Flattered, then humbled

Today I read an article that listed a few of the colossal errors of Jordan Peterson, and I was flattered to be cited by the author.

However, using the coincidence of serotonin as the supposed basis for behavioural parallels between lobsters and humans – trumpeted during the Channel 4 interview, again to give off the impression of scientific authority – has been expertly dismantled by the biologist PZ Myers. Evidently irked by Peterson’s intellectual overreaching, Myers claims that Peterson has “built a case on false facts and distortions of general observations from the scientific literature. He has not demonstrated anything about socio-cultural constructions. Not only does he get the evidence wrong, he can’t construct any kind of logical argument…”

Worse still, Myers argues, there is an ideological motive for all this: “Peterson is distorting the evidence to fit an agenda… It’s appalling the degree to which this man is asserting nonsense with such smug confidence. This man is lying to you.”

Oh, “expertly dismantled”…thank you, thank you, I wave to the audience and blush charmingly. I am gratified to be appreciated. But then…Google throws a bucket of ice-cold humility in my face and suggests that I go read this excellent article in the Washington Post by Bailey Steinworth.

Oh, man, it is so good. She points out that “in asking us to consider the lobster, he’s cherry-picking one model of social behavior when there’s a whole ocean full of equally relevant examples”, and then…she gives several examples. It’s beautiful.

As a psychologist, Peterson understandably seems to favor lobsters because of their well-characterized behavioral repertoire, citing among other things research on the neurotransmitter and antidepressant target serotonin. But they’re not the only inhabitant of the ocean that’s been studied in this way. He might also be interested in Aplysia. Like lobsters, sea hares of the genus Aplysia — sea slugs named for sensory structures that resemble rabbit ears — have been used extensively in serotonin studies. Behaviorally, however, lobsters and sea slugs could hardly be more different: While a lobster rarely wants to see another lobster, a sea hare placed on its own will crawl toward chemical cues indicating the presence of other sea hares. In fact, being with other members of its species improves a sea hare’s ability to learn and remember. Peterson’s opening chapter emphasizes that male lobsters compete for the best territory to win access to the most females. By contrast, in sea hare sex, everyone gets a turn. They’re hermaphrodites that mate in groups, alternating between the “male” and “female” roles.

Now that’s an expert dismantling. Go read the whole thing. Of of the dismaying truths of our woefully inadequately educated public, which includes a certain pretentious professor of psychology, is how unaware they may be of the diversity of biological strategies. Nature ain’t respectin’ your Biblical mores, people.


  1. DanDare says

    More than JPs innannity I am most disheartened by how many think he is brilliant and don’t know even the simplest epistemology. At least having him out there means his folloers are exposed to the criticisms too. Sadly many of them seem to have brains encased in adamantium.

  2. John Morales says

    Now that’s an expert dismantling. Go read the whole thing.

    I did, so I see what you mean. You even quoted the best bit.


    Sadly many of them seem to have brains encased in adamantium.

    I don’t think so.

    I think naïveté, ignorance, peer group, intellectual laziness and wishful thinking/motivated reasoning are all bigger factors.

    (Also, the smarter one is, the better one can rationalise their viewpoint)

  3. hemidactylus says

    I think there are several organisms we can use to jump from is to ought. On another Peterson thread I considered the plight of male red sided garter snakes in their ball wrapped intertwined orgies and came to the conclusion celibacy was preferable to that. Same goes for semelparous species such as some salmon. Opt out of the fatalistic upstream journey.

    Or take the route of an ultimately feminist strategy, such as parthenogenic geckos. Eliminate the need for men altogether. Imagine the outrage of incels if women could asexually give birth to daughters. Christians might get overcome by visions of the Parousia at first. But instead of Jesus we get the gradual reduction in available male priests. Who would be Pope when men are gone?

  4. chrislawson says

    Even for something as fundamental as appetite regulation, serotonin has opposite effects in different organisms.

    Where invertebrate 5-HT [serotonin] neurons promote an appetitive state, this role is supplanted in the vertebrates by a peptidergic network centered around orexins/hypocretins, to which the role of 5-HT in arousal is subordinate. In the vertebrates, 5-HT has appetite-suppressant properties.


