No, Jordan Peterson, Genesis is not an accurate scientific summary of primate evolution

Just watch the wheel of illogic turn in Jordan Peterson’s head.

First, we get a quick summary of the book of Genesis.

A snake gives them an apple, and that wakes them up.

Then he waddles off into a discursion about science. This is key, because he’s going to conclude by using science to validate his version of the Bible.

The reason that humans have such great vision, way better than most animals, except for raptors, is because our visual systems were designed to detect predatory snakes.

Friggin’ bollocks.

He cites a book by a primatologist whose name he can’t remember on this “fact”. The evidence is a lot weaker than he implies.

Snakes were “the first and most persistent predators” of early mammals, says Lynne Isbell, a behavioral ecologist the University of California, Davis. They were such a critical threat, she has long argued, that they shaped the emergence and evolution of primates. By selecting for traits that helped animals avoid them, snakes ultimately endowed us with forward-facing eyes, for example, and enlarged visual centers deep in our brains that are specialized for picking out specific features in the world around us, such as the general shape of a snake’s body camouflaged among leaves.

Isbell published her “Snake Detection Theory” in 2006. To support it, she showed that the rare primates that have not encountered venomous snakes in the course of their evolution, such as lemurs in Madagascar, have poorer vision than those that evolved alongside snakes.

There is no strong correlation. I read Isbell’s paper, and there is no statistical comparison, which would be difficult given the lack of specificity. Here’s the extent of the “species comparisons” she did.

Malagasy prosimians have never co-existed with venomous snakes, New World monkeys (platyrrhines) have had interrupted co-existence with venomous snakes, and Old World monkeys and apes (catarrhines) have had continuous co-existence with venomous snakes.

To which I have to ask, “Why restrict yourself to venomous snakes?” New World monkeys have as much to fear from constrictors as they would from venomous snakes. I think the answer might lie in her reasoning in response to the argument, “but then why haven’t rodents evolved bigger brains and sharper vision?” — it’s because she argues that rather than visual adaptations, rodents evolved to become more resistant to venoms. It’s an entirely adaptationist hypothesis, of course, which is OK…but when an adaptation is turned into an umbrella hypothesis which explains everything with a single cause, I get a little leery.

At least the paper has the best “What have the Romans ever done for us” line I’ve seen in a scientific work.

What besides visually guided insectivory, feeding on fruits and nectar, moving on fine terminal branches, or leaping could favor better depth perception in near space and a better ability to “break” camouflage, both of which are improved with orbital convergence, particularly in the lower visual field?

Her answer, obviously, is “snakes!”

Trust Peterson to ignore the multiple factors that contributed to our pattern of evolution to focus on just the one that he can twist to stand in defense of the fundamental truth of the Old Testament. If only the story had told about how Eve, a hairy, monkey-like creature, crept along the branch of a pear tree gathering ants for breakfast before leaping to the apple tree, finding both a snake and a ripe apple waiting for her…

Once again, though, Peterson is going to use a mention of snakes in the scientific literature to suggest that the authors of the book of Genesis had a startling and anachronistic understanding of evolutionary theory thousands of years before Darwin.

Our visual system, which is the ability to see, and to be enlightened let’s say because enlightenment, for example, is associated with vision, the snake gave that to us because we had to pay attention to predatory things that were after us for tens of millions of years.

Well then. Basically every animal has had to pay attention to predatory things. Do they all get enlightenment? It’s almost as if there has to be more to the explanation than just, “Yikes! A snake!” As if, maybe, the Genesis tale is more of a poetical metaphor than a scientific description of a phenomenon.

And fruit, that’s interesting, we have color vision because we are fruit eaters. Our color vision is precisely evolved to detect ripe fruit.

No it’s not. That’s part of the story.

