggests. No, “antidepressants work on lobsters” is not evidence for the contrary – the same antidepressant wouldn’t even work for all humans, otherwise patients with depression wouldn’t have to experiment with dozens of different antidepressants to find one that works for them, which is a routine for many.
Would a professor in clinical psychology not know this? Unlikely. This probably warrants Peterson an honourable mention on my list of ‘pseudoscientists you should not listen to under any circumstances’.
In the end, a lobster belongs on my dining plate regardless of its status.
Silly lobsters, they could’ve worked to prepare themselves against the fishing fleet instead of wasting time and energy fighting for status among themselves. We, humans, are much more intellig…
Words by Tony Li