    Furthermore, serotonin may appear in both lobsters and humans, but our last common ancestors diverged around 700 million years ago. We are more closely related to starfish. Serotonin predates animals and even multicellularity, meaning it existed before there were neurons or neurotransmitters. It probably arose around 2 billion years ago, possibly as an antioxidant molecule to protect against the knock-on effects of aerobic metabolism (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8768313).

    The idea that you can pick one organism out of the vast array of serotonin-enabled creatures from leeches to leeks to lepidoptera and say “the lobster has serotonin, so its social interactions are a good model for humans” is the work of an extremely shoddy thinker who couldn’t be bothered spending ten minutes researching the evolution of serotonin on Google.

  5. rietpluim says

    Kudos to both Steinworth and you, PZ. Not only for rebutting Peterson’s pseudoscience, but especially for revealing his agenda!

  6. rietpluim says

    To my relief, there are not many Peterson fanboys replying to Steinworth’s article, and the few who do, do not come further than You don’t understand Peterson, You really don’t understand Peterson, You really really don’t understand Peterson. They are loosing and they know it.

  7. snuffcurry says

    One of the features of that Vice article I find particularly effective is how frequently and how brutally its author zeroes in on Peterson’s irrationality, incuriosity, and ignorance, especially of general, really elementary knowledge we expect most adults who grandly fancy themselves academics ought to be conversant with and in. He says he rejects the notion of a “social construct,” but instead embraces the same concept under a slightly different name (“structures of meaning”), to be trotted out whenever LOL LIBS REJECT MAH HARD (emphasis on hard) SCIENCE won’t do as a knee-jerk rejoinder to criticism. Then it becomes LOL LIBS ARE TOO REPRESSED TO UNDERSTAND MAH FIFTH-RATE JUNGIAN GOBBLEDYGOOK THAT DEMONIZES VAGINAS. And when that is deficient to requirements, it’s PULL UP YOUR PANTS AND ALSO THOSE BOOTSTRAPS. It’s like an allsorts packet of bad advice from a very smug, rather decrepit man yelling at the most inoffensive cloud you could imagine. It’s reactionary, sure, but it’s reacting to something most of us got a handle on in the last century.

    Between this and that other very enjoyable pillorying by Nellie Bowles at NYT, he really cuts quite a shabby, unimposing figure, with the cheap Potemkin suits, the deliciously messy, overwrought, and overstyled living quarters, and the quite literal hand-wringing. Couldn’t’ve happened to a nicer attention-seeking dipshit. Despite the nationality, Americans appear to be embracing him like the English do Stephen Fry: an easily overwhelmed stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like (when they are reinforcing your biases in an entertaining way, which in Peterson’s case is flowery, purple-y, and always anguished, especially when he’s being evasive*).

    *that’s something he, Trump, and Trump’s Stephen Miller have in common; they get bluster-y and talkative and start making Wordy Pronouncements whenever they’re feeling outmatched, which is very often

  8. zetopan says

    “… is the work of an extremely shoddy thinker”

    I would replace “shoddy thinker” with “non-thinker”. Claiming that an image of two intertwined snakes shows that some ancient carver knew all about DNA, and that lobster social interaction is a good model for humans because of a shared chemical shows that Peterson doesn’t actually do much if any thinking. I’m personally unable to distinguish between creationist apologetics and Peterson’s writings. Is Peterson also a religious fanatic?

  9. says

    I only got as far as the first paragraph of Steinworth’ s article “Jordan Peterson wants you to know that you’re a lot like a lobster” when it hit me:
    He thinks we are delicious when boiled alive and smothered in butter!!!

  10. mond says

    an ultimately feminist strategy….Imagine the outrage of incels if women could asexually give birth to daughters

    How is asexual reproduction to produce only one sex an ultimately feminist strategy?
    Its a strategy to to turn a patriarchal society into a matriarchal society but its not feminist in the equality of the sexes sense.

  11. John Morales says


    How is asexual reproduction to produce only one sex an ultimately feminist strategy?

    Is it not obvious to you?