We don’t have particularly good vision, or even particularly good color vision (the exceptional qualities we do have arise from more elaborate visual processing in our brains). Other vertebrates, like reptiles, fish, and birds have tetrachromatic vision — they have four opsins, or color filters, in their eyes. Mammals are descended from a common ancestor that lived in the Cretaceous and was nocturnal — it foraged in the dark at night, when the less sensitive color opsins were useless, and they lost all but two color opsins. We primates secondarily evolved a third opsin by gene duplication approximately 30-40 million years ago.

So I guess the book of Genesis is all about the catarrhine radiation sometime in the Eocene?

Also, the “ripe fruit” story isn’t as straightforward as he claims.

Another approach in trying to understand how primate colour vision evolved is to examine directly how behaving animals exploit colour information. For this purpose, the polymorphic platyrrhines have provided an invaluable resource, since we know that (i) opsin gene polymorphisms responsible for the colour vision variations in platyrrhine monkeys have been maintained by natural selection over long periods of time and (ii) individual monkeys in these species are forced to deploy strikingly different colour vision capacities to achieve common life-supporting goals. Studies of such species can ask, for instance, whether animals with alternative colour vision arrangements are better or worse at particular foraging tasks. In tests run under semi-natural conditions, trichromatic monkeys proved to be more efficient at gathering foods predicated on the use of colour cues than were dichromatic conspecifics. Although such outcomes imply that trichromacy could have evolved in the service of efficiency in food harvesting, other research suggests that the story may be more complicated than that. For instance, several sets of observations made on monkeys feeding in natural circumstances found no causal relationships between colour vision status and efficiency in foraging. Supporting this conclusion is a recent examination of the efficiency of fruit gathering in polymorphic spider monkeys (Ateles) that also detected no differences between dichromatic and trichromatic animals. This experiment focused specifically on foraging that is conducted over very short range (within an arms length) and the physical feature of the target fruits that best predicted foraging efficiency was not colour, but rather luminance contrast, a cue that should be equally available to trichromatic and dichromatic viewers. It may be noted that short-range foraging such as this also allows for the exploitation of various non-visual cues.

Researchers have had little difficulty in identifying potential advantages that might explain why colour vision evolved in the way that it has among the primates, but so far have had less success in demonstrating which among these may hold greater importance or, indeed, whether any single set of circumstances may provide a general explanation. Future studies on this topic will no doubt continue to exploit the exceptional opportunities for study offered by the polymorphic platyrrhine monkeys, while having to pay closer attention to the physical details of the viewing environment operative for a range of natural behaviours.

Always question those pat answers that ascribe a complex phenomena to a single cause. Our color vision is a contingent property of a fortuitous event in a successful distant ancestor; we’ve opportunistically used it in our species for many functions, whether it’s gauging the ripeness of fruit or getting more cues in foraging or detecting social cues or creating art or labeling our side with blue vs. red.

We didn’t get it from a snake peddling apples. But here’s where we see Peterson make the fallacious conclusion that yes, we did, and further, a group of priests in Palestine 2500 years ago had secret knowledge of the evolution of primates in the Paleogene, and wrote a metaphorical history of the catarrhines.

So that part of the story is right.

No, it’s not. The bullshit generator in Peterson’s brain has assembled a rationalization that falls apart when examined by anyone with basic knowledge of evolution.


  1. wcorvi says

    I love this kind of ‘logic’: Modern science confirms everything in genesis, so we know it’s the inerrant word of god. So, any disagreement between science and genesis is due to errors in the science. And since science is directly in conflict with genesis, all of science must be wrong.

  2. What a Maroon, living up to the 'nym says

    Next up: the Noah story was a warning of the dangers of global warming.

  3. says

    You just don’t understand Dr. Prof. M’Lord Peterson. If I may, I’d like to direct you to 198 hours of his lectures that will help illuminate what he means here.

  4. mamba says

    Is it a bad time to point out to this person that according to the bible story, the snake “lost it’s legs as punishment” as well, meaning that it wasn’t even a snake as he knows it. A gecko maybe, or some other lizard?