    If reproduction is asexual, there is no such thing as sex. It’s only reproduction.
    Of asexual individuals.


  12. hemidactylus says

    Re: Peterson on social construction…I am still rather early into Maps of Meaning and haven’t found anything too repulsive and some actually not too crappy stuff. He lost me earlier where he collapses morality into religion and we hit a bone jarring pothole when he starts getting into what the left and right brain are supposed to do. He has interesting views on our comfort zones versus exploring novelty, types of memory, and function of storytelling. Here is an interesting quote:

    ““Narrative description of archetypal behavioral patterns and representational schemas—myth—appears as an essential precondition for social construction and subsequent regulation of complexly civilized individual presumption, action and desire.”

    Excerpt From
    Maps of Meaning
    Jordan B. Peterson

    That seems to integrate nature and nurture in a noncontroversial manner. Social construction must be grounded or mired in human biological constraints. I respect Durkheim but have misgivings about *sui generis* aspects of a purist theoretical sociology. Yet I am not going to flail the Standard Social Science bogey either.

    Here’s another reasonable quote: ““No independent “instinct” necessarily needs to be postulated, to account for this mimetic ability (although one may well exist): all that may be necessary is the capacity to observe that another has obtained a goal that is also valued by the observer (that observation provides the necessary motivation), and the skill to duplicate the procedures observed to lead to such fulfillment.”

    If we both share a valued goal and you succeeded at attaining it, should I strike out independently and recreate the wheel or model your behavior.

    I am still not very far in the book and late 90s Peterson still has many pages to go off the rails. I imagine someone might post spoilers. And I have other priorities above deciphering The Lobster.

  13. KG says

    The idea that you can pick one organism out of the vast array of serotonin-enabled creatures from leeches to leeks to lepidoptera and say “the lobster has serotonin, so its social interactions are a good model for humans”

    I believe the struggles for dominance among leeks can be pretty savage!

  14. Oggie. says

    richardelguru @12:

    He thinks we are delicious when boiled alive and smothered in butter!!!

    No, not butter. Olive oil and garlic. Goes better with the fava beans.

    KG @18:

    I believe the struggles for dominance among leeks can be pretty savage!

    Definitely. They are veritable pissing contests.

  15. raven says

    rietpluim referring to the Peterson trolls:
    You really don’t understand Peterson, You really really don’t understand Peterson.

    The standard Peterson troll reply to quoting Peterson’s very many cuckoo and factually wrong statements is…out of context, out of context, out of context.

    Jordan Peterson has never once actually been quoted in context.
    Peterson has never written anything in context.
    He is, in fact, the only person on the planet whose entire communication history is always out of context.
    Not bad for an academic who makes his living speaking and writing words.

  16. raven says

    They are loosing and they know it.

    That remains to be seen.

    IMO, it is likely though.
    Peterson’s hates include women, atheists, trans, Muslims, nonwhites, the educated, SJW’s, and Progressives.
    Add them up.
    This is most of our society he is attacking.
    We are pushing back hard.
    We have the right and responsibility to defend ourselves and that is exactly what we are doing.

    PS: The greatest weapon of the SJW anti-Petersons is obvious. It is Jordan Peterson himself. He’s left a huge paper trail behind him and it isn’t good.

  17. Dunc says

    raven, @ #20:

    He is, in fact, the only person on the planet whose entire communication history is always out of context.

    I think you’re forgetting Sam Harris.

  18. blf says

    For some reason — possibly because it is Mother’s / Father’s Day season in France — the fishmonger at the local outdoors market has been having a quite good selection of clawed things, including live lobsters. Which are bloody tempting, I must admit.

    The Jurastic Giant Shrimp I actually did buy were very good, if so large they were not only quite filling and didn’t fit in the pot, but also attempted to eat their way out of the refrigerator. (The attempt was unsuccessfully, mostly, it seems, due to a vin blanc being in the way. Giant Shrimp-infusion did not improve the taste, albeit it did calm down the mildly deranged penguin for a few seconds.) In any case, perhaps fortunately for the lobsters, Peterson’s claims / fans did not occur to me… else I would bought the whole lot and and and… well, not sure what, perhaps given them dusty Ms magazines to read.† (Before, of course, boiling them — after a while in the freezer to numb them, which is the technique (from memory) recommended in Harold McGee’s Food & Cooking.)