    So do humans fear gecko’s historically?

  5. says

    Peterson is using a classic trick, reading an ancient text through modern eyes and giving it an interpretation the authors never intended. It’s just like the UFO fans who claim the story of Ezekiel’s flaming wheel, and certain Hindu religious texts, are evidence of ancient visits by aliens.

  6. raven says

    Jordan Peterson is the gift that keeps on giving.
    He always manages to demonstrate his intellectual bankruptcy and lack of knowledge and ability to think.

    The best reason to dismiss Peterson as a crackpot and conperson is…Jordon Peterson and his writing and videos.

  7. raven says

    Peterson is a routine alt right polyhater.
    Among his many hates is..atheists and atheism.

    Kook Peterson
    I have lectured and written for the last thirty years, working on ideas originally laid out by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the late 1800’s, these two thinkers began to contend with the “death of God” — the disruption of traditional religious and cultural belief by rationality and science.
    If God dies, Dostoevsky said, “everything will then be permitted.” This is a very frightening idea. As you move forward through time and history from the 19th century and contemplate National Socialism and the horrors of totalitarian communism, Dostoevsky looks positively prophetic.

    He claims that religion is necessary for morality.
    This is a factually false claim.

    He lies about the Nazis.
    They were xian to the core, Lutherans and Catholics mostly.
    The Holocaust was thought up by Martin Luther centuries before they carried it out.
    They even gave him credit for the idea.
    The SS who actually carried out the mega mass murders prohibited atheists from joining.

  8. Holms says

    Did I say the hero worship was inexplicable? I should have said inexcusable; the explanation is trivially easy: he validates the misogyny of the arsehole contingent of atheists.

  9. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Yeah, I mean, if anything, Genesis is a perfect example of devolution after Peter Gabriel left…

  10. anxionnat says

    Was it Mark Twain who said that a writer had to have a good, built-in bullshit detector? Scientists too!

  11. nomdeplume says

    The “it was the snake that caused it” idea reminds me of the “aquatic origins” story of some time back, and, even further back, of “chariots of the gods”. Seems to be a trait of some academics to seize on single explanations for complex features of the biological world. This trait was caused by the Egyptian pharoahs demanding quick explanations for disasters and slaughtering any priest who couldn’t come up with one.

  12. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    If anything, our vision system (NB “system”, ie consisting of more than only the eyes) is optimized to see faces of other primates when obscured by foliage and random noise. Hence Pareidolia, why people are always finding faces in:
    · toast,
    · random smudges on windows,
    · clouds,
    · etc.
    There might be some advantages to seeing that the face in the bushes is a friend and not a predator, obviously.

  13. chrislawson says

    I’ll say it again. Why does anyone who claims to be a skeptic have any time at all for Peterson’s sub-von Daniken ramblings?

  14. DanDare says

    “Enlightenment is associated with vision “.
    Two false equivocations in one phrase. A masterpiece of bullshit.
    Enlightenment and associated vision both are used to describe thinking, not actual sight. Peterson uses the sight connotation in the words to connect to his crap about looking for snakes.
    Question. Does he know he is doing this or does he really think he is right and words are a form of magic?

  15. raven says

    “Enlightenment is associated with vision “.

    Question. Does he know he is doing this or does he really think he is right and words are a form of magic?

    It’s a Deepak Chopra class Deepity.
    Something that sounds deep and profound until you think about it for 2 minutes.

    It’s nonsense.
    If Enlightenment is associated with vision, then my cat is enlightened.
    So are most animals and some unicellular organisms, including some prokaryotes.

  16. Owlmirror says

    The actual story in the bible does not use the word “apple”. The word used is “fruit”, and its ripeness is not mentioned.

    I recall reading a while back a theory that primates evolved to recognize snakes, leopards (or other mammalian predators), and eagles/hawks (or other avian predators), and humans combine the features of all of these predators into one as the dragon. But I can’t remember who came up with that one, just now.

  17. photoreceptor says

    As a vision research scientist, I always teach my students the opposite, that human vision is actually pretty mediocre, and go onto explain why – like PZ says, the nocturnal bottleneck theory advances that due to pressure of dinosaur predation, our early mammalian ancestors adopted a nocturnal lifestyle to survive. And due to the 150 million years or so of dinosaur supremacy, during that time many diurnal features were lost. But now I think of it, Ken Ham says dinosaurs and men co-existed, so maybe human eyesight evolved to spot approaching carnosaurs…but doesn’t he say they ate fruit too? Go figure.

  18. Father Windy Shepherd Henderson says

    I honestly don’t get the fascination with this guy. Everything of his i’ve read/heard sounds just like the New Age nonsense i was drowning in when i worked in a used bookstore back in the 90s. Is it just that he merges New Age cliche with the right-wingery that is currently fashionable among certain segments of the population? It’s weird.

  19. cigome says

    The writer started this post with a quote:

    “lmao Jordan Peterson actually believes the Bible story about Adam and Eve, the snake and the apple confirms recent scientific hypotheses about how humans evolved to have eyesight. In other words, he believes the Ancients discovered DNA and postulated the theory of evolution”

    But this is completely inaccurate (and backwards) description of what Peterson has discussed. Peterson is stating that recent scientific hypotheses interestingly correlate to the story of Eden. It is interesting that the story of Eden would identify snakes and apples with the eyes before any scientific knowledge of evolution or DNA.

    Did anyone read “he believes the Ancients discovered DNA and postulated…evolution” and actually believe it? Does anyone in the entire world hold that view? That fact this post leads with such a ridiculous quote ruins the whole piece.

    The rest of the article is simply stating that Peterson makes too simplistic of claims and doesn’t elaborate that the evolution of vision is multi-faceted. Likely just taken out of context I couldn’t imagine that he believes that snakes are the only evolutionary pressure on primate eyesight.

    Please help your readers understand the complexities of figures such as Peterson. This post just undermines any valid points you may have.

  20. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    The total scientific evidence behind JP’s hallucinations: None. Point a laugh time, until JP and his minions get tired of being laughed at.

  21. CJO says

    Peterson fanboys do deserve mockery, but I’ll bite.

    It is interesting that the story of Eden would identify snakes and apples with the eyes before any scientific knowledge of evolution or DNA.

    Why? What is interesting about that identification? Is there any such identification? If it’s just a chance correlation and the ancient authors of the fable had no knowledge of evolution, then it’s not interesting. If it gives us no insight (heh) whatsoever into either the evolution of the human visual system, or the biblical narrative, what’s the point of making the connection at all, except to perpetuate a rambling pseudo-intellectual game of connect the dots?

    As much as you disclaim the mockery in the opening quote of what he’s implying, that really must be what he’s implying, yes? That there is some sense in which, [woo]deep in the collective consciousness of humankind[/woo], modern scientific understanding has ‘been there all along’ and, further, that this can be discerned by parsing pre-modern literary narratives. If that’s not it, what about this is “interesting” to you?

  22. Owlmirror says

    Peterson is stating that recent scientific hypotheses interestingly correlate to the story of Eden. It is interesting that the story of Eden would identify snakes and apples with the eyes before any scientific knowledge of evolution or DNA.

    The “story of Eden” doesn’t say a single thing about apples. Have you, or Peterson, even read the bible carefully? No goddamn fucking apples appear anywhere in Genesis 2-3.

    And it says “your eyes shall be opened” after they eat the fruit, so the reference to eyes have nothing to do with seeing whether the fruit is ripe or not.

  23. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    cigome: “Please help your readers understand the complexities of figures such as Peterson.”

    Yeah, he’s complex, all right. Another word for him is fractally wrong. Now matter how deep you dig or look into what he says it’s wrong all the way down.