      † I must admit I thought Ms was no longer published, but Ye Pfffft! of Knowledge indicates otherwise. I have next-to-no idea how relevant / progressive Ms magazine is these days, but its heyday, which is clearly post-Peterson’s pre-BCE bellowings‡, is what I had in mind.

      ‡ And yes, I do mean pre-BCE, as in before-BCE. So much before it seems to be a echo of a previous marginal mini-Universe, one of those that imploded fairly quickly due to a lack of numerous things, including coherence and consistency (and compassion, albeit I doubt that mini-Universe’s lifeforms were sentient enough to have the concept).

  19. mond says

    Yeah, if you start with no sexes.
    I was more thinking about the part where human women are procreating asexually and producing only daughters.
    That wouldn’t eliminate sex even if you only all future humans were women. It just means that there would be no current living breathing human males males.
    I just thought it was coming close to the paranoid delusion that extreme anti-feminists have that the ultimate aim is to get rid of all men.

  20. rietpluim says

    If there is only one sex then the word “sex” looses its meaning.
    What is the sex of Cryptogamae?

  21. rietpluim says

    Frankly, as a man, how does it affect me if women start reproducing asexually and men become instinct? It doesn’t. You may compare it to the extinction of a species, but to men personally, it does not matter at all.

  22. rq says

    Most likely, they are violent – at an early growth stage, leeks are known as ‘shoots’, which implies the presence of an as-yet undiscovered projectile weapon or appendage. Alternatively, the word could arise from the French chute, meaning ‘precipitous escape’, therefore demonstrating the presence of some unseen, deeply buried violence fortuitously avoided by the younglings set do dominate the vegetable garden.

  23. petesh says

    Most entertaining thread. I give the prize to richardelguru @12 — I rarely laugh aloud at work; oh, right, back to it.

  24. chrislawson says

    John Morales–you’re quite the optimist:

    …if there is no such thing as sex, there can be no sexism.

    There’s no such thing as biologically meaningful human races, but it sure hasn’t stopped racism.

  25. ionopachys says

    I’d like to read the whole thing, but I can’t afford a subscription.

  26. ionopachys says

    @elysof, thank you, but it’s the Washington Post article that’s behind a paywall.

  27. arnhart says

    Steinworth ignores Peterson’s suggestion that the evolution of hierarchy among animals shows convergent evolution, which is the independent evolution of similar traits in species belonging to different evolutionary lineages, where species in similar ecological niches facing similar problems have evolved similar solutions.

  28. rietpluim says

    Wow, arnhart is the living evidence that the Peterson fanboys are a cult. It’s the Courtier’s Reply all over again.

  29. arnhart says


    So are you denying that there is any evidence for the convergent evolution of hierarchy?

  30. blf says

    One can never have enough strawmen.

    Indeed. As the mildly deranged penguin pontificates, there is no practical limitation on strawbeings (other then sentience, and even that is debatable): Straw isn’t strictly required, and there is a plentiful supply of eejits which can be convinced to power the straw or similar. (Sadly, there are also cases of coercion, as shown by the Special and General Theories of Voter Suppression (in the Special Theory, there is an outside malevolent entity dubbed The Farcebork).) There is, however, a theoretical limitation: The sheer mass of stoopidity required cannot be achieved, as before that point there is a bizarre phenomena in which reality is whatever a toddler spews, called Trumpratism. Beyond that point, closer to the intensely concentrated stoopidity, is a region described as “amplifying only its own echoes”, known by several names, including Tories and Republicans. All this iswas thought — albeit not proven — to be a mathematical impossibility, but Davros J Trump’s dalekocracy is destruction-testing the hypothesised limitation.

  31. rq says

    there is no practical limitation on strawbeings

    I think you meant strawberries specifically, but only if they’re in season. Like right now.
    With whipped cream. Only the best strawberries in the hierarchy get their fair share of whipped cream, and let me tell you, that is a struggle.